Capricia Marshall Shares Gift Rules in New Book Protocol Excerpt

Capricia Marshall was Chief of Protocol for the United States from 2009 to 2013 and Social Secretary for the White House from 1997 to 2001. While in both positions, she oversaw the details of diplomacy during 21 state and official visits, as well as the G20, nuclear security, APEC, G8, NATO and the Sunnylands summit. . Below is an excerpt from his new book, Protocol. By sharing how even the smallest details can define the results of meetings between the world’s superpowers, Marshall makes a convincing argument for redeveloping an appreciation for etiquette in everyday interactions.


The gift just to the right is a workhorse, multitasking to affect the present moment, the way forward or even rethink the past, projecting it in a more positive light. In business, as in personal relationships, even a small offer (they should not all be as extravagant as a barbecue in hand) serves as a bridge and influence. These are a subset of questions that I have developed over the years to ask before I offer someone – a friend, family member, professional client – to avoid a missed gift and to improve my game, allowing you to unwrap the best experience.

Consider the culture.

When traveling abroad – and even to the United States – pay attention to religious or cultural norms. The last thing you want is to offend someone when you try to impress them. We had a tight call in 2011 just before a last minute planned trip to the Middle East for Secretary Clinton. We had a prepackaged chest of our standard gifts for the travel of the secretary to the ministers of foreign affairs and other dignitaries. Just before loading the gift box, I double-checked the gift list in my binder to confirm that everything was in order and I discovered that the prepackaged gifts carried human images – crystal sculptures with the bust of Thomas Jefferson engraved in the center. Jefferson is an international icon of diplomacy, and busts have always been well received, but for a visit to a Muslim country, offering them could have been a real problem, as some practitioners of Islam consider the image of a human face in art as a false worship of an idol. (The team and I rushed to the safe and quickly wrapped many of our contingency items in my personal bag that were not likely to come up against this belief.)

capricia marshall
Capricia Marshall with Angela Merkel

AFPGetty Images

Know your numbers.

Number four is bad luck in China – it basically holds the same place in their cultural imagination as number thirteen in ours, and some buildings and hotels don’t mark a fourth floor. The reason: when spoken aloud, four sounds similar to the word for death, so unless you want an imminent end for your recipient, stay clear. You should also avoid giving someone four of any object: If you are offering pairs, go with two or six. The number six, like eight, is considered lucky.

Know your objects.

In Chinese, the phrase “give a clock” sounds like “attend a funeral”, so don’t give a watch or a clock. And leather gifts are an offense in India: cows are revered as sacred in Hinduism, which is practiced by about 80% of the Indian population.

Learn the gift rituals.

In India and in African and Muslim countries, give and accept with the right hand, because the left is often used for cleaning after going to the toilet.

Consider raw materials as part of the gift.

The materials that make up the gift itself, as well as the person who makes it, can be imbued with meaning and emotion. During one of her many international visits, First Lady Hillary Clinton and I had the honor of meeting Bosnian mothers who had lost children in the terrible Bosnian war in the early 1990s. Hillary invited the women to sit in a circle, which she often did in countries where women had problems, because it made everyone feel included and on an equal footing. The women then spoke, one by one through an interpreter, of the loss of their children during the war. The mothers each gave us a small sculpture they had made from bronze artillery shells, with complex design work on the sides hammered into the metal.

Protocol: the power of diplomacy and how to make it work for you

To date, Hillary and I have counted these sculptures as one of the most touching gifts we have received, of exquisite design and painful meaning. The unimaginable grief and pain of the women seemed to be welded into the metal that had extinguished life
of their children. Looking at my sculpture, it forced me to think: am I doing enough to help? What more can I do to avoid this in the future? For me, as a Croat, it caused so many emotions, and I imagined what my own father went through as a child when the war ravaged his land, remembering his descriptions of war planes above and hiding under the trees so as not to attract bullets from above. . Because I have experienced the impact of such an important gift, I advise people to keep raw materials that make sense – broken pieces of ceramic from an antique cup or plate, earrings Heritage ears missing a match – and offering them in a redesigned, creative way, perhaps as a mosaic or in a shadow box or souvenir display case.


Of Protocol by Capricia Penavic Marshall. Copyright 2020 Capricia Penavic Marshall. Extracted with permission from Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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