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Do your homework before offering a business gift abroad

What to do when you’re abroad on a business delegation and your host showers you with multiple expensive gifts and you reciprocate with a pictorial book on your hometown? That’s a problem recently faced by a friend who was supporting a government delegation to India.

The overall delegation went well and was deemed a big success, but he was bothered that he didn’t anticipate the gift-giving protocols. At the end of the trip, the delegation members and their Indian counterparts had bonded, and the delegation wanted to express their appreciation to the hosts. But the imbalance in the gifts made them feel they were conveying the exact opposite.

Research by psychologists, anthropologists and economists have indicated that gift giving is a surprisingly complex and important part of human interaction helping to define relationships and strengthen bonds. Although gift giving plays a very small role in doing business in the U.S., it can take on a lot of relevance in other countries. So when seeking to build business relationships abroad, investing time in the gift-giving protocols can convey respect and generate trust in your international counterpart.

If you’re looking to take a gift abroad for a business trip, I suggest giving a gift that is symbolic of the relationship and fits the environment in which it is given. But don’t forget to take into consideration the “who, what, where, when and how” of gift giving in your specific circumstance. It can get complicated.

A nice leather accessory might make a good business gift in Germany but may be a bad gift in Colombia, which takes pride in its leather industry. In addition take into consideration the religious background of who is actually receiving the gift: For example, a bottle of wine may be a lovely gift in France but not if the receiver is a practicing Muslim.

The exchange of gifts in the first business meeting may be considered a warm gesture toward building a strong business relationship in one country (Indonesia) but an offensive bribe in another country (Malaysia). The rules may be completely different when it comes to bringing a hostess gift when celebrating a signed contract at a dinner party in the home of your business counterpart.

In some cultures (Japanese), how the gift is packaged and offered is as important as the gift itself. In other cultures (Singaporean), expect to offer the gift four times because it is polite to graciously decline a gift three times before accepting it.

A little research before your trip can go a long way in finding the right gift that gives a lot more than the gift itself.