Global Gift Giving: Getting it Right

March 20, 2019

Whether for a special holiday, as a token of gratitude or just a way of letting someone know you care, gift-giving is a universal custom. Though the intent may be similar from place to place, traditions vary widely from one country to the next.

China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Korea

Anchored in Confucian values, gifts oil the wheels of the pervasive Guanxi or relationship system. They demonstrate goodwill and create reciprocity between giver and receiver. However, the repercussions of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign not only impacted on spending, but also changed what people give. While a designer bag or watch may have once been an exclusive business gift, lower priced items conveyed in premium and creative presentations are also now appreciated. If you wish to buy a gift symbolism is very important.

• Clocks are not good gifts to give to Buyers from China, Hong Kong, Singapore or Malaysia. The word in Mandarin for clock is very similar to the word for death.
• In Korea, handkerchiefs, even of the finest quality, are symbols of sadness.
• In all Asian cultures it’s best to avoid cutlery, as well (such as penknives with corporate logos), for they represent the cutting of a relationship.
• Whilst fruit boxes are a good idea, pears should be avoided, as the word for pear in Chinese sounds like the Chinese word for leaving or parting.

China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Korea

• Umbrellas also possess a phrasing that can be associated with the breaking up of a friendship or partnership and are best not given as a formal gift.
• Specifically for men, green hats are not a good choice as a gift – these have been historically given to husbands who have unfaithful wives.
• No gift, no matter how small, should ever be presented unwrapped.
• In Asia both white and black are colours are associated with funerals, while red means wealth and happiness. Similarly, do not use green wrapping in Southeast Asia (Thailand and Indochina); it is considered unlucky.
• Red ink is considered unlucky, especially if used when signing your name (on the greeting card).

Gifts that are appreciated include: a luxury English tea collection, fine bone china tea-set (with London scene) or an engraved pen and pencil set. Make sure such gifts are authentic and are of high quality.


Gift-giving is a common part of Japanese culture. Much attention is given to the wrapping of presents. If not nicely packed, the present should at least be handed over in a quality gift bag. Gifts in sets of four are usually avoided because it is considered an unlucky number (the Japanese word for four is pronounced the same as the word for "death"). When handing over a present, both the gift giver and recipient use both hands. The safest gift-wrapping choices are pastel-coloured papers, without bows. Avoid wrapping a gift with brightly coloured papers or bows.

• Top-quality brands of scotch, cognac, bourbon, brandy or fine wines are excellent gifts.
• Also, a box of fresh citrus fruits is appreciated as is a hamper of English tea, shortbread biscuits, jam and conserves.


• Pen and pencil sets, or a simple commemorative photograph [i.e., taken from a gathering at the property] in a beautiful frame would be admired. Avoid bamboo or wooden frames though – silver and metal frames are best.
• A gift with a brand name is always appreciated, especially one with a British connection such as Harrods or Cath Kidston.
• Gifts to avoid would include lilies, lotus blossoms, and camellias which are associated with funerals. White flowers of any kind should be avoided. There is also a superstition that potted plants encourage sickness.
• Paper knives and letter openers are to be avoided.
• Giving four or nine of anything is considered unlucky.
• Red Christmas cards should be avoided, since funeral notices are customarily printed in this colour.

Middle East Region

Never give a gift that contains a pork-related product. In general, never give a gift that includes alcohol, including liqueur-filled chocolates and perfumes. (Wine or spirits should never be given to anyone in public in the Middle East, even if you are in a country that permits alcohol consumption). However, it is possible to give a gift of very high-quality alcohol in private, but only if you know someone very well and it does not jeopardise their reputation. Of course, this should be done with discretion. If in doubt, leave it out.

When giving a gift to a Muslim, images of immodestly-dressed people should be avoided. So should gifts clearly intended for a host’s spouse, such a flowers, chocolates or anything made of silk. If giving a gift to a very religious Muslim, images of any living being should be avoided, including depictions of animals.

Middle East Region

• Pottery, glassware and high-quality diaries that include national holidays are all good ideas.
• If you know your customers support a football team in the UK, memorabilia can be highly appreciated.
• Top-end pens, memory sticks and anything else that is practical are all acceptable but take care to ensure that these items are produced with the highest appearance of quality in mind.
• Furthermore, a thoughtful gift to your Muslim Buyers (any follower of Islam, from the Arab Muslim world all the way to Malaysia and Indonesia) would be a fine silver compass. No matter where in the world they may be, they can always locate Mecca and perform their daily prayers.
• Wrap a gift to your Muslim colleagues in the Arab world in green wrapping (green is the symbolic colour of Islam).

Gifts are opened in private throughout the Middle East.

If you have found this Babel Blog interesting you might want to consider our Country Briefings or our Customer Service & Etiquette workshops.


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