Doing business with Asia: etiquette and culture

Feb 20, 2024

Doing business with Asia: etiquette and culture

Feb 20, 2024

In today’s interconnected world, the Asian market presents an unparalleled opportunity for global businesses. With approximately 60% of the world’s population residing in Asia, including 650 million in the ASEAN countries alone, the region’s economic and cultural influence is undeniable. By 2050, ASEAN is poised to become the fourth-largest economy globally, bolstered by one of the world’s most significant labor forces. This dynamism, however, comes with its unique set of challenges and nuances, particularly when it comes to business etiquette and culture.

Understanding cultural diversity

Asia’s diversity is vast, encompassing a multitude of customs, languages, and traditions. Successful business dealings in this region depend heavily on one’s ability to navigate these cultural differences. Western business practices often clash with Asian sensibilities, where indirect communication and a deep respect for hierarchy prevail. Demonstrating an understanding of these differences is not just courteous; it’s a strategic business necessity.

cultural diversity

Business cards in Asia: more than a formality

In Asia, the exchange of business cards is a ritual of great significance. These cards are a physical extension of one’s professional identity and should be treated with the utmost respect. Key etiquettes include presenting and receiving cards with both hands, never treating them casually, and ensuring they are bilingual, especially in multilingual regions like Singapore and China.

Titles and rules of addressing

Titles and hierarchy hold paramount importance in Asian business culture. Addressing someone by their formal title and waiting for an invitation to use their first name is not just polite; it’s crucial for establishing respect. This is especially true in countries like China, where hierarchical structures influence everything from meeting dynamics to seating arrangements at dinners.

Dinner: best time to solidify the deals

In Asia, business is as much about building personal relationships as it is about the actual trade. Dinners and social gatherings play a crucial role in this process, providing a platform for relationship-building away from the boardroom. The emphasis is on getting to know one another on a personal level, with business discussions often taking a backseat.

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!


Adapting communication styles

Understanding and adapting to the local communication style is key. This includes being mindful of non-verbal cues, such as bowing in Japan or the significance of silence in many Asian cultures. Indirect communication is common, with the expectation that the listener will read between the lines to grasp the full meaning.

Local laws and regulations

Navigating the legal landscape is a critical aspect of doing business in Asia. Local laws and regulations can impact various facets of business operations, from corporate structure to labor laws and tax implications. A deep understanding of these legal frameworks, possibly with the assistance of local experts, is essential for compliance and success.

Technology and business communication

Technology plays a pivotal role in modern business communication, more so in Asia, where digital platforms and social media are integral to business practices. Embracing these tools while adhering to technology etiquette can enhance communication and facilitate smoother business operations. A  concrete tip is to prioritise prompt responses to messages and emails, which not only showcases professionalism but also fosters trust and efficiency in collaborations and transactions. Similarly to real life invitations, if you’re unavailable at the proposed time, make sure to suggest an alternative.

That being said, the rise of digital meetings and social media has transformed business communication in Asia. Companies that effectively leverage these platforms can enhance their connectivity and engagement with partners and customers. Understanding the nuances of digital etiquette, such as responsiveness and the appropriate use of platforms, is key.

Challenges and opportunities in 2024

As we move into 2024, the business landscape in Asia continues to evolve, influenced by global economic shifts and the ongoing recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies looking to succeed in this region must stay abreast of these changes, adapting their strategies to meet the new dynamics of international business.

Doing business in Asia requires more than just a good product or service; it demands a deep understanding of and respect for the region’s diverse cultures and traditions. The keys to success lie in flexibility, patience, and a genuine commitment to learning about and adapting to local practices. As the Asian market continues to grow and evolve, so too must the approaches of international businesses aiming to thrive within.

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