Presents and Gift-Giving

Before you go, try to find out a little about your hosts. You should do this anyway, but this is especially important if you are planning to take presents. Find out what the person likes and doesn’t like; what would be appropriate and what would not. Sending a box of Godiva chocolates to a diabetic would be about as bad as sending a bottle of MaoTai liquor to a devout Baptist. Once you have an idea for an appropriate gift, plan your purchases accordingly. You may be able to take advantage of the duty-free shops at your departure airport or in-flight shopping services. While the items you purchase duty-free may be subject to duty in your arrival country, most items can be purchased at a substantial savings over what you would have had to pay had you purchased the item elsewhere.

If you are an American traveling to China, you should consider taking some presents for the people who are going to host you while you are there; they will. If you are a Chinese traveling to the US, you have already considered bringing presents because you would think it is the polite thing to do.

Normally, an American traveling on business would not consider giving a present to another American as it would be inappropriate to give a present to someone you just met. Samples, promotional pens, cups, caps, company t-shirts, and other such items, yes. Presents, not usually. While promotional items can make great gifts, it is wise to consider what you want to accomplish with the trip and what role you are playing.

For those trying to establish long-term relationships, promotional items are probably not the most appropriate gifts. If the goal is to build on an already established foundation, promote morale and company unity, then by all means hand out the caps! In contrast, a Chinese traveling on business will usually consider bringing presents for the hosts, although now, in keeping with the American custom of not giving presents, there can be some confusion as to whether or not it is appropriate.

Your host will probably appreciate a small souvenir or token, especially if it represents your local culture. But expensive items should not be given as personal gifts. This has less to do with budget and more to do with the uncomfortable feeling that will be created if the present is inappropriately expensive.

There are also ethics considerations for both personal and business gifts. Many US companies have specific gift policies to avoid the appearance of giving or receiving a bribe. Be sure you know what your company allows.

Gift Suggestions

For Chinese hosts, items representing American culture make good presents. Many Chinese collect stamps. Coins, small figures and other collectibles may also make very nice gifts and are easy to transport. Clocks of any sort are considered bad luck and should be avoided as should knives (which are illegal to carry onto a plane anyway). You may wish to ask if there are children in the families, including grandchildren.

Appropriate gifts for the children will let your hosts know that you understand the value of family in Chinese culture and that you recognize family as part of a common ground you both share.

On a less family-friendly note, alcohol and cigarettes are big winners on the business gift list for a Chinese host. While we do not intend to promote the use of either, they are part of business culture in China. Some of this popularity harkens to the not-so-distant past when money was less valuable than foreign cigarettes and alcohol. A great many doors could be opened with a pack of American cigarettes or a bottle of Tennessee whisky. This is still true in some quarters.

Gifts for an American host might include handicrafts such as small jade pieces, painted bottles, wood carvings, cloisonné, embroideries, or a small traditional Chinese painting. Smoking is generally frowned upon as damaging to health, so unless you know the host smokes, tobacco is not a good present. If you know your host uses alcohol, a bottle of Chinese Mao Tai liquor could be a fine present.

It’s always best to ask beforehand.

Children and grandchildren are certainly part of an American host’s concerns, but he or she might consider a gift for a child inappropriate unless there was already some personal foundation established. Americans frequently try to separate personal and family affairs from business. Unless the business is a very small, family-run concern family members do not work directly together and are often prohibited from doing so by company policy.

Certainly, family members are included in social gatherings, but they do not participate in business meetings. That may not be true for a Chinese host.

I was visiting a large city in China and had arranged to host a lunch meeting to prepare for an important project. I had invited several people who would be directly participating so we could discuss the plan and work out the details.

To my surprise, one of the people showed up with a friend who brought his eight year old son. I was genuinely shocked and offended that either of them would be so presumptuous. I suggested that this was inappropriate for a business meeting and the boy should not remain. When one of the participants suggested that the child be allowed to remain so as not to offend the father, I was even more upset. “Why is it okay to offend me?” I asked. My point was made and the father took the boy home.

For an American, a small statue or print that can be displayed in the office and shared with all involved may be more welcome than a more personal item. Also, if you are visiting company offices in the US, you may wish to bring some small gifts for members of the hosts’ support staff. Keep in mind that the Executive Assistant to the President likely handles day-to-day office operations, knows everyone in the company, and may well be a key person in helping your endeavor succeed.

A Chinese person, on the other hand, may wish to have something he or she can show family and friends.

When you give a Chinese person a present, he or she will politely refuse, finally accept, say thank you and put it down without opening it. This is in keeping with Chinese custom.

When you give an American a present, he or she may politely accept the gift often with “you shouldn’t have” or simply “thank you.” Depending on the situation and generation, the American may ask if it is to be opened now, put it aside to be opened later, or simply start opening it.