The Complexities of Gift Giving
I recently had lunch with a young American chap, who just arrived in Hong Kong to take up his first international assignment. His employer, a financial institution, thoughtfully arranged a series of briefings on Hong Kong which included some cultural background, do’s and don’ts, and so on, all of which he consumed with interest and enthusiasm.
Coincidentally, he first arrived in Hong Kong in August, 2010, the same month that I did, only 36 years earlier. Our conversation made me think about lessons on cultural differences which I have learned and where I learned them. I also attended a briefing session in my first month, which was organized by the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce for newcomers to Hong Kong. It was very helpful, although in one sense the past 36 years have been a kind of ongoing, long-term briefing session because culture is dynamic and both Hong Kong and China have undergone such dramatic changes in this time period.
My American friend proudly told me he had learned the inappropriateness in Chinese culture of giving a man a green hat, which implies that his wife is having an affair. This is a learning especially relevant to Americans because we’re obsessed with baseball and what we call baseball caps, many of which bear logos of sports teams or companies, and come in a rainbow of different colors. Better leave the green ones in Los Angeles or Chicago rather than sending them to Shanghai as merchandising items.
Giving gifts appropriate to the situation is an art within any single culture, but cross-cultural gift-giving is a very complex art indeed.
I once gave a French friend a Swiss Army knife as a birthday gift, and he promptly gave me a dollar, because receiving a knife without paying something for it is considered bad luck in France (or his part of France). I’ve never given anyone a knife since then.
Superstitions are common around the world, even among well-educated senior business executives wearing pin-striped suits. One odd superstition which is surprisingly common among fishermen in many parts of the world is the taboo on bringing bananas onto a fishing boat. I first encountered this when fishing on a friend’s power boat. He was the senior pilot training officer for a major airline, and a very nice guy; but if a guest or friend came onto his boat with a banana in his lunch box, he would promptly seize it and throw it into the sea. Another bad luck thing.
So add bananas to the list of “no-no” gift items in some places, at some times.
Many years ago when advising a large European chemical company about their marketing strategy in China, our company was asked to quote a price for producing a huge quantity of chopsticks with their Chinese company name and logo on them. “For what purpose?”, we asked. The response, by telex: for distribution at an upcoming exhibition in Beijing as give-away items to visitors. We asked if they had knives and forks with their name and logo available for handing out at trade shows in London or Frankfurt, and they got the message this was perhaps not such a great idea after all. Luckily they did not produce green baseball caps, knives, or bananas for the occasion.
Recently while walking around one of Beijing’s countless new shopping malls, a Chinese friend and I discovered an interesting new theme in one small shop. The retail displays were all glass-topped freezers in the middle of the shop, filled with brightly packaged boxes of expensive seafood items: lobster, crab, various types of fish, etc. Prices of all items on display were expensive, and the fancy packaging suggested these were intended as gift items. Clearly not the place where the average consumer would shop for home consumption.
My Chinese friend asked the salesman rather cheekily if the idea was that these were marketed as premium gifts for corrupt officials. To my surprise, he responded with a chuckle “Well, at least that way there’s no evidence because the products are consumed.” Good salesman.
A few days later I discovered yet another new seafood gift marketing scheme involving those seasonal freshwater delicacies from lakes and rivers near Shanghai: hairy crabs. I saw a video advertisement in which hairy crabs are harvested from Yang Cheng Lake, packaged in boxes of 8, and delivered live to the home of your intended recipient. Three grades of crab are on offer, price with the lucky number “8” in abundance: RMB1888, 2288, and 2888, including delivery. Roughly translated, these are labelled “High Grade”, “Special Grade” and “Super Grade” hairy crabs.
The video ad zooms in on a gaggle of green crabs scurrying around under the water, and then a corporate jet taking off with Shanghai in the background. It pans to a happy lady opening the door of her home and beaming as she takes delivery of the box of 8 Special Grade crabs from the smartly uniformed crab courier.
Large numbers of hairy crabs travelling around the country by Learjet is definitely one of those “Only in Today’s China” images.
Not surprisingly, the video was in Chinese only, and I’m sure the marketing strategy is aimed at the domestic rather than export market.
This is a good thing, because “to give someone the crabs” has a very unpleasant, unwelcome, and unattractive meaning, at least in American English. “Crabs” in the context of this statement refers to “crab lice.”
Gift-giving just gets more and more complicated.
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