Modern Etiquette: The art of cross-cultural gift-giving

(Pamela Eyring is the president and director of The Protocol School of Washington which provides certified professional etiquette and protocol training. Founded in 1988, PSOW is the only school of its kind in the United States to become accredited. Any opinions expressed are her own. PSOW's website is

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - As a protocol expert, I receive queries almost daily from busy executives seeking to navigate international business relationships. The good news is that the majority of executives are aware of the need to consider cultural differences when forging international relationships.

They understand that everything from the use of titles and seating charts to handshakes and follow-up correspondence needs to be approached with consideration as to how it will be perceived through the cultural lens of their business contact.

However, there is one aspect of relationship building that tends to get overlooked, sometimes with significant consequence. That is the art of international gift-giving.

Most often exchanged at the close of important meetings and during visits to different facilities or sites, gifts serve many purposes in business. They are used to build and maintain relationships, to show respect and appreciation, or to enhance the image or reputation of a company.

When well chosen, gifts can be very effective at accomplishing those things and more. However, a poorly chosen gift can leave you looking more disingenuous than generous. Here are the basic must-dos and don’ts I offer whenever asked about gift giving:

1. Make it appropriate. Unlike a personal gift, a business gift is a symbol of your relationship. It should reflect your understanding of the recipient’s culture and the value you place on the relationship. By taking time to research the traditions and customs of the recipient’s homeland, you will avoid unintentional embarrassment or offence. For example, even if your company is based in the nation’s pork-belt, you would never present a Jewish or Muslim visitor with an item made from any part of or even simply depicting a pig. Similarly, it would be very poor form to give a Chinese guest a gift that was actually made in China.

Avoid overly expensive gifts. Some corporations actually place limits on the value of what employees may accept in order to avoid the appearance or bribery. Presenting a lavish gift may put your business associate in the uncomfortable position of having to decline it.

2. Make it portable. Ask any protocol officer and they will tell you stories of heads of state and industry leaders being presented with everything from snakes and dogs to enormous paintings and heavy pottery.

Make sure whatever item you give can be easily transported and will pass through airport security without issue. That means sharp objects and weapons, even of an historic nature, are out. Avoid fresh foods and plants completely.

Providing an easy-to-carry bag or package to make handling your gift easy is always appreciated.

3. Make it informative and culturally relevant. Locally made items that speak of your region and culture are a nice way to provide a remembrance of a trip. If your organizations share a mutual culture, interest, or focus, a gift that reflects that is always appreciated. Avoid items that bear your company logo as it is considered ostentatious in some cultures. Always include printed information regarding the origin and symbolism of the item, to whom it was given and by whom, and upon what occasion. This bit of provenance will reflect the care and consideration that went into choosing the gift and the value you place on the relationship.

Beyond the gift itself, give careful consideration to the manner in which it is presented. Different cultures have different customs regarding how a gift should be offered -- using only your right hand or using both hands, for example. Others have strong traditions related to the appropriate way to accept a gift. In Singapore, for instance, it is the standard to graciously refuse a gift several times before finally accepting it. The recipient would never unwrap a gift in front of the giver for fear of appearing greedy. Understanding these traditions and customs, as well as taking time to choose an appropriate gift, will help you to avoid any awkwardness or embarrassment as you seek to build a better business relationship.

Editing by Steve Addison