“Don’t gift wrap the steak knives just yet!”
When it comes to gift giving, sometimes, the age-old adage, “it’s the thought that counts” just doesn’t apply. If you are a real estate practitioner focused on global business, you know that international transactions are often more challenging than domestic. The same can be said for international gift giving protocol. Customs vary greatly from country to country, so, before you gift wrap your next closing present, make sure you have done your research. If you don’t take into consideration cultural differences, a token of thanks could unintentionally cause offense, or make you look foolish.
Case in point…you may recall a diplomatic snafu jovially referred to as giftgate. In March 2009, newly elected US President Barak Obama hosted meetings at the White House with then-UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown. As is customary with official leadership visits, the two heads of state exchanged gifts. Prime Minister Brown presented President Obama with a penholder made out of wood from the Victorian anti-slave ship, HMS Ganet. Timber from the Ganet’s sister ship, the HMS Resolute, was used to build the Resolute Desk, a gift from Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. The desk has resided in the Oval Office for over 100 years.
Obama’s gift to Brown was a boxset of DVD’s featuring 25 classic American movies. While the boxset included a number of Obama’s favorite films, many UK citizens were not impressed and felt that the gift was a slight. The press had a field day. The UK Telegraph, reported “Barack Obama, the leader of the world’s richest country, gave the Prime Minister a box set of 25 classic American films – a gift about as exciting as a pair of socks.” Adding insult to injury, the DVDs were formatted for American technology. If Brown wanted to watch a DVD when he returned to 10 Downing Street, he would have to purchase both a US DVD player and an electric adapter.
International gift giving best practices
Giftgate illustrates a number of lessons global real estate practitioners should consider before they purchase gifts for their international clients. First and foremost, to avoid a gift-giving faux pas, do your research! You may be surprised that some of the most common closing gifts─ champagne, steak knives, clocks, to name a few, could prove problematic depending on your client’s culture. In fact, sometimes, the most appropriate gift is no gift at all.
As a best practice, regardless of your client’s origin, avoid purchasing presents that have religious or political connotations. Humorous gifts should also be avoided. What’s funny to you, could be offense to others, and jokes often get lost in translation. And while you may be tempted to give your Swiss clients chocolate and your French clients wine, the Washington Center for Protocol, a Washington DC firm specializing in etiquette protocol, does not recommend giving gifts or products that that are abundant in a particular country to a native of the country.
Do’s & don’ts
Below are gift giving recommendations highlighting cultural idiosyncrasies from various countries around the world. While being sensitive to cultural etiquette is important no matter where your client is from, you should pay particular attention to etiquette guidelines if you are working with clients from Asia, the Middle East, and parts of Latin America.
For a more complete list of country-specific guidelines, as well as additional information on cultural and business practices worldwide, check out NAR's Certified International Property Specialist (CIPS) designation courses.