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Giving Gifts in Different Cultures

An aspect of artifactual communication that’s frequently overlooked is the giving of gifts, a practice in which rules and customs vary according to each culture. Here are a few situations where gift giving backfired and created barriers rather than bonds. These examples are designed to heighten your awareness of both the importance of gift giving and of recognizing intercultural differences. What might have gone wrong in each of these situations? These few examples should serve to illustrate the wide variations that exist among cultures in the meaning given to artifacts and in the seemingly simple process of giving gifts (Axtell 1990a, Dresser 1996).

1. You bring chrysanthemums to a Belgian colleague and a clock to a Chinese colleague. Both react negatively.

2. Upon meeting an Arab businessman for the first time—someone with whom you wish to do considerable business—you present him with a gift. He seems to become disturbed. To smooth things over, when you go to visit him and his family in Oman, you bring a bottle of your favorite brandy for after dinner. Your host seems even more disturbed now.

3. Arriving for dinner at the home of a Kenyan colleague, you present flowers as a dinner gift. Your host accepts them politely but looks puzzled. The next evening you visit your Swiss colleague and bring 14 red roses. Your host accepts them politely but looks strangely at you. Figuring that the red got you in trouble, on your third evening out you bring yellow roses to your Iranian friend. Again, there was a similar reaction.

4. You give your Chinese friend a set of dinner knives as a gift but she doesn’t open it in front of you; you get offended. After she opens it, she gets offended.

5. You bring your Mexican friend a statue of an elephant drinking water from a lake. Your friend says he cannot accept it; his expressions tell you he really doesn’t want it.

Here are some possible reasons why these gifts may have had negative effects: (1) Chrysanthemums in Belgium and clocks in China are both reminders of death and that time is running out. (2) Gifts given at the first meeting may be interpreted as a bribe and thus should be avoided. Further, alcohol is prohibited by Islamic law, so should be avoided when selecting gifts for most Arabs. (3) In Kenya, flowers are only brought to express condolence. In Switzerland red roses are a sign of romantic interest. Also, an even number of flowers (or 13) is generally considered bad luck, so should be avoided. Yellow flowers to Iranians signify the enemy and means that you dislike them. (4) The custom in China is simply not to open gifts in front of the donor. Knives (and scissors) symbolize the severing of a relationship. (5) Among many Latin Americans the elephant’s upward trunk symbolizes a holding of good luck; an elephant’s downward trunk symbolizes luck slipping away.

Are there gifts that you would consider culturally inappropriate for you to receive? What are the reasons behind this belief or custom? How did you learn about the cultural appropriateness of gifts?

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