Cross-Cultural Intelligence: Doing Business in Asia

As etiquette and protocol consultant Jo Caruana continues her series on cross-cultural intelligence, she explores the important nuances of making a good first impression in the Asian market.

 Before launching into a discussion about the important business etiquette to use when working in Asian markets, Jo makes one thing clear: all Asian markets are not the same. “Asia is probably the most diverse continent in the world,” she explains. “From Japan to China, there are likely to be more things that make each country different than the same – so it’s important to approach them individually.”

That said, Jo says the first thing to remember is that the rules you may be used to here in Europe might not apply. Business is often done differently in Asia, so it’s good to open your mind to the norms and culture, and to be aware of them – especially when you are being received in their country and not the other way around.

“I would say the key aspect of business etiquette in Asia is respect,” Jo says. “Especially when it comes to pride in culture and beliefs. Thus, if you’re interested in going to Asia to do business, you should start by doing your groundwork. By having some subtle but important rules in mind when you get to know potential collaborators or partners, you’ll start on the right foot and not risk offending anyone.”

Asked to share her top tips for business etiquette in Asia, Jo suggests the follow four:

  • Be aware of the organisation you are going into. Yes you need to know about the overall business culture of the area, but it is also prudent to look into how business is done in the particular company you’re interested in working with. This is because – unlike in most European business cultures – relationships are not built on an individual level, but as an organisation. As a result, it is rare that you will deal with one person from the company but with several – who will usually act as a group in meetings and when taking decisions.
  • Authority has a place. In many parts of the world, we’re using a more linear approach when it comes to hierarchy within business – but that doesn’t always apply to Asia. As elders hold immense respect in many countries on the continent, people with power are looked up to and their guidance sought. That doesn’t mean that the CEO rules with an iron fist, but that s/he will possibly be involved in decisions at all levels of the company.
  • Tardiness is not respected. OK – there is actually quite a variant when it comes to time-consciousness in Asia but, as a rule, being late is not a good idea. In Japan – where people are very strict about promptness – it’s best to be early or to arrive exactly on time (this is reflected in the country’s public transport system, which usually runs to the second!). In other places like India or the Philippines, though, things are more laid back. Nevertheless, communication is everything, so always let someone know if you are running behind schedule.
  • Give a Gift. There is an immense culture around gift giving in Asia, and there are a number of ways you can get this wrong (or right). For instance, in China, it’s important never to give a gift one-on-one because this may be construed as a bribe by the boss or other members of the team; instead, present the gift to the company. Similarly, in South Korea, you may find you need to really insist on someone accepting your gift – because Koreans will sometimes refuse it out of politeness the first couple of times you offer it. One predominant factor, however, is presentation. Across Asia, presentation is very important and elaborate wrapping is often appreciated as much as the gift itself. So the prettier your gift on the outside, the better!

Finally, Jo stresses that – even with these tips in mind – there is always more to learn. “There can even be little difference from state to state or village to village, so always try to touch base with a contact in that location beforehand and to discuss what cross-cultural intelligence might be needed. The effort will be appreciated.”    

Got any questions about business etiquette in Asia, or is there any tip you’d like to share? Please do so in the comments section below!

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Monique Chambers

Monique started succeed in 2018 and indulge in 2011. She has published two apps; Indulge Me GIFT and Indulge Me FOOD and volume 1 of The Artists Directory - Malta, as well as an audio book, Table 7. A PR and Marketing professional by trade with a Masters in Entrepreneurship, Monique's passion is to promote local talent and Malta in general.