The perils of 'taboo' gifts

Ko Wen-je and Baroness Susan Kramer Image copyright Getty Images

A government minister gave the gift of a watch to the mayor of Taipei in good will, but ended up breaking local cultural norms because clocks are considered a harbinger of death. What gifts are taboo, asks Chris Stokel-Walker.

When transport minister Susan Kramer gave Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je a small watch as a present, she was simply following standard diplomatic protocol. The exchange of gifts is commonplace on such trips abroad, but cultural norms differ from country to country, and Baroness Kramer was caught out.

Giving a clock to someone in Chinese culture is a bad omen, suggesting they are running out of time on earth. The mayor laughed off the joke, while Baroness Kramer apologised, saying "we learn something new each day". It appears her office may not have read Debrett's, the etiquette guide, which advises readers to "do some research to avoid making a basic error - the bottle of whisky to the teetotaller, or the chocolates to the dieter".

William Hanson, an etiquette expert, says that most diplomatic gifts are agreed between both parties in advance - and regardless, "research should be done".

Baroness Kramer's mistake is not rare - navigating the cultural minefield can be difficult for diplomats and business executives. One culture's prized gift can be another's cause for grave offence, as an HSBC World's Local Bank campaign highlighting the perils of unwittingly making the wrong gestures, demonstrated. "A ceremonial sword in [some parts of] Africa is a symbol of power; in Switzerland it would be seen as a sign of aggression," Hanson explains.

Some things are constant, though. Almost all cultural taboos revolve around death, regardless of location. The number four is considered bad luck in China, because it tonally sounds like the word for death, while the number eight is good, because it sounds similar to the word for wealth.

In the UK, knives are generally not given as presents because superstition says it could cut through a friendship. Similarly, in Japan presenting a knife to a colleague is seen as suggestive of suicide. A bunch of chrysanthemums are a no-go area for the Spanish, because they are associated with death, much in the same way you wouldn't present a bunch of white lilies to a Briton.

Indeed, flowers are a particularly troublesome area. Red roses - a traditional lovers' gift - would appear out of place at a business meeting, while yellow roses commonly suggest infidelity in France, and death in Mexico. And superstition declares that you should always give an odd number of flowers - but not 13.

As for a foolproof gift to present to a colleague that's guaranteed not to offend, regardless of where in the world you give it, Hanson has one suggestion.

"Books are always safe. When I advise companies, I say a nice coffee table book on London or England does the job well."

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