If you’re a world traveller, you will appreciate how important it is to respect local customs and adhere as far as possible to the etiquette norms you will encounter on your journey.
Whether you are travelling for business or pleasure, you will inevitably meet local people and in most parts of the world will be overwhelmed by their hospitality. As a guest in a foreign land, you will want to give gifts, either as icebreakers or as tokens of respect and gratitude, but tread carefully. In some parts of the world gift-giving is surrounded by quite complex and elaborate etiquette, so it is always a good idea to be prepared.
Some rules for the giving and receiving of gifts apply to all three countries. For instance, when receiving a gift, do not open it in the presence of the giver. If you wish to make a gift, chocolates and flowers are suitable presents, but not frangipani blossoms or white flowers as in India and Sri Lanka these are associated with funerals, while they are linked with weddings in Pakistan.
Above all, never give a Hindu anything made of leather or a Muslim anything made from a pig. In all three countries, only give alcohol if you know the recipient drinks. Many men drink whisky in India, so it makes a good present.
If you wrap the gift, be careful not to use black or white paper as these colours are considered unlucky; lucky ones are green, red and yellow – or any bright colours as these bring good fortune. Present your gift with the right hand only, unless it is heavy, in which case use both hands. Sri Lankans will touch their right forearm with their left hand while offering the gift with their right hand.
For Hindus, giving presents eases the transition into the next life; it is not the value of the gift that matters, but the sincerity with which it is given. When the recipient thanks you, do not respond with ‘Oh, it’s nothing’ as this has a different meaning for Hindus than it does for us.
Gifts are very important to the Japanese. It is essential to give them to new bosses, business partners, hosts or when you return from somewhere. Presenting gifts can perform multiple functions like smoothing the way for a good relationship or reinforcing existing ties. Gift-giving is highly ritualised and is based on giri – the sense of reciprocity and duty owed by one citizen to another. The key is balance – giri involves offering like for like. A gift will always be reciprocated, and attempts will be made to match the worth of the gift received. At its most extreme the Japanese sense of reciprocity can produce embarrassing results. For instance, if you show appreciation for something they own, they may try to give it to you.
Highly coveted gifts include single malt whiskies and fine marmalade – in fact anything archetypically British. Cakes, biscuits, ties, scarves and beautifully illustrated books make good presents. Avoid cufflinks as most Japanese shirts have single cuffs. Do not give even numbers of items, particularly four of anything. Nine is also a taboo number. Gifts must be beautifully wrapped in pastel-coloured paper (most shops will wrap them for you). Use red and white paper for congratulations; avoid black, blue, green and white.
Give gifts when leaving a social engagement, not on arrival. When given a gift, express reluctance to receive it. At the same time, the giver will belittle their gift to you. Thus, you have both shown humility, and both been flattered by the other’s kindness. Give and receive with both hands, without fuss and away from the crowd. Never open a gift in front of the giver unless urged to do so.
The temptation to travel with your pockets bulging with gifts in case of emergency can be overwhelming, but should you receive one unexpectedly and have nothing to give in return, take the giver’s details and send them a tasteful card in thanks. This is perfectly acceptable.
Gift-giving in China is an art form. It is the gesture that counts, not the expense. Always give a gift in return for a gift or favour. Wrap the gift with great care, as the way it is presented is just as important as the gift itself. Use red or yellow paper, but avoid white, black and blue. Alcohol is not a suitable gift as many Chinese people have a very low tolerance to it. Pens and gourmet food are preferable.
Even numbers (except four) are considered auspicious, especially two, so giving a pair of something is ideal. If you visit someone in their home, take a gift of chocolates or flowers – but never yellow chrysanthemums as they are for putting on graves. Other items that are traditionally taboo as gifts are clocks, knives, letter openers and scissors. Younger people take these taboos much less seriously, but it is better to be on the safe side.
Give and receive gifts with both hands. When receiving one, decline three times before accepting as this shows a lack of greed. Once you have accepted it, a ‘thank you’ and a slight bow is appropriate. Never open it in the presence of the giver unless they insist. (In Hong Kong this rule is less clear, so ask ‘Should I open it now?’). If your gift is declined, insist gently until it is eventually accepted. (The ‘three times’ rule applies to many offers, such as invitations. Quiet persistence is required whenever offering anything to a Chinese person.) Never give a gift that the recipient will find impossible to reciprocate as this will cause them to lose face and place them in an awkward position.
A banquet (an elaborate multi-course dinner) may be given as a form of gift. If reciprocating a banquet with a banquet, never outdo the original gesture: spend the same amount of money and aim for the same quality.
Although gifts are always appreciated, do not feel obliged to give them. In stricter regions like Saudi Arabia only close friends exchange gifts and giving a gift before an amicable relationship has been established may embarrass the recipient. Chocolates or a small memento from home are appropriate. Some gifts are prohibited by tradition in Saudi Arabia: avoid giving gold jewellery and silk clothing to men.
Do not give gifts depicting images of women, so be careful about giving books. It is also probably advisable to avoid alcohol, as it is proscribed in many parts of the region.
In traditional Arab homes, where women remain out of sight, flowers for the hostess may not be appropriate. The correct form is to present the gift to the host without implying that it is for the hostess. If a man finds himself in a situation where he must give a gift to a woman, it is safest to say that it is from his wife, mother or sister. It is quite acceptable for a woman to present a gift to another woman.
If someone refuses to receive a gift, gently insist until they accept it. Do not refuse gifts if they are offered to you and do not open them until later. However, if the giver insists that you open it immediately, make a point of admiring it. They will do the same with your gift, so ensure that your gift passes muster.
Be very careful about expressing fulsome admiration for one of your host’s possessions. This imposes a duty upon him, and he will feel bound by the rules of hospitality to make a present of the object in question to its admirer. No amount of protestation will change the host’s mind and he will insist that the guest keeps the present.
Gifts are not always necessary but take one if you are invited to someone’s home. Flowers are a good gift, but tradition demands that the bouquet should contain an odd number of flowers. Consult the florist or opt for roses or carnations. Other suitable gifts are sweets, fruit, talcum powder or kolonya (the lemon-scented cologne that is used by both men and women throughout Turkey). Avoid giving alcohol unless you know your host drinks.
Give a present in one of two ways: either insist that it is unworthy of the recipient or – better still – leave it near the front door. In the latter case no one will mention it, but do not assume that they are ungrateful.
See our International Etiquette section for more cross-cultural guidance
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