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Published 12 December 2012 09:26, Updated 13 December 2012 05:37
’Tis the season for giving – and in the business world, it is not just friends and family on the shopping list.
There is a fine art to the corporate gift – value it too high and it can appear a bribe but value it too low and you risk giving offence. The cultural rules of gift giving also vary around the world.
It’s important to get it right but business people should not abandon the custom as too difficult – gifts can be a good way to build a relationship, whether at Christmas or any time of year.
The J.W. Neville Fellow in Economics at the University of NSW and the author of The Airport Economist, Tim Harcourt, says gift giving is an important part of culture overseas, especially in Asia, more so than in Australia.
“The culture [in Asia] is relationship based, not transaction based, and so gift giving is part of the custom,” Harcourt says. “When you go and do business in Hong Kong or Beijing or India, you are expected to get to know the person and their family and children and relations. It’s not the same as graft and corruption – going to a business partner’s house and giving a gift to their family is not the same as being told to go to a building and put a brown envelope in the deputy commissioner’s desk drawer.”
Harcourt says it is appropriate for Australian business people to give a gift that reflects Australian culture, such as a scarf with an Aboriginal art design from a company such as Jumbana, or quality Australian food or wine. Or, it is appreciated if they know the business associate well enough to choose a personal gift.
Harcourt also recommends extending the Australiana theme to the gift presentation – choosing wrapping or cards in green and gold, or with Aboriginal dot painting. In Japan, people are especially likely to value fine wrapping since the country has a cultural emphasis on aesthetics, with traditions such as origami, fine paper and tsutsumi – Japanese-style gift wrapping using paper and cloth.
Australia-India Business Council president Deepak-Raj Gupta agrees, adding that the best gift for an Indian business contact would be something unique to Australia that can be put on display – such as a photographic book of Australian fauna or a painted boomerang. A bottle of nice Australian wine would be appreciated in India but because it’s consumable it works better as an extra, not as the main gift.
Gupta says gifts work well at any time of year but the biggest giving season in India is Diwali in October or November each year. “It’s a very festive time of year and it’s not only Hindus who celebrate it but many other people like Sikhs.”
Harcourt says there is more emphasis on giving gifts in Asia than Australia but there are also pitfalls if you choose the wrong one. He advises doing country-specific research online, including checking the Austrade website.
“You have to be careful with giving flowers because some flowers are associated with funerals,” Harcourt says. Some gift faux pas are more obvious. “When I was at the ACTU [back in the 1990s], we had ACTU baseball caps made in Taiwan and that was not a good look with the Chinese delegation,” he recalls.
In some countries, it is appropriate to give a gift to the wife and in others not – but Harcourt adds that gender roles are changing rapidly.
“People assume that the CEO will be male but in Asia there are a lot of women CEOs, particularly in Indonesia, Japan and Thailand.”
Gift giving can also grease the wheels of commerce in countries such as Israel or regions such as Latin America but the cultural landscape is likely to be more familiar.
Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce head of trade Ori Danieli says gift etiquette is similar in Israel to Australia, Europe or the United States.
“The main thing to remember is that we don’t celebrate Christmas because the majority are Jews,” Danieli says. “Companies will give gifts to staff for Hanukkah, Jewish New Year or Rosh Hashanah and Passover – something symbolic and quite small.”
Australia-Brazil Chamber of Commerce president Rodrigo De Luca says gift giving in Brazil is similar to Australia. Christmas is the most appropriate time for gifts and food hampers are a popular choice. Still some ideas should definitely be scratched, he warns. “Something you should never give to someone in Brazil is an Argentinian soccer club shirt.”