Culture Clash


Sunday, December 16, 2001

Expectations differ about
corporate gift giving

'I know that gift giving in Asia is a way of developing business relationships, but I wonder if things have gone too far," Tricia Fernandez said at a weekly staff meeting. Tricia was the sales manger at a large automotive dealership in Tacoma, Wash. She had recently entertained a visit from Kilho Park, who represented the North American marketing division of Hyundai Motors. Travelling from Korea, he first gave Tricia a pen with the Hyundai logo on it. After a combination of both small talk and business discussions, Tricia mentioned that her son had started guitar lessons and that she had seen Korean-made guitars in several music stores. The next day, Kilho came to the dealership with a very nice classical guitar for Tricia's son.

Tricia is correct that gifts are often exchanged in Korea and other Asian countries, and the purpose is to develop or to cement working relationships. For Americans who are the recipients of the gifts, difficulties arise if they feel a quid pro quo exchange is expected. In this example, Tricia can quite reasonably feel that Kilho expects favorable treatment for a proposal he might make concerning Hyundai Motors and the dealership she represents. She might want to return the classical guitar, but this might hurt Kilho's feelings given that he put time and effort into choosing a personal gift.

People in different cultures develop business relationships in various ways. In the United States, people often talk for long periods of time and disclose information about family members, hobbies and political views.

Americans draw from these interpersonal exchanges in making final decisions about joint business ventures. In Korea, people are often uncomfortable exchanging personal information in the early weeks of relationship development. The presentation of personal gifts becomes a substitute for exchanges of personal information.

This incident and analysis developed from discussions with Min-Sun Kim of the University of Hawaii Department of Speech. She is from Seoul. She points out that small and inexpensive gifts provided by one's company cause few difficulties. This means Korean businesspeople often travel with letter openers, calendars and paperweights.

Problems begin when the company representatives buy expensive personalized gifts based on knowledge learned during business discussions. Kim once had to discuss returning a rare handmade antique box to a Korean who wanted employment in the United States. She did not know of relevant job openings and so felt uncomfortable accepting an expensive gift.

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Special attention will be given to miscommunications caused by cultural differences. Each column will start with a short example of such confusion. Possible explanations will be offered to encourage thought about these issues.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration,
University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the
College Relations Office:

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