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, a certain safety in numbers against what is perceived as a threat. For that reason they are often defensive and negative.
That’s not always the case. It depends on levels of status and competence. 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?
Yes, that’s the point we have reached in the 21st century global economy.
NEW ASIA STEREOTYPES
The stereotypes of the ‘impassive Japanese’ or the ‘Master of Kung Fu’ or ‘Inspector Wong’ have been replaced by a new set of stereotypes related to the wave of shoppers from China (previously Japan) in the luxury goods stores of the West waving their credit cards and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.
These new Chinese are superficial big spenders, according to our stereotype, 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 21 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 those 21 or so Asian Markets, here are three questions to ask yourself before you go in, when you go in and after you’ve gone in.
These questions apply even if you are only thinking of going in, because the answers to them will reveal your ability to unlock those markets, compete successfully and become a winner in the long term.
- 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?
Notice the tricky ‘by now’ I inserted. 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, even if you only read up a little about the country on the plane before you arrive, you can pretty much get the lay of the land by relying on Western models of behaviour and everyone aspiring to those.
STEREOTYPE #1:THE WEST IS AHEAD, ASIA IS STILL BEHIND
- 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 language in most Asian countries (some might say even third in Hong Kong), 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 responsibilities – for example, long-term relationships, loyalties, family connections, religious and social ties, national missions and beliefs – that completely undermine your faith in a straightforward, rational, and Western way of doing business.
STEREOTYPE #2: ASIANS ARE LEARNING THEIR BUSINESS METHODS FROM THE WEST
That’s a pretty big assumption. But that’s the thing about stereotypes: they take short cuts.
In order to illustrate this point further, I have one final question for you.
- 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/expert on a ‘parachute’ trip. I can leave the rest to the locals.
Very few people try to parachute into Asia’s 21 countries 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 in a country like Singapore may well be made up of people of diverse ethnic backgrounds).
Anyone intending to open up or develop business in Asia must get some sort of handle on Asian culture (by which I mean again one of Asia’s 21 related cultures), and not least of Asia’s business cultures.
Yes, they are all related. Yes, they are often similar according to religious and belief backgrounds or ethnicity. The Chinese diaspora into Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, for example, has resulted in communities of closely related beliefs and traditions.
Muslim majority countries like Malaysia and Indonesia clearly have related etiquettes and customs and taboos. You night even say that there are close historical and other ties between Japan and Korea, which have resulted in certain similarities of culture and even ways of doing business.
But a figurehead from the West, or an expatriate that relies entirely for connections on the expatriate community, will not build the essential long-term and local relationships for creating or partnering a successful business empire in Asia.
STEREOTYPE #3: ASIANS WILL BENEFIT FROM MY SHORT-TERM PRESENCE BECAUSE I BRING FRESH IDEAS
Whether you have a small business or a huge empire to promote and build in Asia, it’s much better to come to market not with impatience and stereotypes but with empathy. That’s the way to introduce fresh ideas. Don’t assume that Hong Kong and Singapore and Shanghai are the same. They aren’t. Do your homework.
Most of all, be ready to listen and learn. It’s not just a matter of handing our your business cards right 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 more educated in the West than you’ve been. Often they are 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 the ways of East. You’ll be surprised how refreshing it is.