Giving Gifts Internationally: How to Wow Your Global Partners Every Time

Understanding foreign gifting etiquette is key to navigating cultural differences and making a splash with your thoughtfulness.

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By John Ruhlin


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

As the world becomes increasingly connected, many executives are considering moves into the global marketplace. That can be a daunting thought, as many moving parts are involved in such a change.

But, never fear: Emerging research from the Group & Organization Management journal indicates that international expansion may not be as risky as many might think. In the digital era, connectivity is transcending geographic borders, presenting major growth opportunities for even fledgling corporate entities.

Related: How to Take Your Company Global

With that in mind, one key -- and often underestimated -- challenge entrepreneurs can expect to face when they do business outside national boundaries is understanding other countries' gift-giving etiquette. The consequences of incorrect giving range from embarrassment to loss of a deal.

So, instead of feeling like the proverbial skunk at the garden party, you need to put thought behind the gift exchanges you're involved in. And you need to do that well in advance of the meeting.

What constitutes a gift?

To most Americans, the notion of a gift elicits images of holidays and birthdays, involving beautifully wrapped gift boxes. Yet, while some gifts certainly fall into this category, others do not. In Japan, business leaders hand out business cards in a formal gifting manner. Using two hands, they essentially bestow their carefully designed cards to one another. That's a far cry from the way Americans casually swap information after brief encounters at conferences.

Related: International Business Etiquette Rules for Entrepreneurs

This illustrates our need to broaden our gift-giving language. In Canada, some European countries and South America, gifting is fairly similar to that in the United States: It stands out and grabs attention because it isn't expected. Give a small, thoughtful gift to a German colleague, for example, and you'll likely win kudos.

On the other hand, Asian countries scrutinize gifts because they're expected. The Chinese are especially are particular about presentation, and Japanese leaders expect gifts that monetarily reflect the value of the relationship.

Would you spend $25,000 on a watch and not think twice about it? Probably not, but such transactions happen between high-level executives in Japan because wowing another person is part of the way the Japanese regularly do business. In America, such extravagance could be linked to an implication of bribery.

That's why in this country, the array of gifts is large: Gifts range from greeting cards, cheap trinkets and swag to memorable items that are hard to find or are personalized. But you have to do your research before you can choose the right gift for an international executive.

Make a splash with the perfect gift.

Ready to make positive waves during all your international gift-giving? Take these steps toward understanding global etiquette.

1. Search engines exist -- use them. Gift giving is a soft skill, like the ability to collaborate effectively and think creatively. That's why it should never be underestimated in international business: You need to learn and develop new perspectives of working with diverse populations. If you're unsure where to start, turn to that familiar tool: the internet.

No matter which country you're doing business with, a quick search will give you a starting point and basic understanding of what to expect. From that point, you can move forward and attempt to connect with someone at the target country's U.S. embassy or a peer who is familiar with that nation's cultural gifting do's and don'ts. Be sure to talk to suppliers as well -- your vendors might become your best advisors, with insights to share.

2. Give gifts made in your home country. One surefire way to ensure that your gift stands out is to choose a product that's made in or native to your home country. Some leaders and nations have go-to local gifts: Cuban cigars and French wines, for example. Those gifts aren't always easy to come by in other nations, and they show thoughtfulness on the gift-giver's part.

What could be more mortifying than giving a gift made outside your own country? When former U.S. President Barack Obama received Chinese-made table tennis equipment from the British, the misstep was noticed. Find something made in your home country that isn't readily available to your recipient.

3. Create a one-of-a-kind moment. When an important business partner of mine lamented that he wouldn't have time to shop at Brooks Brothers while in town for a layover, I took his lament as an opportunity to give him an amazing present. When he got to his hotel suite, he was greeted with an array of Brooks Brothers clothing items in his size. His reaction was one of sheer delight, and he called it the best customer service he'd received.

In addition to quality, think uniqueness and value when offering any type of gift, and feel free to be creative. Also, a personal touch never hurts -- from Africa to China, personalization shows forethought and care. Add a handwritten note and careful packaging, and things will probably play out well.

Related: 35 Tips on How Not to Offend Your International Business Partners (Infographic)

Want to impress even more? Tie your company's core values into the gift to make it even more unique. And opt for a choice that has shelf life and is useful, versus something that's consumed and forgotten.

At the end of the day, gifting shouldn't be something to agonize over. It should be a novel way to interact with people on a very human, humble and sincere level. Keep your intentions and gifts first-rate, and make them about the other person. Your new friend, no matter what language he or she speaks, will never forget it.

John Ruhlin

Founder and CEO of the Ruhlin Group

John Ruhlin is an entrepreneur, international speaker and author of Giftology. More relationship and referral strategies can be found at Giver's Edge.

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