Whether you're going to a friend's house for dinner, meeting a soon-to-be relative for the first time, or heading abroad for a business trip, there's a good chance you'll arrive with a gift. But if you're traveling somewhere outside the United States, don't just grab a bouquet or a bottle of wine. There's a lot of cultural etiquette around gift-giving, and you can easily make a gaffe even with the most well-intentioned present.
"The giving of gifts is a language of symbols, and there are those who speak it like poetry," writes Sara Tucker in CondéNast Traveler. "Then there are the rest of us."
We consulted a number of international business consulting and travel sites for a consensus of what to give (and what to avoid) when traveling. Here's a look at what's appropriate, what's utterly incorrect and other things to know when proffering a present abroad:
Don't give anything purple or black, because those are funeral colors. Avoid handkerchiefs, too, because those are associated with mourning. In case you were considering a knife, letter opener or scissors … bad idea. Anything sharp represents severing a bond. Likewise, practical gifts — such as key chains, perfume and jewelry — are considered too personal to give to someone you don't know extremely well. Better choices include flowers, chocolate, good wine or whiskey, or books. Gifts are usually opened when given.
If you're bringing flowers, avoid red roses (which symbolize romantic love) and white lilies or chrysanthemums (which are used for funerals). Don't give money as a gift. Instead try a box of chocolates, a good bottle of wine or any good liquor. Gifts are usually opened when they are given.
If you're giving flowers in Chile, the preferred gift is the bird of paradise. (Photo: Steve Snodgrass/flickr)
Always bring a gift when invited to someone's home. Good ideas include flowers, wine or chocolate. Birds of paradise are the preferred flower, but don't give yellow roses, which can symbolize contempt. Avoid purple and black (signs of mourning here too) and sharp objects (severed relationship). Gifts are expected to be nicely wrapped and likely will be opened right away.
Gift-giving follows a very specific protocol in China. Gifts should be simply wrapped in plain red, pink, yellow or gold paper, reports Condé Nast. Avoid black, white, gray or blue, which symbolize mourning. Avoid giving cut flowers, clocks, handkerchiefs or straw sandals, which are linked with funerals and death. Don't give sharp objects or anything in groups of four, which is an unlucky number. (Eight, however, is lucky!) Food baskets are a good gift idea. Gifts are given (and received) with both hands and are not expected to be opened right away. It's customary for a gift to be refused several times before it's accepted.
Bring quality chocolates, pastries or sweets to an Egyptian hostess. Don't give flowers, which are typically reserved for weddings or the sick. Always present gifts with the right hand or both hands if the gift is heavy. Gifts are opened in private, not when received.
It's polite to bring a fine box of chocolates as a hostess gift in England. (Photo: Susanne Nilsson/flickr)
If invited to someone's home for dinner, it's polite to bring flowers (avoid white lilies, which are funereal), a nice bottle of wine, or a good box of chocolates. Gifts are typically opened when they are received.
Flowers should be given in odd number — but not 13, which is considered unlucky. Some older French people attach negative symbolism to certain flowers as gifts: white lilies or chrysanthemums because they are funeral flowers; red carnations because they symbolize ill will; and white flowers because they're reserved for weddings. High-quality wine and chocolate are good choices. Gifts are usually opened when given.
Bring a gift such as chocolate or wine when visiting someone's home. It's considered insulting to give German wine; Italian or French is a much nicer choice. Flowers are also a good choice, but avoid red roses (romance), carnations (mourning) and lilies or chrysanthemums (funerals). Yellow flowers are a good bet. Gifts should be nicely wrapped and will likely be opened right away.
If giving flowers, avoid frangipani and white flowers, which are reserved for funerals. Be respectful of Hindu and Muslim cultures. Don't give gifts of leather to Hindus or alcohol or pigskin products to Muslims. Avoid anything with animal decorations, especially pigs and dogs, suggests Condé Nast, because they are considered unclean. Wrap presents in green, yellow or red, but not black and white. Gifts are not opened in the presence of the giver.
Don't give handkerchiefs or brooches, which are associated with funerals. If you bring a bottle of wine, choose carefully. "Make sure it's a good vintage. Quality, rather than quantity, is important," according to Kwintessential, a U.K.-based cultural awareness and interpreting company. Choose the flowers wisely, too. Avoid chrysanthemums (used at funerals), red flowers (indicate secrecy) and yellow flowers (jealousy). Homemade food gifts are considered a thoughtful labor of love. Gifts tend to be opened when received.
Gift-giving in Japan is deeply rooted in tradition. "The value of the gift is of less importance than the presentation and thoughtfulness in which it is presented," according to Giftypedia. If choosing flowers, avoid lilies, camellias, lotus blossoms or any white flowers, as they are associated with funerals. Don't give potted plants, which are thought to encourage sickness to take root, although a bonsai tree is always suitable. Giving four or nine of something is considered unlucky. Quality cakes, chocolates or fruit are good suggestions. Gifts are carefully wrapped, often in pastel paper. They are presented and received with both hands and opened later in private.
Bring flowers or sweets when invited to someone's home. White flowers, particularly, are considered uplifting. Stay away from marigolds which symbolize death, and red flowers, which also have a negative connotation. Gifts are opened when given.
Avoid giving wreaths — even at Christmas time. Like carnations, lilies and white flowers, wreaths are reserved only for funerals. Instead give a houseplant or a bouquet of wildflowers. Make sure to give an odd number of flowers. Other good choices: chocolates, pastries, wine or imported spirits. Gifts are usually opened when presented.
If invited to a Russian home, appropriate gifts include high-quality chocolate or fine wine or liquor. Don't bring vodka, cautions Culture Crossing Guide, a database of cultural information. Don't give white or yellow flowers. Leave gifts in original store wrapping paper; according to Condé Nast, it's because Russians like to preserve their trees. Russians may protest when offered a gift, but will generally accepted when it's offered again.