The symbolism of flowers across cultures

Say it with flowers

Valentine’s Day is upon us, when any self-respecting man in Britain or North America will be aware that a bouquet of flowers is an appropriate gift for a romantic interest. But arrive at a social event on any other occasion bearing 12 red roses for the hostess and you might get some very strange looks from her husband or partner. Flower-giving has its own protocol and every country has its own rules.

Flowers are, of course, not an especially common business gift but they are almost always a suitable offering when you are travelling and are invited to dine in the home of a business contact. Floral decorations are also a consideration at any business function you may be hosting. The question is, what do you bring?

Global etiquette on flower giving

Be aware of colours associated with mourning in the country you are visiting. In Brazil, this is black and purple. In Britain, it’s white lilies and in Hungary, roses, lilies and chrysanthemums. In Japan, lilies, lotus blossoms and camellias are all funeral flowers, while Latvians give red roses.

The Japanese, in fact, have a whole language based around flowers, called Hanakotoba, so study this carefully before presenting someone with a bouquet. Red camellias and blue forget-me-nots mean love (so stay away from these in a business context), while cherry blossoms are associated with kindness and gentleness, and lavender with fidelity.

In Russia, flowers should be presented in odd numbers, as this signifies joy in this deeply superstitious country, and an excess of yellow flowers should be avoided as these are kept for funerals or suggest a break-up. Many European countries also follow the odd number tradition, although never 13 flowers, as this is unlucky. If you are buying flowers for a hostess in Italy, avoid hydrangeas and lavender, as they represent coldness. Sunflowers are a safe bet, as they symbolize happiness.

In Asia, presenting flowers as a gift, ideally red ones, for luck, is appreciated but never a potted plant, as this signifies being bound or constricted. Having said that, the Chinese in particular favor decorations of twisted bamboo in boardrooms and meeting rooms as it is thought to bring luck. This practice does not just take place in China; companies with business interests in China may well have bamboo in their boardroom, wherever in the world they are based.

Once you have worked out what to bring, there are other factors to consider. Don’t buy flowers that are overly fragrant, in case your host has allergies. Presentation is important; make sure your flowers are well wrapped. In Muslim countries (apart from Egypt, where flowers are not a suitable gift) present your bouquet with both hands, or the right hand, never the left. If you are in any doubt at all about presenting a bouquet to the female partner of a business contact, and you are male, it is appropriate to say they are from your wife or from your female colleagues.

Too much of a minefield? There’s always chocolate.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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