Imagine you’re walking down Commercial Street in Bangalore, India, where you see people dressed in chinos with the Lacoste logo on their shirt or the Nike swipe on their T-shirts and their Starbucks cup in hand. While all the familiar brands may lead you to think that doing business here is the same as in the States, don’t be fooled.
One striking difference is in the bestowing of gifts. In the U.S., you would never think to take a gift to a potential prospect or strategic partner. But when meeting an Asian prospect, showing up empty handed would be a major blunder.
Even now, when people in Taiwan can visit Costco and buy their own Canadian maple syrup or Australian macadamia cookies, you may think, “Why go to the trouble of hauling gifts like that thousands of miles?” Again, this could sink any business deal before you even sit down at the table.
As hard as it may be to get our heads around this concept in the West, gift-giving has always been an important part of doing business in Asia. There, presenting a gift is a tangible way to show respect for your host. As odd as it might seem to us to give gifts to those connections with whom we want to have a good relationship, you can never be too careful in selecting items that, in truth, may have a more lasting and positive effect than all those meetings you attended.
Keep these seven tips in mind when selecting and presenting gifts to your Asian business counterparts in their respective countries:
- Choose tasteful gifts. Omiyage, or “honorable presents” are a crucial part of business dealings in Japan and should be of high quality (but not embarrassingly expensive). The same is true in China, India, Hong Kong, Myanmar and South Korea. Be cautious with the giving of gifts to government officials — other than perhaps a ballpoint pen with your company’s logo — in case they’re mistaken for bribes.
- Avoid treating Asians as a homogeneous group. While the gift of a clock in South Korea will be greeted with delight, since it symbolizes good luck, don’t expect the same reaction in Hong Kong, where clocks represent bad luck. Although, you’re safe across the continent to nix any gifts with a sharp edge, since items like knives, scissors or letter openers almost universally designate the severing of ties.
- Be careful not to offend the opposite sex. In the Philippines, be careful — if you’re male — to give a businesswoman a gift with a card that says it’s also from your wife, sister or mother. This helps avoid the appearance of impropriety, which could be embarrassing for both sides.
- Bear in mind religious and other sensibilities. In Malaysia, for example, where more than 60 percent of the population is Muslim, you should avoid giving anything that has the picture of a pig or dog on it. And, while you may find your Indian colleagues are only too happy receiving a bottle of liquor that they can’t buy in their own country, remember that some 70 percent of Hindus don’t drink alcohol and it’s prohibited in four states (Gujarat, Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland), and in the union territory of Lakshadweep.
- Feign gratitude for a reused gift. Don’t be miffed if your thoughtfully chosen gift is then–er,re-gifted–when you go to Taiwan. The Taiwanese are enthusiastic and generous gift-givers, which includes passing on attractive gifts they’ve received to their own clients and customers. It’s best, therefore, not to inscribe or otherwise personalize your gift.
- Be a gracious recipient. As fraught with subtle nuances as gift-giving can be, be aware of howreceiving gifts can also backfire if you’re not culturally aware. For example, a real estate broker from Texas hosted a Chinese delegation in her hometown of Austin, and was subsequently invited to speak at a conference on Hainan Island, China. All visiting delegates received gifts, including a golf shirt embroidered with the host’s logo. The next day, she went to the day’s event wearing her own clothes, only to find that everyone else was wearing the golf shirt! Besides showing one’s appreciation for the gift by wearing it, this illustrates the importance in Chinese culture of group identity.
- Learn to tweak the Golden Rule. We like to embody the Golden Rule by treating others as we ourselves would like to be treated. But, when it comes to gift-giving, as with so many other aspects of business behavior in Asia, think of it this way: Treat others as they wish to be treated. This mindset really will pay off in terms of building trust, inspiring respect and creating long-lasting business relationships.