Doing businesscan be risky and challenging for newcomers to Asia where many of the behaviours that made you respected and successful at home can be misunderstood and looked upon as arrogant or rude. While generalizing is always dangerous and there is no one “Asian culture”, just as there is no one “Western culture”, there are some cultural similarities among the countries in Asia. Knowing the basics can keep you from starting your business relationships on the wrong foot during those first visits.
1. If you are a man greeting a woman, say hello with a slight nod of your head, unless she extends her hand.
For religious and cultural reasons, many women in Asia do not shake hands with men. It could be embarrassing if you extend your hand to a woman. Also, when you do shake hands, with men or women, leave the bone-crushing handshake at home. Handshakes in Asia tend to be much less vigorous and forceful, and this is perfectly normal for both genders.
2. Give your business card with two hands and the text facing the recipient. Receive a business card the same way. Take a few seconds to study the card and don’t put it in your back pocket or write on it.
Have a good supply of business cards made when you arrive in Asia because you will go through many. In many Asian cultures, business cards are seen as an extension of the person and should be treated with respect.
Lining up the business cards on the meeting table is appropriate and a great way to remember people’s titles and names. You may also want to put the cards in seniority order so you know to whom you should address most of your remarks and questions.
3. In a meeting or at a business meal, wait for your host to start talking business first. Expect a lot more “small talk” than you are probably used to.
In the US there is a saying, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” The opposite is true in Asia – business is considered very personal and successful business is built upon relationships.
4. Keep your emotions in check.
Harmony is an important value in Asia. Self-control is a virtue, and losing your temper will not help you gain respect.
5. During a group meeting, address your questions and comments to the most senior person in the room, but don’t openly challenge them.
Hierarchy is widely observed in Asia. Don’t be surprised if an employee who might be quite vocal when speaking to you one-on-one doesn’t say much or is vague when his manager is present.
Challenging people in front of others is a sure way for both parties to lose ‘face’ and can quickly sever a relationship.
6. Try to understand all the messages sent to you during your meetings. Look out for hesitation and non-verbal cues. There are many ways to say “no” in Asia without using the actual word “no”.
While you may value being direct and saying what you mean, especially in business, this is not a value that is typically shared in Asia. You may need to read between the lines and observe facial expressions and body language to get the real message behind the words.
7. When asking a question or waiting for a comment, you may need to wait longer than you are accustomed to. Don’t always fill the silence.
Asians typically have a longer gap in their communication between sentences than most Western cultures. The silence might make you feel uncomfortable and that’s okay. This gap is natural for Asian speakers because that is the way they use language, both native and foreign.
8. Invest in developing your cross-cultural competence, it will make your work more effective and your foreign experience more enjoyable.
Learning how to correctly pass a business card is easy and important, but understanding how to motivate your Asian team or how to successfully conclude a business deal is not as simple.
You may have heard the analogy that culture is like an iceberg. The 10% of the iceberg that is above the water represents people’s behaviours you can observe with your senses. The above tips are just a few of the behaviours you may encounter when first visiting Asia. The 90% that is below the water are the values, beliefs and often subconscious assumptions that inform those behaviours. Understanding those values, beliefs and assumptions are the key to being a successful leader in Asia.
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