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A guide to international gift-giving taboos

Dec 10, 2018
During the holiday season, we might need to give gifts to people from outside our own country or culture. Navigating the cultural minefield can be difficult for business executives. One culture's prized gift can be another's cause for grave offence. Here are some tips for international corporate gift giving for the holiday season.

What is taboo?

In China, be sure to avoid the number four as it is considered bad luck (the pronunciation of ‘four’ is very close to the pronunciation of ‘death’), while the number eight is good, because it sounds similar to the word for wealth. 

Giving a clock to someone in Chinese culture is a bad omen, suggesting they are running out of time. The colours blue and black should also be avoided because they are associated with funerals.

In the UK, knives are generally not given as presents because superstition says it could cut through a friendship. 

Similarly, in Japan presenting a knife to a colleague is seen as suggestive of suicide. 

Broaches, hankerchieves and scarves in Italy also have a strong association with mortality and should be avoided.

In Chile, a too-extravagant gift could be uncomfortable for the Chilean receiving the gesture, so stick to business-related gifts like leather notebooks and pens.

A good gift in any of these countries is a coffee table book that reflects something about your own culture and background. It shows you appreciate the recipient and would like them to get to know you and your culture better.


Both in China and Japan, gifts should be presented with two hands, since such a gesture implies the importance of the gift. The gift should be given at the end of the business meeting and never wrapped in white paper.

In Brazil, gifts should only be given in informal settings and never too expensive, or it could be seen as a bribe.

In Muslim countries, business gifts should be presented with the right hand and never comprise of alcohol. However, in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, only very close friends and family would give gifts, so maybe a handshake and a thank you would be most appropriate.

Consider religious beliefs  

The fact that not all the clients celebrate Christmas, Easter or other big holidays of the Christian world should be taken into account. Giving a gift to someone who cannot accept it because of their religious beliefs can make both the gift giver and the gift recipient uncomfortable. To avoid this, you can simply ask if they celebrate Christmas, for example, without getting into specifics about their religious preferences. It might be better to send a small token after the completion of a big project instead of a gift on a significant holiday.


Every time someone gives you a gift or does something special for you, always show good manners by sending a thank you note later, regardless of the occasion.

To receive a present graciously, always open it when the person is with you. Always show enthusiasm and try and engage beyond a simple thank you for casually given gifts. If you know you are unlikely to write a thank you note, call them to say thank you, or send a WhatsApp or text message; it’s not ideal, but is better than nothing!

It's the thought that counts

In the end, it’s important to consider whether you are giving the appropriate type of gift, the value of the gift, the occasion when it should be presented, the way it should be presented, even the colours which should be avoided. 

However, business gifts need not be sent out for Christmas only; there are several different groups of people that might warrant receiving a gift. When it’s difficult to decide who should be given a gift (whatever time of year), a good general rule of thumb is to send gifts to the people who help make your company successful.  

“The manner of giving is worth more than the gift” goes a wise old saying. And that couldn’t be truer than in the case of corporate gifting, where every interaction counts in terms of the experience that it delivers. 

You can read Orla’s last piece of corporate gift-giving here.

Orla Brosnan is the CEO of the Etiquette School of Ireland