Yes, I know we’re not supposed to in this age of political correctness but how many times do we hear other people doing it, catch a hint of it on TV, and (god forbid) find ourselves consciously or sub-consciously doing it?
I mean stereotyping.
According to psychologists, stereotypes can be mental on an interpersonal level and social on an intergroup level. In other words, they reinforce assumptions and give relief. For that reason they are often defensive and negative.
That’s not always the case. Apparently we are very ambivalent in our stereotypes, and can show considerable warmth in our stereotypical admiration of closely allied groups.
We can also show instinctive, stereotypical envy of high status, competitive groups such as rich people and should I mention them, Asians?
The stereotypes of the ‘impassive Japanese’ or the ‘Master of Kung Fu’ or ‘Inspector Wong’ have been replaced by a new set of stereotypes related to the wave of shoppers from China (previously Japan) in the luxury goods stores of the West waving their credit cards and buying up every Gucci and Louis Vuitton bag available.
According to our stereotype, these new Chinese are superficial big spenders, rapid learners and status-seekers, and now comprise the largest middle-class consumer market on earth.
South Koreans, pre-‘Gagnam style’, were once almost exclusively known for Samsung products, shipbuilding, a crazy northern neighbour, and a propensity for eating dogs. Hongkongers were supposed to be obsessed with money, Singaporeans were not allowed to spit or eat chewing gum. The list goes on.
Rightly or wrongly (largely wrongly), stereotypes about Asians are still current. And this despite the fact that East and Southeast Asia is made up of more than twenty countries, many of them with strong ethnic and regional differences, and almost all of them with a growing level of sophistication and education.
This entire population, more than a fifth of the world’s total, cannot be handled by stereotypes.
So if you are going to do business in any one of these twenty or so Asian Markets (or indeed in other global markets), here are three leadership questions to ask yourself:
1) Do I know anything about the country or am I assuming from what I’ve seen that it’s more or less Westernized by now and that if I need any help, others will do it for me?
The assumption behind this question is that wherever you go to do business in Asia, the standard for catching up will be a Western one.
In other words, you can pretty much get the lay of the land by relying on Western models of behaviour and everyone aspiring to those. That is a dangerous assumption.
2) Do I need anything other than the basic knowledge because, after all, the language of business is global? Just get the deal done.
The language of business is global, and often English, but that doesn’t mean that the ‘how’ of business, or even the ‘why’ of business, is the same from country to country or from culture to culture.
English is a second or even third language in many Asian countries, so you will often be partially excluded from conversations you want to follow.
It’s also likely that you come up against a whole network of obligations and loyalties that completely undermine your faith in a straightforward, rational, and Western way of doing business.
3) Should I be anything other than a figurehead? After all, the team is there for the longer term (or is local) and I’m a short-term expat/specialist on a ‘parachute’ trip.
Very few leaders try to parachute into the Asian region any more, at least not on a regular basis, and having a local team is no excuse for not understanding and working together with that local team, which even in a small country like Singapore may well be made up of people of diverse ethnic backgrounds.
So anyone intending to develop business in Asia must get some sort of handle on the local and regional business cultures.
A figurehead from the West, or an expatriate who relies entirely for connections on the expatriate community, will not build the essential long-term and local relationships for leading or partnering a successful business in Asia.
PEOPLE, NOT STEREOTYPES
Don’t assume that Hong Kong and Singapore and Shanghai are the same. They aren’t. You must do your homework.
Most of all be ready to listen and learn. It’s not just a matter of handing out your business cards right, left and centre or knowing how and when to accept a toast at a business dinner.
It’s wanting to find out what makes your counterparts tick, what they believe in, what they do even in their spare time.
It’s about people, not stereotypes, individual people, some of them perhaps more educated in the West than you’ve been. They may be more widely travelled and knowledgeable about East and West than you are.
Their business success may be precisely because of their awareness of the emotional and professional synthesis of the two.
It’s about learning attitudes and customs that are foreign to you but that get you places even in business that you couldn’t have previously imagined.
Most of all, it’s about having the confidence to plunge in. Leave your stereotypes at home and take a long deep bathe in other cultures and mindsets. You’ll be surprised how refreshing it is.
This is an extract from my new book, Bamboo Strong – Cultural Intelligence Secrets To Succeed In The New Global Economy.