Uit de interculturele hoek…
Gift-giving Across Cultures: An Art in Itself

Vincent MerkAs we are now in the middle of the gift season (we’ve had Alibaba Day on 11/11 for the Chinese, Black Friday for the US Americans, sinterklaas for the Dutch and we are heading towards Christmas), let’s take a look at gift-giving across cultures. It is by all means a tricky and subtle aspect in cultures, whether national, professional or corporate. In some cultures, people exchange gifts at the start of the relationship to create some trust and develop friendship, as illustrated by this anecdote: “A Dutch university delegation arrived in Seoul for talks about further cooperation with a Korean academic institution. After the proper exchange of cards, the Koreans handed a set of silver pens to the Dutch delegates. Perhaps it was jetlag, perhaps a headache, but the Dutch felt uncomfortable and refused, ever so politely. The next day, the Koreans arrived with golden pens”,  Did they try to influence their Dutch partners? On the contrary, in other cultures, people do so only at the end to value work done well. Telling gifts from bribes involves good knowledge of local customs and some intercultural competence. In the example above, cultural perspectives clearly collided: The Dutch delegation politely refused the gift for fear of corruption, whereas their Korean partners interpreted their refusal as a call for better gifts. No doubt cultural knowledge in general is important, but once we start interacting, success also depends on many other factors, one of them is cultural empathy. Knowing that pens are neutral in Korea is useful. But also bringing a gift, carefully chosen to respect differences, match status and avoid loss of face, would have been meaningful to the Korean delegation. Indeed, there in Korea, exchanging gifts is seen as an opportunity to express good intentions and to build a personal relationship for later in case inevitable blunders happen at the discussion table.

Gift-giving across cultures in a informal context is also complex. One golden rule is to give your hosts something from your own country. It is more original and authentic.  A good recommendation, no doubt, but  that results for me  in having a large selection of vodka I’ve received from various Polish friends: Anyway, na zdrowie! Other aspects of the gift-giving rituals are how  to present and receive a gift (what to say and how to take it), proper wrapping and colours, when to open it and how to reciprocate it. See about the gift-giving etiquette across cultures: http://www.1worldglobalgifts.com/giftgivingetiquetteandcustoms.htm. In the Belgian section it is stated that “Belgians already know that they make the finest chocolates in the world, so it is probably best to take flowers for your hostess and perhaps a bottle of spirits for your host”. Self-flattery is always good… Anyway, whatever the circumstances, remember that intercultural effectiveness is the combination of knowledge and competence. So just use some common sense and don’t look a gift horse in the mouth!

Vincent Merk – v.merk (at) tue (dot) nl,
trainer intercultural communication at University of Technology, Eindhoven