You may think that the beautifully wrapped box you’re about to present to your host is a thoughtful gesture, something that will be appreciated, perhaps even cherished. But under the right circumstances, your gift may, in fact, may be an insult tied up in a bow.
In China, as in Minnesota, gifts are often given to express gratitude or friendship or hospitality. It’s a common courtesy observed in many cultures.
However, in a business setting, gift giving is generally frowned upon as a suggestion of bribery. Though this is not always the case, it’s important to be proper and properly sensitive when choosing to give a gift in a business context.
For thousands of years, Chinese people have believed that courtesy demands reciprocity, meaning that well-mannered people return favors and kindness. Whenever someone receives a present, treat or invitation from a friend, they will try to offer one back on a suitable occasion. This customary reciprocity is considered necessary to build friendship between people.
Suitable occasions to give gifts include birthdays or wedding days, or for a special holiday or party. Often gifts are also given as a way of saying thank you. Just as anywhere else in the world, what you give depends on how well you know the recipient. And the ideal gift needn’t be big or expensive. It should, however, be something that the recipient would appreciate.
General Gift Giving Tips
Here are some general rules for giving gifts in a Chinese way:
1. Give gifts to people you visit, as a way to thank them for inviting you.
2. When giving a “visiting” gift, find something the whole family can use. For example, give food or tea. Or, give something that is important in your home country or community. For example, you might give wild rice from Minnesota or a framed photo of your family.
3. In China, tradition dictates that the recipient not appear greedy. Therefore, he or she will often decline a gift two or three times before accepting. If you’re the giver, offer again until it is accepted after the third time. At the same time, especially in business, your gift may be absolutely refused, so don’t press beyond several refusals.
4. Don’t be offended if the person does not open the gift in front of you. Chinese people do not usually open a gift in front of the giver. It might embarrass them. They will open it later, then call or write to thank the person for the gift.
5. Wrap the gift well. Do not leave the gift in the store’s bag. Use colored ribbons to wrap a gift using these colors:
- Red for general and happy occasions
- Black and white for funerals
- Gold and silver for wedding gifts
1. In business, show sensitivity to people’s status. Give the same type of gift to people at the same level. Or present a gift to a company or organization instead of one person. Giving a gift only to an individual is not acceptable unless it is being given in private as a gesture of friendship.
2. Be sure the value of the gift is not extravagant.
3. Unless it’s a symbolic event, don’t photograph the event of giving a gift.
4. If negotiations are involved, gifts should be presented once they are finished.
Here are some general rules for receiving gifts in a Chinese way:
1. Gifts should be received with both hands when presented to you.
2. Chinese people who have had contact with Americans or other Westerners might expect you to follow the American custom of opening the gift in front of the giver. To avoid confusion, you can always ask, “Would you like me to open this now?”
3. Call or send a thank-you note. And, if possible, offer a gift back on a suitable occasion.
If you’re giving a pen, or signing a card, stay away from red ink. That is a symbol of severing ties. Clocks can symbolize death, and food can connote poverty.
The number 8 is considered lucky, so giving or receiving 8 items is a good thing. Just avoid the number four, which in Cantonese, is a lot like the word for death.
Links to articles on Chinese business culture
Tips geared to business gift giving etiquette