Giving business gifts in the Far East

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Giving business gifts in the Far East

Gift giving may be commonplace in several countries around the globe, but in countries such as China and Japan, the ceremony involved in the exchanging of tokens can be a much more elaborate and complex affair.

Japan

Gift giving in Japan is an art form and is a key way to show respect and gratitude. Symbolism is very important, as is the ceremony of the giving of the gift, which means there are several guidelines you should follow when doing business in Japan.

Gifts will usually be offered at a first meeting and will always be beautifully wrapped in a gift box, even if the contents are modest. A quality, but not extravagant, gift is seen as a gesture that you are looking forward to building a good working relationship. It’s likely that gifts will continue to be part of your business dealings, but you should always keep in mind that expensive gifts can cause embarrassment.

One common custom is to reciprocate with a gift that is around half the value of the gift received. An exception to this is gifts given to high-level executives, which can be very lavish, as status is a big factor involved. The giving of the gift should follow a strict protocol, which involves indicating to the recipient at some point during your meeting that you have a gift you would like to present to them at the end. This is an important part of the procedure, as it allows your host time to summons other colleagues they may want in attendance.

Your gift should be offered in both hands as you bow and you should stress that it is just something small and reiterate the importance of building a strong relationship. In Japan it is polite to refuse a gift once or twice before accepting it with both hands. In general, the gift will not be opened in front of the giver, but at a later time.

When it comes to choosing an appropriate gift avoid anything bearing your company logo, instead going for delicacies from your home country and where possible have your gift wrapped once you are in Japan. Be aware of Japanese symbolism, avoiding sharp objects (which can represent severing a relationship), the colour red and the number four (which are associated with death) and things in sets of four, instead opting for pairs, which are considered lucky.

China

As much of Chinese culture relates to the showing and saving of ‘face’, it’s no surprise that this heavily comes into play when it comes to gift giving. Gifts will generally be refused three times, before being accepted with a reserved demeanour.

Gifts should be beautifully wrapped (ideally in China) and presented with both hands to the most senior person present and will be opened at a later stage. As official business policy in China states that gifts are bribes, it can be sensible to state that it is a small token from your company to theirs, or to wait until after any negotiations are complete to offer a gift.

If you would like to give one particular business associate a more personal present, this should be done privately and it should be made clear that it is a gift of friendship, rather than business, with the value of the gift reflecting the associate’s rank or stature.

Symbolism in Chinese culture means red is a lucky colour, making it a good choice for a present or wrapping paper, while pink and yellow represent happiness and the number eight is also associated with good fortune. Avoid items or wrapping in black, white or blue, the number four, clocks and handkerchiefs, all of which are associated with death. You should also steer clear of sharp objects, which can represent severing a relationship.

Thailand

There is much less formality surround gift giving in Thailand than elsewhere in the region. Business gifts should generally be small items, such as food items or pens and should be given and received with the right hand and opened at a later stage. Good gift wrapping again is an important factor and you should avoid paper and ribbons in green, black or blue, as these are associated with mourning, instead going for the royal colours of gold and yellow.

Indonesia and Malaysia

While gift giving is not necessarily expected when doing business in Indonesia or Malaysia, if you do decide to present a small token, you should take into account the ethnicity of the receiver, with gifting to a Chinese associate as above. When choosing a gift for ethnic Malays, it is important to remember that alcohol is forbidden in the Muslim faith, so should be avoided, and you should be sure to not give leather goods to Hindu associates. If offered a gift it is generally seen as impolite to refuse and gifts will usually be opened once the giver has left.

South Korea

The exchanging of gifts can be a key part of doing business in South Korea and is seen as a way to secure favours and build relationships. Souvenirs from your home country make a good choice and items with great craftsmanship will be appreciated. It’s best to avoid expensive gifts, as this can cause awareness if the recipient feels they must then give something of the same value. If you are offered a gift you should initially refuse, accepting on the second or third attempt.

Taiwan

Gift giving is common in business in Taiwan, with small items such as a good quality whiskey, or office accessories of a high standard making popular choices. Be aware that custom in Taiwan requires the receiver of a gift to reciprocate with one of equal value, so you should avoid being excessive. Here the wrapping is almost as important as the gift and you can expect any offering to be politely refused at first, but you should politely persist until it is accepted.

Emma Tidey
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