Gift Giving in Global Business

You've finally secured an important business meeting that will see the delegation visit your shores.   The day they arrive at your company they are greeted by a very professional receptionist who discreetly makes their way to your office to personally announce the delegation’s arrival.  Your receptionist also informs you that "they have gifts with them".  You realise you don't have gifts to exchange and you will either think "that's ok, we don't give gifts in our culture" or, you immediately send one of your staff to the nearest high-end souvenir shop to get "something" in time to present at the end of the meeting.  Order is restored!

Not quite.

Whether it forms part of the new business strategy or not, avoid making 'the gift' a last minute after-thought.

Western business cultures are increasingly adopting the gift exchange traditions of the East which makes the matter of gifts an important consideration in global business. However, the issue of gifts needs to be approached carefully. Many have found the hard way that adopting the same protocol without regard for the nuances of business cultures, other than one’s own, can make for awkward situations.  You could try to improvise but best to look a little further into the 'why' as, in many cultures, the gift is not merely a courtesy gesture.

Whilst courtesy is the underlying message, in some cultures a gift signals the commencement of a valued partnership, in others a gift may not be required at all.  In certain cultures, the timing is crucial; given too early in the piece and it could be perceived as seeking to gain favour; too late, an offensive after-thought.  The right gift at the wrong time or the wrong gift at the right time can be counter-productive to a business objective.

A culture's ingrained traditions and beliefs impact everyday business.  At the most fundamental level, consider the following when deciding if and when a gift exchange will form part of the strategy:

What is the context?
Establishing new business, closing a deal, a business social engagement etc.  Context determines the what, when, where, who and how.

Who are the recipients?
What is their cultural background, gender, age, position in the organisation, etc. A single gift or for a team?

What type of gift?
A culture's ingrained traditions and beliefs impact everyday business. Certain items that could be innocuous to the gift giver may, to the gift receiver, be symbols of bad luck or ill intent.   Colour and value also come into play.  Company gift giving and receiving policies are also important to consider. Ignoring these policies can place both the gift giver and receiver in an awkward situation which may jeopardize developing a strong relationship.

Finally, gifts in business are considered part of an 'exchange' - so receiving gifts is another matter which merits its own set of considerations. As with any aspect of preparing for an important cross-border meeting, a gift should be considered as part of the overall plan.   Whether it forms part of the new business strategy or not, avoid making it a last minute after-thought.

In the case presented above, one could argue that the visiting delegation should have looked into the expectations of the business culture hosting them and not brought a gift at all, lest it put their hosts in an awkward situation.  

Or the host party, through intermediaries (usually the executive support) could have investigated the presence of gifts at this particular meeting and decided whether or not gifts would form part of this particular gathering.

My view is that it comes down to courtesy as much as culture.  As guests of the company, it is not inappropriate to bring a token gift for their host/s. Context takes over here as then the gift would be dependent on where the meeting takes place, the purpose of the meeting and so forth.  As hosts who appear to place great importance on the visit to develop their business relationship, the gift should form part of the hospitality and courtesy extended to the visiting party.  

The key is – prepare in advance and avoid the unnecessary distraction from the business at hand.