I was warned about gifts within a week of moving to Taiwan. I was told, “Be careful. The gifts are never free. They always want something in return.” The warning came from a seasoned but jaded westerner who understood how things work but did understand that it was just a cultural difference not manipulation. Chinese people give gifts. Gifts are an important piece of your strategy to build Guanxi in China.
In America, we set limits. We say no. We respect someone who tells it like it is. We don’t accept gifts we’re not comfortable with because we have integrity. Of course none of this works in China. At least not in the same way that it does in America. To start with, you can’t turn down gifts and maintain relationships in China. It just isn’t done.
Chinese children are taught how life works in China. We’d all learn a lot if we went to a kindergarten in China for a year (and our Chinese would improve too!) One way you manage gift giving is to prevent problems before they start. It won’t always work, but it will help.
When visiting someone’s home: Don’t point out things you like.
A friend was visiting someone in China and saw a book that her daughter loved. A natural response in America is to talk about how wonderful the book is and ask where it can be purchased. It is polite and points out a similarity of taste, which could be the basis for a bond. My friend did something along those lines, but in China this is a mistake. It amounts to a demand that the host go out and buy a copy of the book for the guest. This particular host took it a step further and insisted that my friend bring home the book for her daughter. My friend had to accept the book or insult the host.
It is okay to give general compliments. “Your house is beautiful” is fine. You can even compliment specific items that the host shows you on the tour you often receive when you first visit a home. Don’t walk over to a specific item and talk about how amazing or wonderful it is.
Chinese children are taught not to go over to someone’s house and say you want something in front of the host. This is true even if you are asking your own parents.
As an adult, avoid complimenting something and ask where it is purchased. It implies the need for a gift. If they aren’t giving you a tour of their home, don’t seek out something and say how nice it is. General compliments around the house are okay. It’s okay to compliment something they show you but don’t point it out.