Asia Cross Cultural Gift Giving Etiquette: Singapore

An Expert's View about Cross-Cultural Communications in Singapore

Posted on: 18 Feb 2014

In Singapore and across Asia gift giving is an important cultural part of doing business. It helps to gain the respect and trust of another person, and demonstrates you have good manners.

In Asia, gifts are an important part of cultivating relationships. Maybe you need a gift to give at a wedding. Maybe you need to thank team members who have exceeded their goals. Or maybe you need to thank a friend or client. Whatever the reason, choosing the right gift can be a challenge due to cross cultural gift-giving considerations.

During an executive coaching session with a VP of a British bank, I commented on a beautiful multiple-time-zone desk clock in his office. He proudly told me that his company had sent it out to their Asian clients and colleagues around the world.” I went on to ask him if his Chinese recipients were upset with the gift. He said, “I don’t think so. Why do you ask?” “Well,” I responded, “in Chinese culture, a clock is not a gift to give. The term for giving a clock in Mandarin means funeral, so basically giving a clock means, ‘Go die.’ It symbolises the ending of relationships.”

Gift giving can be problematic when you don’t understand the culture and customs of your international colleagues and friends. In Singapore and across Asia gift giving is an important part of doing business. It helps to gain the respect and trust of another person, and demonstrates you have good manners. Gift giving also signifies the type of relationship you have with another: a friendship, a co-worker, a business interaction, or any other type of familiar relationship you have with others, including family.

An American friend of mine who recently relocated to Singapore asked me, “When do you give gifts in Asia?” I responded, “It depends on the situation, just like in the US.” He said, “Yes, I know, but it seems like Asians are always buying lots of gifts before they go on a trip and when coming back from a trip. Don’t they feel burdened by the task of having to buy lots of things?” I smiled, “Well, shopping is one of Singaporeans’ favourite pastimes, so I don’t think they mind.” My friend had a good point. He was observing the cultural differences in Asia when it comes to gift giving. Asians are more likely to give and receive gifts more often than Americans because gifting is such a part of the culture.

It’s best to caution clients and friends to think twice before giving an expensive present or doing a big favour for a casual Asian acquaintance. “If you do insist on giving a gift, don’t be surprised if they firmly reject your offer right in front of you.” While in Asia it is considered polite to refuse a gift three times to show modesty, it actually has nothing to do with being modest. When Asians are offered a present or a gift in the form of a favour, what tends to come to their mind is, “Can I later reciprocate the gift or favour?” If they can reciprocate, then they are more willing to accept, but if they can’t, they have to decline the gift. The pressure to pay back is a large part of the Asian culture. Asians are also more likely to perceive time in the long term. They think about their behaviour and the consequences of accepting a gift or favour not only in terms of the here and now – but predominantly in terms of the future.

For Westerners living temporarily in Asia, it’s also best not to receive a grand gift if you do not have a chance to reciprocate or pay back the favour in the future. When most Westerners receive a gift or favour they tend to think more in terms of the present moment. Their focus is how they can enjoy and appreciate something in the short term, so they accept the gift. “Westerners tend to think of receiving a gift or favour more in terms of a one shot deal. They appreciate it but tend not to have a strong urge or obligation to always reciprocate. This can create a mismatch between the gifting Asians’ expectations and the lack of reciprocal action taken by the Westerner. Gift-giving customs vary drastically from culture to culture, making it very difficult to anticipate every situation. How to behave and react will be based on the cultural context of the situation. In Singapore, it can either trigger Western or Asian behaviour depending on who you are with and what occasion you are celebrating.”

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Posted: 18 February 2014

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