Gift Giving Etiquette

Giovinella Gonthier, owner of Gonthier’s Selections and Protocol in Chicago, sat down with Jill Bremer, AICI CIP, recently to discuss the protocol for gift-giving in business.

Jill Bremer: You’ve had so many interesting positions and projects in your professional life. Please share with us some of your impressive credentials.

Giovinella Gonthier: I have a Masters degree from Harvard and I was the Ambassador of my country, the Seychelles Islands, to the United Nations for almost eight consecutive years during the height of the “cold war”. I was also concurrently accredited to the United States. Prior to my U.N. posting, I was the charge d’affair in our Paris embassy and before that, I was in our Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Seychelles. I grew up in East Africa and have traveled extensively. I have also been Ambassador to some of the Central American countries and to Cuba. So I have had to deal with a variety of cultures and people of different religions and ages.

J.B.: How did you decide that there was a need for a business such as yours?

G.G.: On one of my travels to Japan, I realized that I was totally unprepared for the protocols of gift giving and exchanging. I didn’t know anything about the concept of “perceived value” or the value of reciprocity or the importance they, as a culture, attach to both giving and receiving gifts. I was embarrassed, so when I came back from that trip I decided to something about my own ignorance.

J.B.: What did you do?

G.G.: I talked to a lot of people about their own faux pas, I read many books and decided that this would never happen to me again. I felt there was a need for this service in the United States because I found that gift-giving is usually an afterthought and not considered an integral part of the overall business strategy, which it should be. I have also found that it is usually delegated to an overworked secretary who often takes the easiest route. The result is usually an inappropriate, generic, mass-produced gift. In Europe, Asia and Africa, it is usually the CEO themselves who make the gift decisions.

J.B.: Why do we give gifts in business?

G.G.: We give them to promote goodwill, to demonstrate gratitude and to continue good relationships. Everyone loves receiving a well-thought-out gift.

J.B.: When should we give gifts in business?

G.G.: We give gifts when we close a deal to show good faith and to demonstrate happiness that the arduous process has ended. We give gifts to demonstrate good will on an ongoing basis. We also give gifts to celebrate a windfall.

J.B.: Could you share a few gift giving horror stories?

G.G.: Something occurred recently that I witnessed, when the Foreign Minister of Egypt was here in Chicago. The Governor’s representative gave him exactly what should not be given to someone from the Gulf States or the Middle East, which is a gift made out of wood. The perceived value of wood is very low, because in desert countries they don’t have wood so they don’t know how to view it. Secondly, a gift like that won’t last very long because their air is very dry. So you really have to be very discerning about the gifts you choose and who you give them to, especially considering our global economy and different cultures.

One of the big, big errors that I see most people make is that they give a gift that they themselves would like to receive, rather than selecting a gift from the perspective of the recipient. This is where we come in as a professional company. We do a lot of research into the background of the gift recipient and determine what they would like to receive. For example, Motorola was receiving the President of Egypt last year and they were trying to find a gift for him. We did some research into his background and found out that he loves to play squash. So we made a special squash racquet for him. He was very, very pleased because he got something that he liked. We know that it will be used, that it will not be junked or recycled to someone else. He also knew that a lot of thought had gone into that gift, that it wasn’t a last minute decision.

J.B.: What are some examples of appropriate and inappropriate gifts in American business?

G.G.: Any form of lingerie would be inappropriate. Women do not like to receive gifts like that in public, and yet it’s done all the time. Other inappropriate gifts in the workplace are gag gifts, especially when there is sexual orientation to it. It makes the recipient extremely uncomfortable. During Christmas, people like to give food or beverage items. But you must make sure that your recipient is not allergic to that kind of food.

J.B.: We should probably be very careful about gifts of liquor, shouldn’t we?

G.G.: Absolutely, that can be a major issue for some people. So again, you really have to do research on the gift recipient and that is where somebody like me comes in. We do not only research what President Mubarak would like, but also what the ordinary office worker would like. It is just as important for her to be happy.

J.B.: What are the items that you can never go wrong with?

G.G.: You can never go wrong with artistic, one-of-a-kind products. And what you must always keep in mind is the concept of perceived value. What is perceived as valuable by one culture may not be valuable to another. For example, if you’re going to Mexico on business, you don’t take something made of silver. They have an abundance of it there and the perceived value of it is very low. They think of silver as cheap. If you have a Mexican-American working for you here in the U.S. and you want to give silver frames to your employees as a gift, you may want to reconsider giving it to that employee. She will know that she can get that for practically nothing back in Mexico. If you want to give chocolates to someone and you have found through your research that they are not allergic or on a diet, you still have to think about the perceived value of that box of chocolates. What message will your gift recipient take from this? Was this an afterthought or a last-minute decision?

J.B.: So a gift of chocolates from the corner candy store will not have much perceived value because they are so readily available, but a hard-to-find imported chocolate would have more value?

G.G.: It would have value if the person you are gifting loves chocolate! It all comes down to thought – how much thought was put into this gift? A gift could be very simple, for example, a corkscrew. To a wine collector that would have high perceived value, even if it cost five dollars.

J.B.: What should we spend on business gifts?

G.G.: A very good question. We call it the concept of “face”. Look at the hierarchy. The higher up a person is, the more expensive the gift should be. If you’re giving gifts to an entire group of people, perhaps because they were involved in closing a deal with you, never give gifts of the same look and value to everybody. The Chairman or CEO should get something a bit more special than the V.P., and so on down the line. That’s important so that they don’t lose face.

Find out about the gift-giving culture in your own office. Do people exchange small gifts? Do they give gifts to the boss? If you are new to the office, ask around to find out how it’s done and how much is usually spent. Never give someone something that is too expensive. That will make them feel that they have to reciprocate at that level.

J.B.: How should gifts be presented? In person, by mail?

G.G.: It depends on the circumstances. At Christmas, most gifts are sent by mail. At a celebratory dinner, gifts will be presented then. Westerners will usually open the gift, Asians will not open the gift in front of others, again it’s the concept of saving face. A retirement gift should be presented unwrapped at the retirement party.

What people don’t want anymore is generic, mass-produced things. In this technological age, we have come to appreciate what is made by hand, creative and original. With my American clients, I try to make them look at quality more than quantity and size. Size seems to be very important in the U.S. My task is to teach my clients that a good gift doesn’t have to be big.

J.B.: How should we acknowledge a gift that we have been given?

G.G.: The best way to acknowledge a gift is with a handwritten note. Even if you don’t like the gift, it should be acknowledged that it was received. Otherwise you should be very effusive, especially when you find that the giver has put a lot of time and thought into your gift. Even Christmas gifts should be acknowledged with a note.

J.B.: Any last words of advice?

G.G.: I would be very discerning about promotional gift items, they’re not always appropriate. Promotional items are to advertise your own company, not to acknowledge the accomplishments of the recipient. However, we do offer those types of gifts for the situations when they are appropriate. Keep in mind the concepts of perceived value and saving face. Do your research and look for creative, uncommon gifts. And make gift giving a priority in your business strategy. Remember that gifts to employees and coworkers are just as important as gifts to VIP’s. We believe that professional advice is crucial in gift-giving. We can help you find the perfect gift that is both culturally appropriate and treasured by the recipient.

© 2004 Jill Bremer All Rights Reserved