The following was extracted from one of my lectures in the Business Culture Fundamentals Specialization of the KBC Professional Certification Program. Visit Korea Business Central for more information on the program and to register and get certified.
"Asians are renowned for giving lots of gifts. Since I mentioned my Mom in the last lesson, I’ll go ahead and bring her up again by saying that she comments regularly about how generous my wife is because my wife always shows up with gifts when we visit. But I keep telling my wife to slow down on the gift-giving because she’s frequently disappointed that others don’t reciprocate as she expects (or that our family caps the price of Christmas gifts at $25 since “it’s the thought that counts” - OK, so maybe we’re a little extreme.)
"The core disconnect here though is that gift-giving in Asia is fundamentally different than gift-giving in the West (at least in Texas, where I’m from). To get the essence of this difference, make sure you read the extra learning resource entitled “Two Cold Hard Facts About Gift-Giving in Korea”.
"It comes down to this: When a Westerner gets a gift, we think, “Wow, that’s great. What a thoughtful person!”. When a Korean gets a gift, they think, “Wow, that’s great. But now I need to repay the favor in order to move the relationship forward.” In other words, a healthy and ongoing Korean relationship never reaches equilibrium; obligation is continuously seesawing back and forth from one person to the other.
"This would be true in Korean social relationships; it’s also a key part of many Korean business relationships which are based on personal ties (including those corrupt ones between government officials and business people that keep hitting the news in Korea).
"As a foreigner, if you’re working in a Korean office setting, it would be a good idea to understand this in some depth. However, if you’re working in a non-Korean company that's doing business with Koreans at arm's length, unless you’ve got a particular reason to make long-term friends with Koreans, it would be a mistake to think you have to play this game perfectly (or even much at all) since ultimately in business, it’s the bottom line that counts.
"Still, gifts are a good thing to equip yourself with from time-to-time in whatever situation you find yourself in in Korea. And as a foreigner, you have a particular advantage in that you can give gifts that Koreans wouldn’t normally be able to get. For a bunch of ideas, be sure to read "The Top Ten Gifts to Give in Korea to Make a Great Impression".
"In fact, just last week a client contacted me to ask about a good gift for negotiations to start business with a Korean company. He wanted to bring expensive chocolates; I recommended against that though, explaining that if this was a first meeting, something that would stick around in the office (i.e. not get eaten) would be a better opening gift, and I suggested a framed photo of the Chicago skyline (where he’s from) with a small metal nameplate attached with his company name engraved on it, since this would be kept on the wall of the Korean office as an ongoing reminder.
"On future visits, the chocolates would be just fine, though my personal favorite is the duty-free Jack Daniels on the flight over. Koreans love to get Western liquor as gifts...
"I’ll also point out that the rules for gift giving are much more complicated for non-business relationships, and that if you’re working in a Korean company, these obligations can seep over into the office environment. For example, if a close relative of a co-worker dies, it would be good to join the others in the office to pitch in some money. (Check out "On the Death of a Fellow Student’s Mother" for some insights into this process.) You might also find yourself invited to a coworker’s wedding (at which time you MUST go with cash in a white envelope)."