When administrators at the University of Pittsburgh wanted to send gifts to some Chinese research partners last year, they chose crystal clocks. "It was almost a disaster," says Patricia Stranahan, director of the university's Asian Studies Program. Why? In China, clocks are seen as symbols of death because the character for clock is pronounced the same as the character for "final resting place." Fortunately, a China-born school librarian caught the blunder before damage was done.
In this era of global trade, valued clients and colleagues are as likely to be from Timbuktu as Topeka. To avert gift gaffes, you need to research cultural and religious traditions. "Give when it's appropriate in the culture," says Hilka Klinkenberg, president of New York-based Etiquette International, which advises corporate clients on global protocol. A gift sent to mark your own holiday can be read as a sign of ignorance, or worse, ethnocentrism.
Many cultures give gifts during holidays that coincide with the winter solstice. But unlike Christmas, which occurs on the same day every year (Dec. 25 on the Gregorian calendar or Jan. 7 on the Eastern Orthodox, Julian calendar), many holidays change depending on lunar phases and religious timetables. The Jewish festival of Hanukkah generally falls some time in December (after sundown, Dec. 3, this year), while many Asians exchange gifts at the Chinese New Year, which will be on Feb. 5 next year. Holiday dates are listed on such Web sites as www.religioustolerance.org/main_day.htm#cal and dir.yahoo.com/society_and_culture/holidays_and_observances.
Once you find out when to give, consider the thornier issue: what to give. "This is where you can really stick your foot in it," says Terri Morrison, author of Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business in Sixty Countries (Adams Media, $19.95). A bit of reflection on religious strictures will prevent you from offending your Muslim partner with liqueur-spiked chocolates. But more subtle cultural pitfalls abound. For instance, a sterling silver picture frame might please someone from Britain, but a Mexican could associate it with trinkets sold to tourists. "Give up on trying to find a gift that is perfect for all your international clients," says Roger Axtell, editor of Do's and Taboos Around the World (John Wiley & Sons, $15.95). Instead, he advises, get to know their tastes. "Find out what they collect, what their hobbies are, or notice what it is they admire while on a trip to the U.S.," he says.
BAD WRAP. To be safe, you might have a person from the same country and religious affiliation as the recipient vet your choices. Or you can contact protocol officers at embassies and consulates. A list of diplomatic offices in the U.S. is available at www.embpage.org.
Even after your gift gets an O.K., you're still not out of the woods. You've got to wrap the thing. White wrapping paper is ill-advised for a gift destined for some Asian nations where white is the color of mourning. Same goes for purple in many South American countries, such as Brazil.
Shipping is another hurdle. Be aware that a gift recipient may have to pay duties, depending on the country, the item, and its declared value, says Donald Fischer, PricewaterhouseCoopers' director of world trade management. To prevent such an occurrence, send your gift "delivery duty paid," or DDP, which means you will be charged for any customs fees. You might have a shipper such as Federal Express shepherd your packages through customs, especially in countries where officials are less than honest. In some parts of the world, it's not unusual for gifts to be stolen or, in the case of food items, sampled by customs officials. A half-eaten food basket is not filled with holiday cheer.