Gift giving is symbolic in every culture. In Canada, giving a gift to business associates and colleagues is often a sign that you respect the effort made to visit you and to signify something about the relationship—its beginning, the continuity, or the forging of a new aspect to the relationship. While these underlying motives can apply across cultures, the actual gift given is often quite symbolic and can create anxiety for hosts of international visitors.
What is the right gift? And what do you do if you receive a gift? Here are some things to keep in mind:
Some cultures place emphasis on numbers and colors. For example in China, giving gifts in single or odd numbers can imply loneliness or separation, while gifts given in pairs (except four) are highly appropriate, as it equates to good luck. Colors and the way a gift is wrapped can also hold a great deal of significance.
Some categories of gifts may offend certain cultures. For example, a letter opener looks like a knife and implies severing a relationship to a visitor from Japan or Latin American countries. Cows are sacred in India, so you should avoid leather gifts. The word for clock in Mandarin sounds like the word for death, so clocks are generally not given to Chinese people. Remember that not all visitors from these cultures will be offended; use your best judgment or ask someone from the same culture for advice.
Keep in mind that the recipient will have to transport the gift back home. It is best to avoid heavy, burdensome gifts.
Don’t expect that the visitor will open the gift in front of you. Cultures vary in the custom of whether a gift is opened in front of the giver. Do not force a visitor to open a gift, though you can encourage the visitor by explaining it is customary in Canada to open a gift right away. If you aren’t sure what to do with a gift given to you, ask, “Is this something I should open now?”