International Business: Prevent international gift gaffes: Lessons learned from President Obama's 'giftgate'

Published: Friday, Dec. 24 2010 7:00 a.m. MST

President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown walk from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on March 3, 2009.

Associated Press

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Each country has its own gift-giving etiquette. If you do business internationally, you may benefit from understanding the gift-giving customs of your international clients and partners.

In March 2009, when U.S. President Barack Obama had been in office less than two months, then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official visit from the United Kingdom and the two heads-of-state had the opportunity to exchange gifts.

Brown offered some very thoughtful gifts, including a penholder made of wood from the Victorian anti-slave ship HMS Gannet. Making this present more meaningful is the fact that wood from the Gannet's sister ship, the HMS Resolute, was used to make the Resolute Desk that has resided in the Oval Office for more than 100 years.

Obama's gifts to Brown included DVDs of 25 classic American movies including "The Wizard of Oz," "Psycho" and "The Godfather." Particularly in light of the fact that the DVDs were in the wrong format and would not play in European DVD players, many U.K. citizens and publications felt a little slighted by the U.S. president.

The exchange between Brown and Obama illustrates several lessons everyone can learn about gift-giving in other cultures. We can extract lessons both from Brown's gracious actions and from Obama's less-than-impressive example.

First, research the target culture to identify appropriate gifts for your situation. Brown certainly consulted with others familiar with customary gifts for another head of state, and particularly for one in the United States. Based on the outcome, we can assume Obama probably did not consult with anyone experienced in such situations.

To avoid a gift-giving faux pas, consult with colleagues who know the other culture. Country-specific tips are available online at ExecutivePlanet.com and Giftypedia.com as well as in popular reference books like "Kiss, Bow, or Shake Hands" and "Dun & Bradstreet's Guide to Doing Business Around the World."

As you research gift-giving etiquette consider not only the other person's culture, but also gender, social status and relationship to you. Research may also tell you that the most appropriate course of action is no gift at all.

Second, give functionally appropriate gifts that will actually work in the receiver's country. Obama gave DVDs in NTSC format, rather than the appropriate PAL format, so the DVDs could be viewed only using U.S. players. He could have somewhat mitigated the situation by also gifting a U.S.-made DVD player, but then he would also have needed to include an electrical adapter. Gifts should also include correct translations, unlike the embarrassingly mistranslated gift U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Third, consider other actions that surround the gift-giving, such as returning of gifts. At about the same time as the Obama-Brown and Clinton-Lavrov gift exchanges, the Obamas returned another gift to England. The returned gift was a bust of Winston Churchill that England had given to the White House several years earlier, and the British press viewed this as another snub.

Finally, be classy and professional if you receive an inappropriate gift. Brown received Obama's gift graciously and made no public spectacle whatsoever. Though the press had a field day with Obama's gaffe, not a single criticism of it passed Brown's lips. His silence will likely earn him some regard should he ever commit a similarly unintentional snub.

As illustrated in this diplomatic event now dubbed by some as "giftgate," international executives will avoid embarrassment when they research culturally and functionally appropriate gifts, consider other etiquette surrounding gift exchanges, and act graciously no matter the outcome. Indeed, these principles can be applied to any of the season's gift-giving and receiving, even when accepting that appliqued sweater from your great aunt.

Fortunately for you and me, chances are good that no matter what we give, our gifts won't be under the same scrutiny with which the press analyzes the gifts given by the president of the United States or at least our gifts will not be met with such a public response.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: awooten@lingotek.com . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..

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