Many countries and cultures have wide variations in their historical backgrounds and development, and this has brought about different and even conflicting practices. For instance, in some cultures making loud slurping noises while eating noodles is seen as rude, while, in other cultures, it’s a sign of appreciation to the cook. So you can imagine how jarring it can be to go from one context to the other, and vice versa. Gift giving is another practice where different cultures do things in a wide variety of ways. Social cues may work very differently, and an attempt to show appreciation might end up as an insult to the host. That said, it must also be emphasized that many gift-giving practices are different, even within regions. So the residents of Alaska and Florida may do some things differently, even if they’re both in North America. What follows are some specific examples.
North America (Example: the United States)
In the United States, it usually isn’t considered mandatory to bring a present to a birthday party or other similar celebration. Guests can, of course, voluntarily choose to bring a gift, but it isn’t necessarily considered rude to not have a present with you. One situation where a gift may be considered mandatory is if you’re staying over at a person’s home. In this case, a small gift would be a good idea. Also, giving expensive or lavish gifts to people with whom one is doing business tends to be considered inappropriate, because it may portray the wrong impression that a bribe is being intended. So this is something that should generally be avoided.
South America (Example: Brazil)
If you’re going to be attending a dinner party, make it a point to bring some flowers to give to the host as a sign of appreciation. This is something that people will usually expect. When choosing flowers and wrapping paper, try to avoid flowers, bouquets or wrapping paper with shades of purple or black. Those colors are associated with death, grief and mourning, and so should not make an appearance in any gift ideas. Another thing to avoid is giving gifts to people, which contain the name, logo or some other visual connection to your business. The problem here is that people will respond to it negatively, seeing it as an attempt to promote your company, as opposed to being a sincere show of appreciation. So it’s better to avoid this.
Europe (Example: Germany)
One of the things to watch out for is that flowers of certain colors can imply messages that may not be what you meant to say. So for example, if you end up going to a dinner party, it’s considered polite to send flowers to the host the next day. Don’t send red roses though, because that gives the impression that you’re looking for romance. Don’t send carnations or chrysanthemums either, because these flower varieties are connected to death and funerals. Also, a bottle of wine is not generally a good choice for a gift because it sends the subtle message that your host does not have good wine to offer. This is one of those situations where an attempt to be polite could end up insulting your host, so be very cautious.
The Middle East (Example: Saudi Arabia)
In some other regions or countries, the usual practice is to set aside a gift once it’s been received, but in Saudi Arabia, the practice is different. Once a gift is received, the recipient is expected to open it right away and carefully scrutinize and look it over. This is done to show that the recipient appreciates receiving it. So if you are giving a present, expect to experience this after you have handed over your present. Out of politeness, be sure to offer the gift with your right hand if possible, since there are negative connotations associated with the left. In addition, make sure to avoid giving gifts made of leather or other materials derived from pigs. These animals are generally considered unclean, and would, therefore, make such a gift unacceptable to many. There is a similar thing going on with bottles of wine. Just because your host drinks or serves wine, do not assume that this makes a gift of wine acceptable. At the very least, other guests who do not drink may become offended. So it is better to avoid this.
Africa (Example: Ghana)
Unlike in North America, someone who is invited to a residence or a community in Ghana, particularly a non-local, is expected to bring some sort of present. Unlike in the Middle East, a gift involving liquor can make for a fine and suitable present. However, similar to Middle Eastern countries, you should give gifts with your right hand instead of the left. Also, gift giving and business tend to go hand in hand. The general idea is that if you are happy with the work that was carried out for you, you are expected to show appreciation by giving a gift. That said, this could become a complicated situation when carrying out work with government employees. A gift given to a government worker can be construed as a bribe, with negative consequences. So it is best to tread very carefully when it comes to this kind of situation.
Asia (example: Thailand)
Gifts are a big deal in Asian culture, but there are also many opportunities to make a social gaffe. In the case of Thailand, the local culture tends to frown on overly lavish or expensive presents, which is due in part to the strong presence of Buddhism. Flowers are an obvious choice when it comes to giving a modest gift to express appreciation; one still has to be careful. Don’t give marigolds because this flower variety is associated with death and funerals. Also, since certain numbers are seen as unlucky or worse, consider the number of flowers in the bouquet. If you want to wish person luck, go with three flowers because that number is associated with good fortune. On the other hand, avoid giving items in batches of six, because that’s the number associated with ill luck. Unlike in North America, people who are invited to a wedding ceremony are expected to bring a present, which usually comes in the form of some money inside an envelope. In relation to Buddhism, keep in mind that presents associated with the feet are not a good idea, because of the low regard this religion has for that part of the human body. Avoid socks, slippers, stockings, shoes and the like.
Australasia (example: New Zealand)
Similar to Saudi Arabia, the expectation in New Zealand is for the gift to be opened upon receipt, also to show appreciation to the gift giver. Gifts are not generally required in certain social settings. They’re more like voluntary actions done to show appreciation for someone. As in some of the other regions, the important thing is to make sure that you are not seen as trying to bribe someone. That could get you in a lot of trouble or inadvertently insult the gift recipient. So consider the surrounding context carefully, to see if the gift might seem like you trying to buy influence or favor. Because of this, it’s usually better to go with a token present, of modest value. Unlike in some European countries, a bottle of wine will make a perfectly suitable gift in many circumstances. Or you could also give chocolate or flowers.