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Master Business Etiquette in Asia With These 8 Tips

Tuesday, March 31, 2015
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Would your manager let you take a nap in the middle of the day? Perhaps, if you worked in Taiwan. 

During the last four decades, Asia has driven global economic growth. As a result, you have to be culturally in tune with your Asian business counterparts to succeed in the global economy. Only then can you create prosperous and lasting business relationships. 

Don’t leave your Asian business relationships to chance or fate. Use these eight concepts and tips to help improve your business etiquette. 

1. Know how people make decisions.

In individualist cultures, such as Canada, Great Britain, and the United States, people consider themselves individually responsible when making decisions and deals. Conversely, people in collectivist cultures, which are common in Asia, prefer group representation in meetings and negotiations. In China and Singapore, some will avoid making decisions without group input. 

Fast fact: In Myanmar, people in senior-level positions are not as consensus seeking as leaders in other Southeast Asian cultures.

2. Know the power of authority.

In ascriptive cultures, where characteristics such as class, age, gender, and higher education are considered more important than achievement, power often is held over people. But in Asia, many countries consider power to be participative. Even higher-ups can only use their authority to guide, not direct, people in gaining consensus on decisions. 

Fast fact: In Japan, companies are hierarchical. Yet decision making, even within large corporations, is a bottom-up, consensus-building process conducted in steps.

3. Know how people view rules and relationships.

In the United States, written rules are sacrosanct; a contract is the relationship. Not so in most Asian cultures, where people see the world holistically, or composed of completely interdependent relationships.

Fast fact: In China, business agreements may be regarded as merely guidelines. A businessperson there may be surprised by a Westerner’s refusal to renegotiate a price or contract. 

4. Know how people regard time. 

In monochromic Western cultures, time is regarded as linear, or sequential, and people do one thing at a time. In polychromic Asian cultures, people typically multitask. Consequently, interruptions are routine, agendas dispensable, and schedules subject to change. 

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Fast fact: In Taiwan, employees average 2,200 hours of work annually—20 percent more than in Japan and the United States. Some Taiwanese companies offer workers noonday “nap time,” including dimmed lights and soothing music. 

5. Know if people communicate directly or indirectly.

The United States is a low-context culture; people are direct communicators, placing emphasis on their words. In business meetings, participants are expected to get to the point and move on. In high-context Asian cultures, communication is indirect. Words can only be understood within the context of the speaker’s body language and facial expressions.

Fast fact: When Singapore businesspeople preface a statement with “In my humble opinion,” they are actually giving a firm directive. 

6. Know how formal or informal people tend to be.

According to Michele Gelfand, a University of Maryland psychology professor, tight cultures have deep-seated social norms, showing little tolerance for nonconformist behaviors. Loose cultures tolerate informalities.

Fast fact: In South Korea, where hierarchy is highly valued, it is important to match the formality, rank, and status of a Korean counterpart in business negotiations.

7. Know how much of the workday people actually spend on work.

University of Delaware researchers found that U.S. employees spent 80 percent of their workplace time on work-related tasks, and 20 percent on social activities. In Asian countries, including India and Malaysia, the split was 50/50, underscoring the importance of relationships in collectivist cultures.

Fast fact: In Malaysia, business guests are expected to recognize and respect the country’s diverse cultures, and to accommodate each culture when celebrating, dining, or socializing.

8. Know the gender gap in the workplace.

The Third Billion index, compiled by Strategy&, helps gauge how women succeed in the workplace. Composed of myriad indicators that affect women’s economic standing, such as entrepreneurial support and equal pay, the index ranks 128 countries, from Australia and Norway at the top to Yemen at the bottom.

Fast fact: Filipino culture may value machismo, but in business, women are considered equal to men. The Philippines ranks in the top 10 on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index—higher than the United States, which ranks 20th.  

Asked why the East and West think so differently, a Chinese philosopher replied, “Because you had Aristotle and we had Confucius.” It’s misguided to assume that Western ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving are universal. Instead, by being culturally aware and knowing how to build trust and inspire respect, global economic leaders can create enduring business relationships in Asia.


About the Author
Sharon Schweitzer, JD, is an expert in intercultural communication and international etiquette. A global consultant, trainer, and speaker, she is the author of Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Guide to Building Trust, Inspiring Respect, and Creating Long-Lasting Business Relationships. Visit www.protocolww.com for more information. 
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