Guide to Gift Giving Around The World

Categories: Global Mindset, GlobeSmart

With the holiday season upon us, giving gifts is top of mind for many of us these days. But whether you celebrate the Christian holiday of Christmas, the Jewish tradition of Hanukkah, or some other seasonal event, exchanging gifts to loved ones, colleagues or friends is a custom throughout the year in many cultures. While there is hardly anyone that does not enjoy receiving a gift, it can be tricky to find the right present, especially when the friend, colleague or boss comes from another part of the world. We therefore want to share with you a quick guide to gift giving around the world.

A few general tips for gift giving across cultures:

  • It is important to understand the protocol regarding gifts in the country where you will be doing business. Exchanging gifts is a highly-valued custom in some cultures, while in others it may be unimportant or even inappropriate.
  • In cultures that customarily include gift giving as a part of doing business, you should know what types of gifts are appropriate, as there are certain items which may be considered unlucky or even insulting.
  • It is also important to check your company’s policies regarding gift giving. Many companies in countries such as Singapore and the United States, for example, have policies restricting the giving or accepting of gifts in an attempt to avoid any appearance of bribery. Other countries like Denmark will make you declare the value of a company’s gift to tax authorities if it surpasses a certain amount.
  • An overly expensive item might be perceived as an attempt to bribe. In general, when giving a gift to someone who has already given you a gift, try to make the value of your gift similar to the value of the gift you received.
  • Find out when the time would be appropriate to present your gift — for example, in a meeting or outside of the office, in a social setting.
  • In certain cultures, women should be careful about giving gifts to male colleagues. For example, in Latin America, it might be better for a woman to give gifts to a male colleague’s children rather than the colleague himself, lest the gesture be interpreted as a sign of romantic interest.
  • In some cultures, gifts that can be shared by a group of people are most appropriate — for example, a box of fine chocolates.

(Source: GlobeSmart)

With all these considerations in mind, finding an appropriate gift can seem like a challenging endeavor best to avoid. Exchanging gifts and giving presents are, however, crucial to building and maintaining (business) relationships in many cultures around the world. To make life a little easier the next time the opportunity for a gift presents itself, here are a few culture-specific tips and tricks on gift giving.


  • In Japan, it is polite to offer or receive a gift using both hands. It is customary to wait until later when the giver is not present, to open the gift.
  • When making an initial visit or sales call, it is common to bring a small gift. O-seibo (year end) and O-chugen (midsummer) are the main gift-giving times. Japanese give gifts to anyone they are indebted to — superiors, subordinates, colleagues, and good clients. Gifts received are repaid with something of comparable or slightly higher value on a suitable occasion, not necessarily right away.
  • Gifts should be nicely wrapped; presentation is as important as content.


  • Many times, a Chinese person will refuse a gift two or three times before finally accepting it. This does not mean that they do not appreciate the gift. It is rather a way of expressing modesty and good manners.
  • If receiving a gift, there may be an expectation for a reciprocal gift or favor. This sense of reciprocity is something that most Chinese people have learned since they were children, and they are sensitive to the value of favors and gifts. It is common for Chinese people to use gifts to express their appreciation for favors they have received.
  • Examples of inappropriate gifts include: knives, scissors, or letter openers, which may symbolize the severance of a relationship; clocks (in many Chinese dialects, the phrase “give clock” sounds the same as “see off into death”); handkerchiefs, which are associated with crying and funerals; and items packaged in sets of four, unless it is a set of two pairs.


  • Gifts are sometimes given to the close relatives of important professional connections to celebrate important events in their lives, such as college graduations or weddings.
  • Many Muslims would find it a remarkably nice gesture, for example, if a non-Muslim foreigner sent them a greeting at the beginning of Ramadan.
  • Egyptians build and maintain their personal and professional networks partly by exchanging gifts, so gifts are common, especially in long-term relationships. Suppliers and vendors typically send gifts, such as calendars and items with their logos on them, to their clients.
  • If you are invited to the home of a Muslim family, do not bring alcohol unless you are sure that they drink.


  • Gifts should be wrapped and presented with the right hand. The recipient may or may not open the gift immediately.
  • Gifts are very important to business relationships. Many businesses show appreciation at the end of the year by giving their customers, vendors, clients, and other business associates Christmas hampers (gift baskets which have an assortment of gifts, sometimes including the company’s own products).
  • Multinational corporations usually have stricter restrictions about gift giving than local companies.
  • It is also common to give a donation for a funeral when a colleague or colleague’s family member dies.


  • The value of gifts varies depending on the relationship and the context. It is advisable to avoid giving expensive gifts that may be perceived as bribes. In general, gifts are given at the end of a transaction or meeting. This also helps reduce any misperception of wrongdoing.
  • It is inappropriate to gift flowers bundled in even numbers; yellow flowers, lilies or carnations (which are associated with funerals).
  • Gifts may not always be opened in front of the giver, and some Russians may initially refuse the offer of a gift. It is best to downplay the gift when presenting it. If bringing a gift to a Russian colleague’s home, for example, most Russians say that it is just a little something for the house, the spouse, or the children. If the gift is refused, either in a business or household context, the giver generally places it on the table before leaving and says something that minimizes the gesture.


  • It is important to pay attention to any corporate or government-based restrictions around giving or accepting gifts. For example, government officials in the U.S. often have explicit limits and restrictions on whether and what types of gifts they can receive.
  • U.S. Americans generally do not bring gifts to customers when meeting for the first time or as a thank-you for doing business together. U.S. Americans may, however, give gifts to coworkers, colleagues, and customers during the holiday season (late December). It is common for bosses to give gifts to executive assistants and other subordinates at this time.
  • When a gift is given to a person from the U.S., the giver might not receive one in return. U.S. Americans often open the gift right away, in front of the giver, so that they can see what it is and express thanks for the item.


  • Good taste is imperative when giving gifts in France; timing is also important. In general, the French avoid giving gifts at the first business meeting.
  • When invited to someone’s home, most French bring a gift and present it before the meal or party.
  • Good gifts reflect an appreciation of knowledge and the arts, such as books and music. Gifts should not insult the intelligence of French associates. For example, a biography may be a better choice than a more simplistic book.
  • Giving gifts featuring a company’s logo can be considered in poor taste.
  • When invited to someone’s home, flowers are generally appropriate, but avoid chrysanthemums (used for funerals), red roses (exchanged between lovers and very good friends), and carnations (thought to bring bad luck). Fine chocolates or champagne are also appropriate gifts.

Looking for the perfect gift is a challenge on its own. As you can see from the tips and considerations above, it can become tripwire in an international context. Considering local protocol, asking local colleagues or friends for advice, and consulting tools like GlobeSmart for help, are smart strategies to keep on enjoying the gift of giving.

GlobeSmart offers more than just information on gift giving around the world. It represents detailed, business-related cultural information on over 95 countries. It also allows you to create your own work-style profile to compare your preferred communication and work style to those of your colleagues and other national cultures.

Access the free version of GlobeSmart to explore on your own!


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