The exchange of gifts is an important part of Korean life, closely linked to showing respect, keeping good kibun (mood or feeling of being in a comfortable state of mind), and being courteous. A gift of fruit, flowers, wine or liquor should be taken whenever you visit someone’s home. When visiting the home of a Korean family, a small gift for pre-school children, if there are any in the home, and one for the most elderly person, a grandparent for instance, would also be considered courteous.
Business gifts are still common in Korean society and are often presented at the first meeting. The most expensive/highest value gift should be given to the person of highest rank with colleague of equal rank receiving a gift of similar value. Gifts have long been seen as a means of influencing (aka bribing) decision makers. However, the intent of the gift at the first business meeting is to set the foundation for the relationship and are often reciprocal.
The gift is presented to the recipient with both hands as are most items handed over by or to a Korean – even in the office or at a shop. A Korean will usually apologize for the gift’s insignificance, even when it is of high value. Gifts are never opened in front of the giver. In fact, visitor sometimes quietly leave a gift on a table for the host to find later. Great baskets of flowers, plants and blossoming shrubs in pots, tied with colorful ribbons on which congratulatory messages are written in beautiful calligraphy, line the doorways of newly-opened shops and at special ceremonies or performances.
Notes of thanks do not follow. A gift represents your appreciation of a dinner or other invitations, and the hospitality you received is the pleasure and honor of your host.
Traditional Korean gifts for a family that has just moved into a new house are candles and a large box of matches and/or laundry detergent. This practice continues today, regardless of the wealth of the recipient. For the Korean Chuseok holidays, an appropriate gift would be fruit, wine or other food and drink. On New Year’s, children are given good-luck money.
It is traditional for Korean businessmen to give gifts to those who have helped them or to those who may assist them in the future. In the latter case, these gifts may carry a connotation of ‘thanks’ in advance for favorable consideration. Many Western companies have rules about the acceptance of such gifts, which are usually delivered by junior staff members. Any such gift may be refused or returned but not without great protests from the giver; gift giving is a delicate matter that cannot be easily brushed away. There is considerable debate underway in Korea society today about whether gift giving is appropriate in business and politics as this cultural tradition has been abused as a form of corruption.
The proper gift brought by Koreans to any family occasion is money. At weddings, there is a table placed at the entrance where each guest is greeted and his gift accepted and even recorded for either the groom’s or the bride’s side. However, many Westerners feel uncomfortable with this custom and even, many Koreans feel more comfortable buying household items such as electrical appliance, glasses, crystal, etc. and leaving the wrapped package on the table on the day of the wedding. Giving a gift instead of money is especially appropriate given a Western’s status or position. The manager of an office or one of the chief officers of a firm would be expected to give the largest cash gift. By bringing a wrapped gift of moderate worth, there are no hard feelings on either side.
Brand names are very important in Korea. As people here are very much into 'brand awareness' , it's not always the gift item that counts, but rather it's first-class or luxury brand name. To bring 'Canadian Club' whiskey from Canada is you're Canadian would be well received as would something connected or specific to your home region, etc. Something that is either very difficult to find or extremely expensive in Korea is another option. If you're bringing the gift from another country and are not aware yet of what is hard-to-get here, best to bring something associated with your home country/or where you've purchased it or a high end luxury brand.
Gift wrapping is very important in Korea, as well. How the gift looks on the outside is almost (sometimes more) important than the item itself. Traditionally, a gift is not opened at the time it is received or in front of the giver. However, Koreans who have lived abroad or who have worked with people from the West, may, out of respect for the foreigner giving them the gift, open it right away. Don't be offended, though, if they don't or if they never mention the gift to you.
K4E Editor: Korea4Expats.com tries to ensure that the information we provide is accurate and complete, so should you notice any errors or omissions in the content above please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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