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Culture Differences: Analysis of Gift-giving Conventions in Businesses Under Western and East Asian Cultural Backgrounds

C ulture can be regarded as the driving force behind social norms and behaviors shared by a group of people. Some culturally specific conventions are expressed in the way of gift-giving. For instance, gift-giving is not required in business in Brazil. But in East Asia, gifting-behavior is a crucial part in business since people value respect and intention to build trust with business partners. In some countries, people prefer personalized gifts while in some other countries people barely pay attention to the uniqueness of gifts. (Moran et al. 2014, p. 13). The cultural difference can lead to misunderstanding and conflicts in intercultural communication. Previous research showed that better relationships between business partners would enhance effectiveness of communication and increase profits (Li, 2012). With the development of international business in the twenty-first century, the ability to understand and manage cultural differences is required more than ever for successful business.

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History of Gifting

There is a long history of gift-giving in East Asia. In ancient China, gifting was one of the most important methods to establish and maintain social relationships between individuals and between countries. There is an old saying from the Han dynasty that said, ‘Travel a thousand miles to bestow a goose feather--a small gift may be a token of profound friendship.’ Gifting conventions are influenced by Confucianism intensively in East Asia. Confucian ethics proposed the significance of gifting extends beyond the individual behavior, but it has political importance. Confucianism stated that stable social relationships shape a good country, and the practice of ritual is the only way to achieve such social relationships. Gift exchanging is a fundamental step of ritual practice. Thus, gift giving necessarily takes the function of maintaining social harmony. (Mullis, 2008). Many gift-giving etiquettes from ancient ages have been preserved and inherited in Asian countries. The origin of gift-giving between businesses in western world can be traced back to ancient Greece imperial civilizations. It was pervasive for citizens to practice trade outside their own group. Trade was initiated by the medium of gifts, which aims to establish a guest-friendship tie before the exchange of commodities. According to the Greek epic poem Odyssey, when Athena arrives in Ithaca for a mission of exchanging iron for copper, she is greeted by the cry “Welcome, to our hospitality! You can tell us what has brought you when you have had some food.” (Morris,1986) proposed that in ancient Greece ‘as shown by Archaic Greek evidence, the obligation to return gifts is presented as social, political, economic and moral, and the gift is not treated as an extension of the person.’

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Culturally specific gifting behaviors

Gift selection
Gift selection usually depends on the perception of the giver to the receiver and their relationship, as well as purpose of gifting (Schwartz, 1967). According to the journal 42 gifts to your business partner by an American career website Indeed, gifts such as clocks, snow globe, candle and calendars are on the list. Gifts are given as a souvenir without anticipation of reciprocity in building a business relationship for western people. Instead, the story behind the gift and the affection that gift expresses is emphasized. East Asian people tend to behave similarly with Western people under the circumstances that reciprocity rule is not triggered. In this case, a gift usually does not have high monetary value. Such action is similar to the Chinese old saying 'Travel a thousand miles to bestow a goose feather--a small gift may be a token of profound friendship.’ Schweitzer & Alexander (2015) raised a good case: “Taiwanese are big on regifting, which is a positive activity here. For example, we might bring a cowboy hat from Texas to a client, who then passes it on to a customer of theirs with the message that it's a genuine Texas hat like one worn by a famous actor in a well-known movie.” (p. 324) East Asian people put a lot of attention on the symbolic meaning of the gifts so there are more taboos of gift-selection in East Asia. Typically, A set of four objects is usually avoided as gift selection across most East Asian countries due to the number ‘four’ has same pronunciation as “death.” Sending a clock as a gift will be considered a curse in China since ‘sending clock’ is pronounced the same as “sending someone to death” in Chinese.
Response for gifts
In terms of gift-receiving, more politeness-strategies are applied in east Asian conventions. Schweitzer & Alexander (2015) described the social etiquette of receiving a gift in Korea. The recipient needs to decline a gift at first, and then accept it after the giver insisted and return a gift as reciprocity next time. The person with higher status receives a more valuable gift than others. (p. 57) China has the same similar politeness strategy when receiving a gift from others. In addition, opening the gift without the presence of the giver is one of the polite strategies in East Asia. While in western countries, the recipient usually opens the gift and shows appreciation in the presence of the giver.

Analysis of cross-cultural gifting-behaviors (Belk, 1976).

As discussed above, east Asian people and westerners share similarities in terms of giving and receiving gifts. Such similarities reflect the universally applied obligations. There are three major obligations involved in gift-giving behavior based on examination. (Mauss and Evans-Peitchard, 1950) People send gifts in particular circumstances due to the ‘obligation to give’ which is derived from the willingness to complete moral missions, maintain social relationships, and the norm of reciprocity.

For instance, people give presents on friends’ birthdays on account of the friendship between them in both east Asia and North America. ‘Obligation to receive’ refers to the circumstances when people must receive gifts from others. Since in both cultures refusing a gift is acknowledged as expressing hostility and hatred. However, it is usual to express polite decline a few times before receiving the gift due to the socially accepted politeness strategy in East Asia. The third norm is ‘obligation to repay’ which states the responsibility to reciprocate the gift giver by other means. Bribe behavior is based on expecting the recipient to offer benefits. (Smart, 1993). The consequence of failure to return benefits includes reduction in self-esteem level and social status of the receiver. Thus, gift recipients are unconsciously anxious about not being able to ‘repay’ the gift from others. (p. 37-40) The ‘obligation to repay’ is particularly significant in East Asia due to the culture attaching importance to collectivism and this is going to be elaborated in the next section. Different social patterns present in east Asian and western cultures have been proved to explain the observed difference in general gifting frameworks. Individualism and Collectivism are in the opposite side to each other in the field of social psychology. Normally, east Asian countries are considered to be collectivistic countries. Collectivism assumes everyone is in society closely connected by specific social relationships, such as friends, partners, families or co-workers. Individuals are interdependent of each other, and they are primarily responsible for social norms and collective interests. On the contrary, individualism emphasizes the uniqueness and independence of each person that people comply with their personal interests and preferences. Individualism dominates in most countries in North America and Europe (Triandis, 2018, p. 2).

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Social patterns would influence attitudes for reciprocity. Shen et.al (2011) conducted five experiments and showed that Americans are more likely to ignore reciprocity rules than east Asians when accepting gifts. However, east Asians are inclined to refuse gifts to avoid uninvited debt from people that they hardly repay. American people show that personal factors provide stronger motivation for altruistic behaviors than the power of reciprocity norm (Miller & Bersoff 1994). These findings reflect the dominance of collectivism in the mental process that makes people pay high attention to ‘obligation to repay.’ in east Asia. Social behaviors trigger norms of reciprocity more frequently in east Asian society than in western countries. The high attention to social norms in east Asia underlines the sensitivity to taboos and politeness strategies.


In general, application of appropriate gifting strategies in both east Asian and western businesses facilitate the expression of friendship and establishment of trustworthy relationships. The three obligations function as major motivations for giving and receiving gifts in both cultures. Nevertheless, gifting in the western world is simpler than in east Asia to some extent due to the different degree of presence of individualism in two cultures. People in individualistic countries show more caution in gift selection, gift-giving and gift-receiving strategies on account of higher demand for sustaining social harmony in east Asia than in the West. Such demand can be seen as an inheritance from Confucian ethics.

Linshan. W
Psychology Blogger,
The Shared Secrets Lab,
GiftAFeeling Inc.

Read The Official Research Paper On - Culture difference: analysis of gifting conventions in business under Western and east Asian culture background

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