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22 December 2023

Cultural Tips for Gift-Giving in Business

Gift-giving in business – or ‘corporate gifting’ – can take a variety of forms. Perhaps you want to distribute branded promotional items at events (such as bags, pens or notebooks) to improve brand recognition, or maybe you want to choose something more personalised to honour and celebrate a new or successful working relationship.  

Gifts are certainly front of mind as the festive season approaches, though gifts are by no means the preserve of seasonal celebrations. But while the Christmas lights are twinkling in the streets and the nation’s minds are tuned into picking the perfect present, now may also be a good time to reflect on how thoughtful gift-giving may be able to strengthen and nourish your business relationships in the year ahead – depending on where you do business. 

In this article, we explore the nuances of gift-giving in business, with tips for choosing culturally sensitive gifts for overseas clients. 

Being Aware of the Rules 

The rules around gift-giving can vary depending on where you are based and in which countries you are giving the gifts – and not all countries or cultures feel comfortable with the idea of gift-giving in business. For example, in many European countries, including the UK and France, gift-giving is not the norm – in fact, gift-giving here in the UK can be a risky business, no matter how well intended, if there is any chance of the gift being perceived as a bribe. At the same time, gift-giving is often expected in many Asian and South American countries. 

Gifts in business should always be given without anticipating any reward in return. The UK has clear rules around bribery and corruption, and as a result some UK businesses make the decision to minimise or remove the giving and receiving of gifts from their organisations entirely (ensuring they operate in accordance with the Bribery Act 2010). It is also important to keep in mind the tax implications of corporate gift-giving and the extra-territorial reach of the Bribery Act. 

Intentions Matter 

Many parts of the world view gift-giving as an integral part of doing business – one that helps to strengthen professional relationships as well as show a willingness to understand and honour local cultural norms. It can be a sign of respect and friendship, and in some cultures the exchange of gifts is as essential to building a professional relationship as a thoughtful, culturally appropriate greeting is essential to making a good first impression.  

However, the timing of gifts and any potential for misunderstanding should be considered carefully before you head to the shops. A thank you gift at the conclusion to a negotiation is likely to be more appropriate than a lavish gift offered when you are about to negotiate a contract. Keeping your intentions clear and avoiding any suggestion of undue influence will help to keep your business operating squarely within the law, free of misunderstanding. 

To avoid any possible risk, check with your organisation’s business policies and/or code of ethics to ensure you are following all legal and company rules that relate to both the giving and receiving of gifts (your company may operate a gift register, for example, to help keep things transparent).  

Choosing the Right Gift 

If you are wary of gift-giving but would like to make a genuine gesture of goodwill towards your professional partners, alternative approaches such as gifting chocolates or a gift basket for the whole office to enjoy may be appreciated. Good-quality promotional gifts (with your company’s brand prominently displayed) can also be suitable gifts in a professional setting such as at a meeting or promotional event. As always, check in with your organisation’s rules to ensure your ideas fall within company policy. 

Remember, however, that not all gifts will be welcome – which is where cultural understanding comes into play in a way that goes beyond the law. In China, for example, where gift-giving in business is common (though be careful not to offer gifts to public officials), clocks, hats and umbrellas are regarded as unlucky, cut flowers are for funerals rather than business, and the humble pear would represent a parting of ways rather than a meeting of minds. In Japan, gift-giving is also welcome – but remember that gifts should be carefully wrapped and presented with both hands (presenting with both hands also applies to business cards). Suitable gifts include gourmet foods and fine whiskies, though white flowers and potted plants are poor choices because white flowers are associated with bad luck and funerals, and potted plants are associated with ill health.  

 

Whichever country you are doing business in, be sure to learn about the culture so you can choose appropriate gifts wisely. With a little thoughtfully considered research, you can develop a clear understanding of appropriate gifts and social norms in the region you are working in – and this knowledge base will be a strong foundation for growing your overseas networks. Contact us to find out more about cross-cultural or language training to support your business expansion plans. 

 

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