Many families are celebrating the Lunar New Year this week, exchanging gifts with relatives and friends. It got us here at UNO thinking about the power of a good gift, and how a thoughtful present can often bridge cultural differences.

The exchange of gifts among kings, chiefs and presidents is a centuries-old tradition. From the ancient civilizations of Rome and Egypt to the native tribes of North America, ceremonial gifts have paved the way for peaceful coexistence between peoples of different cultures. They are universal symbols in the language of diplomacy.

When President Obama met Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in April 2009 he put a modern twist on the traditional exchange of gifts by presenting her with an iPod. The Queen was delighted as the iPod was loaded with images of her trip to Virginia as part of her official tour of the United States two years prior to that, in 2007. The President was roundly celebrated for his careful and considerate choice of gifts.

While your present may not warrant international scrutiny or acclaim, getting the right gift can make the difference between a warm welcome and a moment of discomfort that may put the whole meeting off. Taking the time to select a unique token of your appreciation for your host – whether he is a friend or business colleague – makes everyone feel good.

Whether you are attending a party at a new international friend’s home or a business meeting of a potential international investor, remember that gift-giving customs vary from culture to culture. What may be considered culturally savvy in one country often becomes a cultural faux pas in another country. Not only do customs vary from place to place, but the importance placed on exchanging gifts, and the protocol associated with giving, will vary. It is important to understand how various countries view gift giving. Gifts may be viewed as thoughtful gestures, generosity, business development and promotion, bribery or payment for special favors.

Do your research and find specific guidelines for each culture. Sometimes a simple internet search can do the trick. Research will help you determine if there are any “taboos” or things not to do when giving gifts. For example, in some Asian cultures, the number “4” is an unlucky one, so never give a gift in sets of four!

Here are some helpful resources to help you get started:

The Art of Cross-Cultural Gift-Giving 

International Business Etiquette 101

Gift-giving in Asia

Preventing International Gift Gaffes

Business in Brazil

The Power of a Good Gift