Receiving Gifts: Input Needed

A few weeks ago, Judy did an escort interpreting assignment for one of her favorite clients, and we'd love to get our readers' and colleagues' opinion on a small, but important issue. Here's her story.

Our charming clients, the owners of a company that imports building materials from China to Argentina, were in town to attend a large trade show in Vegas. They met with many of their suppliers, all of them Chinese, who were delighted to see them (our client, let's call him Mr. Building, is a very good customer of these Chinese companies). Mr. Building and his very nice wife do not speak much English, which is where I come in as a Spanish<->English escort interpreter. We mainly go to vendors' booths to talk about price, and the conversations can get quite heated. As you might imagine, the Chinese vendors are not fluent in English, so many times, I wish we had a Chinese->English interpreter, but I digress.

Mr.Building and I have developed a solid working relationship throughout the years, and this is the third trade show in a row at which we have worked together. Many of the vendors are the same every year as well. Mr. Building highly values one of his main suppliers, and it's usually one of the first booths we visit. Once I met up with Mr. and Mrs. Building, they made sure to tell me that they'd already visited their favorite vendor, but had agreed to come back with their interpreter (me) so they could start talking business. Ms. Building also told me that the vendor wanted to give me a gift. Insisting that it was not necessary to give the interpreter a gift was met with much resistance -- my clients insisted that their client insisted on giving me a gift.

Now, I am not very familiar with Chinese culture, and I wasn't sure about gift-receiving etiquette in the Chinese culture. Should I open the gift right there and then or take it home and then comment on it the next day? I wasn't sure, and the gift was presented to me as we were leaving the booth, which was full of people. It was evident from both the bag and the box what it was -- a gorgeous, long pearl necklace -- and all I managed to do was an awkward little bow. The vendor also had to rush to the next meeting, so luckily I didn't have to fret about whether or not I should open the gift. However, should I have stayed and opened it in her presence? What would you have done? 

I did end up going back with my clients the next day -- just to say hello to the vendor, as I was hoping we would. My solution: I wore the beautiful necklace, which the vendor noticed immediately. I told her how much I liked it and made sure to thank her again. I could tell she was very happy I was wearing it.

Dear readers: how would you have handled this situation? Is there any particular way the Chinese expect foreigners to behave when receiving gifts? We'd love to learn from anyone who wants to share their input by leaving a comment. 


Andrew (林安迪) on February 11, 2012 at 12:33 AM said...

I believe you handled the situation very well: it is good etiquette to refuse a gift at least once or twice before gradually giving in and accepting it.
As for the question of opening gifts right in front of everyone or not: again, you did the right thing, as gifts are usually left unopened until the giver has left. Basically it's all about not coming across as greedy or giving the impression that you care more about the gift than the person who presented it.
The "awkward little bow" probably came across rather well, too -- it showed that you made an extra effort to engage with them, and they will certainly be aware that bowing is not commonly part of Westerners' (lao wai) body language.

Melissa said...

In Chinese culture, a gift should be given and received with both hands. It is traditionally opened at home, not in front of the person who gave it to you. The fact that the vendor insisted on giving you a gift is not so unusual; it may mean that she recognises and appreciates your role in the business transactions (or that she thinks you're pretty and would look good with a pearl necklace on!). You did the right thing wearing the gift the next day so that she could see it on you.

Nelia on February 11, 2012 at 8:26 AM said...

Hi Judy, I think you did just the right thing. My former boss went to China on a business trip and she was advised on how to deal with presents (which seem to be important there). She was told it would be impolite to reject them AND to open them in front of the person who gives it.
I think wearing the necklace was a great idea, as it showed you had opened and accepted the present, and that you also liked it. Well done !

Jesse Tomlinson said...


Thank you for sharing the story. There are a couple of great books about just this: "Do's and Taboo's Around the World", by Roger Axtell and some others by the same author dealing with gift information in different cultures, gift giving and the like.

Gifts are very important in Chinese culture, and the main thing is to never reject the gift. This is considered very rude. If you reject a gift it means that you don't want to do business with them and that they have offended you. I think you were right and it was a great idea to wear the pearls. I think that you accept the gift and then open it later, as opening it right away may be "greedy". I am not an expert, I just wanted to give you guys a shout back.

Thanks for sharing.


Jesse Tomlinson

The Intercultural Kitchen on February 11, 2012 at 11:26 AM said...

Open it later, always. So you did just the right thing, I suppose. Receive it with both hands (they probably gave it to you also with both hands and a slight bow?). A similar ritual to the one when exchanging business cards, I believe. As far as I know, with business cards you go further and read aloud and with most interest the information on it, praising the position of the person.
However, I think experienced Chinese business people won't be bother by a foreigner's "lack of manners" ;-)
There is also a lot of literature about gifts in Chinese business culture, and conflicts when doing big deals with Western cultures, when is it a gift, when a bribe? (different cultures, different concepts).

Amazing subject, intercultural communication!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on February 11, 2012 at 4:42 PM said...

@Andrew: Thanks so much for the input. Delighted to hear that I got lucky and instinctively did the right thing. The bow sure seemed awkward, but I'd seen the vendors do it with us, so I figured it could not hurt. Thanks for reading!

@Melissa: Thanks for that important suggestion. I *think* I received it with both hands, because I'd seen folks do that with business cards, but I am not 100% sure. It all happened very quickly! Happy to hear that you think I did the right thing by wearing it the next day. I didn't have time to look up that particular etiquette rule, so I just went with my gut. :)

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on February 11, 2012 at 6:38 PM said...

@Nelia: Thanks for your sweet comment. We feel like we are learning a lot from this conversation. And BTW -- I've worn the gorgeous necklace quite a bit and I've gotten a lot of compliments.

@Jesse: Thanks for recommending that book -- sounds like a wonderful read. We will put it on the reading list for sure. Interesting to hear that opening it right away would have been considered to be greedy -- I was not familiar with that, and I got lucky by not opening it!

May on February 12, 2012 at 5:53 AM said...

I am Chinese American, so I wouldn't claim to know the subtleties of an exchange with a Chinese person. But I can make some guesses:
As Melissa said, the vendor most likely recognizes your importance in the business relationship. I imagine that the vendor also appreciates the way you handle his less-than-perfect English. You must have dealt with any difficulty tactfully, without bringing attention to his language deficiencies.
I would also point out that the gift to you is also meant as a gesture to Mr. Building. As Mr. Building's preferred interpreter, (confirmed to the vendor by your repeated attendance at his side), you are seen as important to him. By presenting you with a gift, the vendor is also giving face to Mr. Building.

Constanza Dimiero said...

Hi! I don't know wheather this is a reliable source, but it seems to provide an answer, at least, to initiate the investigation.
Constanza Dimiero

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on February 13, 2012 at 4:56 PM said...

@Constanza: Thanks for that handy link!

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on February 13, 2012 at 5:02 PM said...

@May: Thanks for participating in this very interesting discussion. We really appreciate your insight into the many subtleties of the gift that Judy received. She will wear it with even more pride now. :)

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