As business professionals, we’re trained to notice and recognize advantageous and favorable situations on the market. It’s a fact that Asia is the fastest-growing economic region and the largest continental economy in the world. China, Japan, India, South Korea and Indonesia are the top five economies in Asia at the moment. Currently, Asia is home to 50% of the world’s fastest-growing companies and is also the place where22 of the Earth’s 37 megacities are located. When we start looking at the global market, it becomes obvious that enterprising and investing in Asia is important.
However, in order to do that successfully, we need to be prepared to navigate through the complex business scenarios that might occur, and we have to understand the subtle but important details that define the Asian business etiquette. With that in mind, I’ve collected and prepared a handful of useful tips in case you’re planning on doing business in Asia.
Stick to being formal
There are some broad rules to consider when addressing someone in Asia, especially when you’re doing it for the first time. Firstly, it’s very important to always use the individual’s formal title – e.g. “Director” or “Mayor” – rather than a generic “Mr” or “Mrs” greeting. You should stick to being formal until you’re encouraged to address someone more informally. Never make the decision to start talking more informally by yourself.
Furthermore, you should try your best to pronounce their names correctly to the best of your ability. Asian languages can have a different and complex sound compared to your native tongue. Saying their names right shows that you’ve done your homework, which would be very helpful to you when it comes to making a good first impression.
Be mindful of your body language
Body language is as important as the words you speak in Asia – sometimes even more so. To demonstrate your self-control, remain calm and behave formally – this shows them that you’re worthy of their respect. In most Asian countries, you’ll need to take facial expressions and body language into account in order to grasp the true meaning of what’s being communicated.
For example, you should never talk while your hands are in your pockets. Passing anything with your left hand is also considered rude in many countries – no matter if you’re right-handed or left-handed. It’s also considered improper etiquette to place your hands or fingers on anyone else’s head, face or mouth – the same applies to your own.
Some countries – like Thailand, Myanmar, and India – have a specific way of greeting called “wai”, where you slightly bow with your palms pressed together in front of your chest. Broadly speaking, if you don’t know enough about how body language is interpreted within the local culture in which you’re trying to do business, try to avoid making a lot of gestures or initiating too much physical contact.
Manage your time correctly
Plan to arrive early and stay late. Asian people like to take their guests sightseeing. They’d probably want to show you a local restaurant or a club, and it’s polite to make enough time to spend with them informally, too.
Remember, these are cultures whose history is measured in millennia rather than centuries! Allow plenty of time for discussion, dinner, and drinks.
Be careful about how you direct discussions during a meeting
Be prepared to begin with small talk about your business counterpart’s country, as well as their customs, history and current popular sports figures. Show interest in the small details and don’t be afraid to express your delight from getting to know their culture. However, be careful of breaching some sensitive subjects ie. politics, Royal family or religious matters; these topics should be avoided as discussing them can easily cause conflicts.
During and after the small talk, be sure to present the long-term plan for your cooperation – don’t focus only on the current business issue at hand. Explain the importance of both sides working together and how positively that would affect not only both companies, but the world itself.
Another thing you should be careful with is making humorous remarks during the meeting. Yes, we know that cracking a joke always breaks the ice, but keep in mind that humor is culture-specific, so something that is funny to someone in one culture may draw blank stares or serious looks from those in another culture. If you plan on being funny, be sure that the joke is appropriate to your audience so the translator doesn’t have to tell them where they should laugh.
The business cards issue
When it comes to business cards, never put a pile on the table and invite people to take one. You should also refrain from sliding them across the table as if they were playing cards, writing on someone else’s business card in their presence or placing a card you’ve just received into your back trouser pocket. Make sure all of your details are on the card and that English is printed on one side and the local language on the other. Always have an abundant supply of business cards. Practice the art of politely giving and receiving business cards with a colleague. For instance, in Korea, Japan, and China, you should give the business card with two hands rather than one, all while bowing a little.
There’s a quote I came across recently that’s very pertinent:
“In today’s global market, businesses have to stop thinking about the risks of doing business in Asia, and start thinking about the risks of not doing business in Asia”
Asian business etiquette can seem intimidating and confusing, but we hope the pieces of advice we’ve prepared for you will help you shine during your future endeavors on that continent.