Avoid Offence By Learning The Gift Giving Rules In Different Coutries and Cultures


In the West gift giving rules and gift etiquette tend to be restricted to price, relationship to the person and the occasion. These things I cover in this blog . In some cultures however there are very particular gift giving rules which can cause great offence if ignored. This article aims to cover those cultural gift giving no-no’s.

Please DO add to this article with your own knowledge and experiences re this topic in comments.

There are a few articles on the web that focus on Chinese and Japanese gift giving practices. Saudi Arabia also receives a mention. I have reached out to my global network to get their feedback re this and their answers are what will be featured here. I believe they reflect what is ‘known’ and what is common practice. There may be traditions that elders may be aware of that newer generation may either not know about or simply may not adhere to.

What we want to know here is – what is acceptable TODAY. That said ‘let the games begin’! 

I will start with the least expected culture to get a mention – the West.

Western Gift Etiquette

We in the West do have rules – they’re just so ingrained we barely consider them, we just observe them  innately.

These rules are thus:

    • Red roses as a bouquet gift are for those we are romantically involved with only – a dozen on Valentines day or as a single.
    • Giving PETS as gifts is highly frowned upon and to be discouraged.
    • Perfume and Jewelry gifts are suitable for friends, family, partners – NOT work colleagues, bosses or business associates, neighbors etc. Any great expense or ‘intimate’ seeming gift would leave a ‘periphery acquaintance” uncertain of your intentions or feelings towards them. Your gift could be grossly misinterpreted.
    • We do not give gifts at funerals – but we do send sympathy cards and flowers and wreaths to the home of the deceased’s family or funeral parlor. We may also giver close friends and family memorial gifts.
    • We consider a cash gift as lacking thought (though this is becoming more welcome especially amongst marrying couples and the younger generation). A Gift Card is a more acceptable alternative.
    • Flowers are sent as gifts by way of congratulations, sympathy or thanks or to celebrate a ‘day’. Different flowers will mark those different occasions. Your florist will know.
    • It is polite to write a thank you note after receiving a gift.
    • Gifts are gift wrapped with a gift tag or other identification.
    • Price tags are removed from gifts. Some now issue receipts for the recipient to ‘return’ the gift if desired. I personally do not agree with returning gifts or this practice.
    • We generally gift on the following occasions: Birthday, Religious Holiday, Mother’s DayFather’s Day etc, Wedding Day, Valentines Day, New Home, Graduation, Retirement (co-worker), Leaving gift (co-worker) ..this seems like an endless list of gift giving opportunities! Start saving.

  • Gifts (including monetary tips) from customers to service personnel are generally not allowed and have to be refused – work rules! Some establishments don’t mind, these tend to be restaurants (tips), salons and similar. If the gift was of high value, it would almost certainly be refused.
  • Homemade food gifts would be a no-no for anyone other than family. The food may contain ingredients the person is allergic to or they may just not ‘trust’ that the food is safe to eat.
  • Giving religious items to a non-religious person is a big no-no.
  • Clothes that are too large or too small – big faux pas!
  • Real fun, snake skin, crocodile skin etc. frowned upon and illegal in some cases.

There is more than you thought I bet, and now the ball is rolling I am sure you can think of more!

Gifts to avoid giving

To be on the safe side – if you do not know what may cause offence when buying for someone of a different culture avoid the following:

Avoid gifts of food, drink, flowers, number related and do not give anything sharp such as scissors or knives. Different flowers and their colors represent different things to different cultures. Sharp items generally refer to severing of ties in those cultures that consider such things. Alcohol is of course a no-no in many cultures and food items such as pork or beef could also be very unwelcome as can cow hide bags and so on. When giving a gift also consider what that country or culture is famous for. Do not give them something that could offend their national pride.

Avoid political, sexual, religious, illegal anything gifts, or joke gifts or t-shirts displaying anything pertaining to these no-no’s.

Chinese gift giving etiquette rules

Chinese Gift giving etiquette and practices, the main considerations are:

No clocks, no black or white gift wrap, no red ink writing on cards etc. and no handkerchiefs’. These things are considered reminiscent of death, illness, sadness and so on. Also avoid socks and shoes as gifts.

Japanese gift giving etiquette

Avoid giving white flowers, lilies, lotus blossoms, camellias and potted plants as gifts – these are associated with sickness and death. The numbers ‘4 or 9’ appearing in a gift is unwelcome – though less so among the younger generation. No red cards as this is the color for Funeral notices.

Korean Gift Giving Rules

Koreans have particular practices – read about those here. Avoid anything with the number ‘4’.

Saudi Arabia Gift Giving Rules

Saudi Arabia has multiple rules of what is acceptable and not acceptable and certain things are not allowed at all.

Obvious no-no’s re gifts would be anything to do with or giving reference to: alcohol and pork. Less obvious may be a t-shirt with writing or graphics which could be considered sexual, provocative – offensive to their religion’. Avoid anything political, sexual, derogatory, religious when giving gifts. When receiving gifts, it is rude to refuse. Do not open the gift in the presence of the gift giver.

No flowers for women

What are your experiences of cross-cultural gift giving?