Gifts That Keep On Giving Trouble : Knowledge of Foreign Customs Can Prevent Red Faces

Times Staff Writer

Never give a Chinese friend a clock or offer red roses to the wife of a West German acquaintance. Never present a Latin-American pal with handkerchiefs or a Frenchman with perfume. And watch which critters adorn presents for the Japanese.

Americans, beware: As the gift-giving season approaches worldwide, it’s easy to commit a cultural faux pas, to make friendly foreigners unhappy with an offering, no matter how thoughtfully intended.

But don’t force new overseas friends and business partners to look a gift horse in the mouth. Instead, investigate their customs and avert potentially damaging situations, such as the one that confronted President Kennedy’s staff.

A Major Blunder Avoided


His social secretary once delivered six dozen photographs of the President to New Delhi as gifts for Indian officials during J.F.K.'s visit to Prime Minister Nehru in 1962.

Fortunately, before the gifts were distributed, embarrassed U.S. officials realized the pictures were framed in blue cowhide--a major blunder in a Hindu nation where cows are sacred. Officials avoided the gaffe by substituting silver frames, reports “Going International,” a 1985 book by Lennie Copeland and Lewis Griggs on international business.

Kathleen K. Reardon, a Santa Monica resident and author of “Gift Giving Around the World,” explains why clocks are unsuitable gifts to Chinese: It’s partly because the sound of the word for clock is the same as the sound of the word for the prefunereal visit to the dying; a clock thus conjures unpleasant associations for the Chinese, who associate timepieces given as gifts with the end of relationships.

For West Germans, Reardon said, visitors might reconsider the gift of a bouquet of roses to an acquaintance’s wife. Sorry, but red roses are too closely associated solely with amour, and thus are considered inappropriate.


Similarly, it would be a gaffe for a guest in a Latin-American home to offer handkerchiefs, which connote tears. Also, leave black or purple gifts at home, because, Reardon said, those colors are associated with the solemn Catholic Lenten season.

In France, flowers are often considered a must-bring for dinner guests. But avoid chrysanthemums because they represent mourning. And don’t give flowers in bunches of 13 or in any even number; that’s considered bad luck. Because the French are interested in aesthetics, they like gifts of art, prints, books or records.

But perfume is out, Reardon said, adding, “It’s like bringing coals to Newcastle.”

By the way, it’s considered tasteful to present presents on arrival, rather than after dinner, experts say; the gift given early seems thoughtful, while the later offering can be misconstrued as a reward for a meal.

Gifts in Japan

In Japan, where gifts are given at the end-of-the-year celebration on Jan. 1, don’t present objects bearing the 16-petal chrysanthemum, which is off limits because it’s a part of the Imperial Family crest. Visitors also should avoid gifts depicting a fox, the symbol of fertility, or a badger, the sign of cunning. A popular present: Scotch, which is costly in Japan.

When giving gifts to the Japanese, Reardon said, it also is important to pay attention to the wrapping. Ribbon colors have different meanings, and it may pay to get a package wrapped in the area where local customs are best known. But, generally, the Japanese avoid wrapping gifts in bold colors, dark gray or even black; black-and-white combinations are reserved for funerals.

In the Arab world, there are other taboos to respect when giving gifts: “Never give liquor. . . . It is forbidden by the Islamic religion,” said Bernie Kautz, administrative assistant to the Orange County office of protocol. “And do not give a gift on a first meeting. It may be interpreted as a bribe.”


Reardon said it generally is inappropriate to bring a gift to an Arab’s wife. “You should not even ask how she is,” Reardon said. “That has to do with the position of women in Arab society.”

Although there are gift guidelines, experts emphasize that there also are exceptions, appeals to common sense and human sensibilities.

“I think the object is choosing things in good sense and sensitivity,” Hughes said. “The more you can personalize a gift so that the receiver knows you went out to find something that they like, the better off you are. . . .

“The choice of the gift is really the most important thing,” said Hughes, who tells the tale of displaying to the local Japanese consul a proposed pewter present from the Port of Los Angeles to Japanese dignitaries.

“Pewter generally looks cheap,” he said. “The first reaction was, ‘No, that would not be a good gift.’

“But when I went back and explained that it was an early American product and originated in the Eastern part of the U.S. and included a card telling about its history, she changed totally. She said this would be very acceptable.

“It’s a good demonstration of personalizing, being sensitive and checking the gift out in advance.”

A little preparation can go a long way, agreed Bee Lavery, Mayor Tom Bradley’s protocol chief who said Japan’s Emperor Hirohito seemed pleased to receive a distinctly Los Angeles gift during a Southern California visit; he received a basket woven by Indians native to Los Angeles from reeds that grew along the Los Angeles River.


But without a little thought, even a well-intentioned gift can prove to be a heartbreaker, Reardon said, recalling a situation in which a businessman gave a clock to the daughter and future son-in-law of a long-time Chinese associate.

“It was a terrible faux pas, " she said. “The clock is associated with the termination of a relationship in China, and to offset the bad luck, the Chinese family sent money to the man, which they felt would transform the gift into something they had bought.

“However, the man’s lack of judgment was not forgotten. The family never spoke to him again, and they had had a very close relationship. The man tried to contact the family and explain, but couldn’t. He was very hurt.”