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Wednesday
Dec142011

Gifts across cultures

From a cultural perspective gifts can be a challenging issue. I was laughing with some colleagues recently about my embarrassing faux pas, years ago in China, asking the shop assistant to wrap a wedding gift in white paper. Very appropriate in Australia, but very inappropriate in China where the colour white is traditionally associated more with death and mourning. My colleagues had similar stories about their experiences in China of almost giving inappropriate gifts such as a clock and a set of knives.

In a recent cultural briefing for an expat heading to a Pacific Island destination we discussed the issue of reciprocity. This cultural value places an unspoken expectation on the receiver that they will at some future point return a similar value gift. If the expat gives a generous gift this may place the recipient in a difficult position as they will seek to reciprocate in the future.

These aspects fit into the Knowledge component of cultural intelligence. A cultural briefing, cultural mentor or information source for a culture will contain the knowledge and information about the things to avoid, about good gifts to give in different situations and the way to give a gift.

While we may not always have the specific knowledge for every culture we meet in the global workplace we can have the cultural intelligence to give with sensitivity. In many cultures gifts are given with two hands and opened privately to avoid possible embarrassment. This is in contrast to the Australian custom where gifts are often opened and thanks expressed on the spot.

Traditions, superstitions and expectations define what we “should” and “shouldn’t” give. Often our first challenge is to recognise that what makes sense and seems right to us may be very “wrong” somewhere else. So our challenge is to use the strategic component of our cultural intelligence; recognising that our instant response to a gift; (or to the receiver’s response to our gift) is “not right or wrong, just different!”

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