Doing business with Asia: etiquette and culture
Despite the impact of COVID-19, Asia and ASEAN remain attractive regions for companies looking to expand their business. Roughly 60% (4.4 billion) of the world’s population lives in Asia, of which 650 million live in ASEAN countries. The ASEAN region has one of the largest economies in the world! It is estimated that by 2050, its economy will have become the 4th-largest in the world. Next to that, Asia also has one of the largest labor forces in the world, falling only behind India and China.
Of course, each country is different. Every country has its own customs, and the ability to navigate cultural differences is a critical aspect of building successful relationships with business contacts around the globe. This is particularly true in the Asia-Pacific region, where westerners often struggle to understand the nuances of communication and social cues – from the way to dress to how to enter a room.
Demonstrating such sensitivity to cultural norms will show your overseas business colleagues that you respect them. It might even be key to closing a deal or establishing a long-term partnership! Here are some quick tips on business etiquette rules in the Asia-Pacific region:
Business cards in Asia
Business cards are – like almost universally – vital to your success in Asia. They should always be treated with respect. For example:
- Never put a pile of business cards on the table and invite people to take one.
- Never slide them across the table as if they were playing cards.
- Never write on someone else’s business card in their presence.
- Never place a card you have received into the back pocket of your trouser.
For specific regions, such as Singapore and China, there are multiple official languages in just one region. Always make sure that the back of your business card is translated into the local language of the specific region you’re visiting.
Titles and rules of addressing
To begin with, there are some broad rules to consider when addressing someone. Especially for the first time! Always use a person’s more formal title. e.g., Director or Mayor is to be preferred to the general Mr or Mrs salutation. Never move on to addressing someone more informally until invited to do so.
For example, seniority and hierarchy are highly respected in China. When doing business there, keep a close watch on a person’s rank, especially when interacting with government officials. Senior members of an organization should be greeted first when entering a meeting. If you are traveling with a group, the highest-ranking member of your organization typically enters a room first and leads meetings. And at dinner, guests are usually seated in hierarchical order, with the highest-ranking member seated on the east side of the room or facing an entrance.
Dinner: best time to solidify the deals
The importance of building relationships and connections in pretty much any Asian country you want to trade in cannot be overstated. This is counts for everything! From the higher business-to-business level, right down to individual interactions between employees in the workplace. In countries such as Malaysia and India, the amount of time that employees spend relationship-building and socializing has been estimated to be somewhere around 50% of their standard daily tasks.
You will most definitely be invited for dinner after a meeting. This is actually the best time to solidify deals. How you make this happen? Well, by not talking about business at all! When at dinner, keep it light – business is rarely discussed during meals. Rather talk about your positive impression of the host country.
Dining has its own set of rules. If a business contact invites you to dinner, it is impolite to refuse the offer. If you can’t make it, suggest a more convenient time, and be sure to stick to the date. Invitations are for you alone – not a spouse or significant other – unless they are explicitly included. At dinner, always wait to be told where to sit (there is usually a seating plan), and let the host start eating before you dig in.
Eating with one’s hands is common in most Asian countries, and sharing food is considered good manners. In fact, it’s common to order a number of dishes and share them among members of the party at a restaurant. A few tips:
- Eat with your right hand, as the left is considered unclean. Use your right hand to give out business cards, as well.
- Do not try to serve yourself, wait for a waiter or your host.
- While in some countries – such as China, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore – you better learn how to eat using chopsticks!
In conclusion, a detailed understanding of the individual culture you wish to do business with will be critical to your success. There may be many similarities between countries in Asia – just as there are between most nations in distinct parts of the world. Be careful to ever generalize! There are huge differences in Asian business etiquette between regions.
Close observation, empathy, and common sense are key traits of businesspeople who build successful enterprises and relationships in the Asia-Pacific region. The right tone, respect for traditions, and commitment to learning about culture can help open doors. It builds trust, and – most importantly – helps you seal the deal.