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When It's Not Just the Thought That Counts.  The delicate art of choosing a gift for an Asian executive.

By Minda Zetlin

An American auto company and a Japanese auto company agreed to start a joint venture together. To commemorate the occasion, top executives from each presented their counterparts with a lavish gift.

The American company gave the Japanese company the car of the future--a high-tech vehicle that represented the very top of the American company's product line. The Japanese, on the other hand, gave the Americans a very old, museum-quality print of an important scene from Japanese culture.

The moment they saw that print, the Americans realized they'd made a terrible mistake. Though both gifts were of comparable value, the messages they conveyed were unmistakably different. The Japanese had given the Americans a piece of their own culture. By comparison, the American car looked like showing off. And though the Japanese accepted it graciously, the American who'd chosen the car later said he'd missed a tremendous opportunity to draw the two companies closer and cement the bonds of friendship.  Few acts as well-intentioned as gift-giving have the same potential for creating misunderstanding when dealing with an Asian contact. The right gift can deepen a relationship. The wrong gift can cause bad feelings. Unfortunately, so can the right gift, if it's given the wrong way, at the wrong time, to the wrong person, or even in the wrong gift wrap. No wonder many American executives approach this issue with trepidation.  Begin by considering the Asian principle of obligation, which the Japanese call giri. This means you risk embarrassing your Asian counterpart, causing loss of face, if you present a gift when he or she doesn't have one for you.

"If you happen to be passing through town, stop by to see someone for an hour, and give a gift, he doesn't owe you one," explains Scott Seligman, senior vice president and managing director of public affairs in China for Burson-Marsteller. But in a more formal situation, he warns, an unexpected gift can cause loss of face.

"The way around it is to make it clear ahead of time that you're going to give a gift," he says. "Then they can decide if they want to reciprocate."

For similar reasons, it's important to give gifts that are not disproportionately lavish: you could inadvertently impose an obligation on the recipient to return a gift as nice or nicer.

"I've known many expatriates who've gotten into a sort of gift-giving war," says Lee Ann Southorn, cross-cultural program design manager for Windham International, a relocation and training firm. "People get into trouble with valuable things like silver and gold plates when they haven't first established a deep relationship. Once you start at that level, you can only go up."

She also warns against complimenting an Asian person's possessions: you could end up owning the item in question. Giri would then oblige you to return at least as nice a gift.  Unfortunately, the practice of praising a host's home and possessions is so deeply ingrained in American etiquette that people sometimes find themselves doing it even when they know better. In fact, this once happened to Southorn herself. When visiting a Japanese family she'd known for three years, she admired a beautiful porcelain vase, and they gave it to her.

"It was an heirloom," she says. "My heart sort of aches when I see it, knowing what it meant to that family. And I couldn't possibly refuse it or give it back to them."  At the time, she recalls, she didn't have the means to return a gift of equal value, something her Japanese hosts were aware of. Instead, she sent them some pottery from her home town, a place her hosts would probably never have the opportunity to visit.  You can also cause loss of face by giving a gift to the wrong person, or neglecting to give a gift to the right one. John Celentano, president of Global Ventures Group, Inc., an international marketing and development firm, still recalls with embarrassment an innocent misstep he made when meeting a group of Japanese business associates at a his New York club. He had brought a gift for each member of the visiting group, but didn't have one for the agent who put the deal together.

"I looked at him as part of my own team, so didn't include him as a gift recipient," Celentano says. "But by not giving him a gift, I'd caused him to lose face."  The agent was a Japanese expatriate who'd lived in the United States for many years and become attuned to American forthrightness. So he did a very un-Japanese thing: after the meeting he told Celentano what he'd done.

"A Japanese person not familiar with the American environment probably would not have told me and I would never have known." Like most gift-giving gaffes, he adds, this one could have been avoided by asking for advice beforehand from a cross-cultural contact, in this case the agent himself.

The etiquette of giving

How a gift is presented can be at least as important as the gift itself. In Japan, for instance, a gift between people who've established a good relationship may come wrapped in a furoshiki, a beautiful piece of silk. Though furoshikis have sometimes been used as scarves by the uninitiated, the traditional thing to do with a furoshiki is wrap it around a present to someone you care about and pass it along.

Even without a furoshiki, wrapping is extremely important when giving a gift in Japan. "Rather than bringing a gift, it may be a better idea to buy something in a duty-free shop on-site, where they'll wrap it appropriately," says Marian Stoltz-Loike, Ph.D., vice president of Windham International, and head of the firm's cross-cultural program. If you do bring a gift from home, she adds, consider leaving it unwrapped, and then using the gift-wrapping service at a Japanese department store or hotel.

Throughout Asia, it's important to pay attention to the color of the gift wrap: white, commonly used in the West, is in bad taste because it's associated with funerals. Red, particularly in Chinese-influenced cultures, and yellow are usually considered festive.  Don't be surprised if, once you present the gift, the recipient thanks you and then leaves it unopened. This is normal practice--though some Asians who are accustomed to dealing with Westerners will open presents on the spot in accordance with our etiquette.

"Traditionally, nobody opens a present in front of the giver," Seligman says. "We have this ludicrous idea that not only do you have to open it, but you have to ooh and ah and pretend it's what you've been waiting for all your life. They don't have much use for this."

What not to give

Chinese tradition also means using extra care when giving a gift of more than one item (such as a set of glasses). Four is considered such an unlucky number that many buildings have no fourth floor, just as most American buildings have no 13th floor. A pair of items is usually a good bet, and the number eight is considered particularly auspicious.

And it's a bad idea to give a clock to anyone from a Chinese culture. "The reason is an unfortunate pun," Seligman explains. "The syllables song zhong mean to give a clock, but they could also mean to attend a dying parent." If the recipient is at all superstitious, the gift of a clock can seem like a bad omen. (Watches present no problem: as in English, the word is different.)

Other items can give offense for religious reasons: liquor of any kind is probably a bad choice in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, where a significant proportion of the population is Muslim. On the other hand, a fine whiskey or wine will likely be appreciated in other Asian countries. 

And, everywhere in Asia, be careful of anything that depicts or even suggests the human body, even if it's something so seemingly harmless as a painting or print. Most apparel is equally dangerous, according to Hiro Sato, director of research and planning for the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) in New York City. "The exception is something like an expensive scarf," he says. "Anything that requires measurement of the body is no good."
Most experienced businesspeople have learned that American humor rarely translates well in Asian cultures, but those who haven't should be warned that humorous gifts are no more likely to be appreciated than bad jokes.

"An American company was engaged in a very prolonged, difficult negotiation with the Chinese government," Stoltz-Loike says. "When they were finally going to sign the deal, the Americans decided to bring the Chinese a gift. It was a snail, made of crystal, to signify that the negotiations had moved at a snail's pace. The Chinese understood, and they were horribly offended."

It's too bad, she adds, that this company chose to focus on the negative. "Instead of highlighting that the negotiations were successful, they highlighted the fact that they take time. But isn't that normal in China? And isn't it normal in many parts of Asia, and even many parts of the United States?"

A final concern should be the legality of the gift, both according to the law of the country in question, and its compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Trade Practices Act which forbids American companies giving bribes abroad. 

"The gist of the law is that you cannot give someone something in anticipation of getting something in return," says Bill Fontana, vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council, and until recently, an expatriate executive of Citibank. Ambiguities arise however, if a gift is given at the start of, say, a joint venture. This is why most experts recommend getting legal advice before giving any highly valuable gift.

Anti-corruption laws are so stringent in Singapore that it's simplest to give no gifts at all there. For the same reason, they probably won't be expected. In China, the culture might encourage lavish gift giving, but Chinese law forbids business executives from receiving valuable gifts. "It's an instance where official rules and cultural custom are a bit at odds," Seligman notes. To stay on the safe side of the law, he recommends limiting the price tag on gifts to individuals at around $25.

Show who you are

What types of gifts are particularly appreciated? "Give something typical of the town you come from," advises Celentano, adding that he often gives local products from Wilton, Conn., where Global Ventures is based.

Southorn agrees. "When I lived in Vermont, I sent gift baskets full of Vermont cheeses and Vermont maple syrup, things that would be hard to find in Asia. They were always very well received."

The underlying principle is worth noting. Obviously, the intent of any gift is to deepen the relationship between the giver and the recipient. Less obvious, at least to most Americans, is the idea that providing information about who you are and where you come from will do just that.

"In our cross-cultural programs, we find repeatedly that Americans don't focus on history and origins as much as other cultures do," Stoltz-Loike explains. "Asians have a great sense of history and a need for understanding background and culture and environment." 
Many Asian business leaders would like to know more about their Western contacts' backgrounds, she continues, but rules of courtesy forbid asking such questions directly. A present that tells about the giver--either about your background, or perhaps about a hobby or interest--is an elegant way to satisfy this curiosity.

Another wise strategy is to remember that Asian cultures often stress group rather than individual identity, and to give a gift, such as food, that a whole group from your counterpart's organization can enjoy together. This is why experts sometimes recommend treating several of your contacts to a lavish meal as a better alternative than giving an individual gift. This is particularly true, Stoltz-Loike adds, in South Korea, where sharing food is a deeply ingrained part of forming relationships.

One American company took this group gift idea one step further when setting up a joint venture in China: instead of giving an expensive gift, the company made a large donation to the municipality where the new business would be located. The town used the money to refurbish its park and make other capital improvements. The new joint venture got a nicer place to do business. And the Chinese were so pleased that on their next trip, the American company's executives were given a coveted private tour of the Forbidden City.

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