I read somewhere recently that the best way to approach the differences of culture and etiquette in Asia between different countries, and to avoid confusion with Western cultural norms, is to group Asian countries under their primary means of eating: Chopsticks or Hands.
The Chopsticks countries include Japan, Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore as well as the overseas Chinese in general. They are characterised by their governing ‘Confucian’ approach to doing business.
Hands countries, by contrast, include those largely Islamic peoples and nations that regard eating with the left hand as ‘unclean’ and therefore use the right hand to eat. These cultures include Malaysia, Indonesia, southern Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) and are characterised by their adherence to deep spiritual beliefs.
CHOPSTICKS VERSUS HANDS
The problem with such an arbitrary division of cultures is that it is both misleading and condescending. A proponent of the Chopsticks school of thought has written that the use of chopsticks in these countries reflects a ‘non-rational’ or ‘illogical’ cultural trait because eating with chopsticks is not the easiest, most hygienic or elegant way of consuming food.
A proponent of the Hands school ventured that, although eating with the right hand suggested deep spiritual beliefs, it was also an uncomfortable and irrational habit.
Neither Western commentator thought fit to point out that chopsticks were the logical answer to eating from a rice bowl and transferring delicate pieces of food to that bowl from communal dishes in the centre of the table.
Nor did they remark that the Koran places a special emphasis on community and family, hence communal eating that allows for food to be wrapped in breads.
DEEP SEATED SPIRITUAL BELIEFS
Quite apart from the cultural ignorance such generalisations reflect, such arbitrary divisions confuse more than they inform. It is true that various Asian countries often have different cultures with aspects of etiquette that are uniquely theirs.
But as a general rule, it is true to say that almost all Asian cultures have more deep-seated and widespread spiritual beliefs than Western ones.
In terms of business etiquette, this often translates into a higher degree of formality, more gestures of respect, and more concern with correct titles, among other refined manners. Japan and South Korea are not the only ‘ceremonious’ countries in Asia.
Indeed, bowing and card giving, awareness of seniority, correct forms of toasting, Islamic and Buddhist forms of greeting, all go to the heart of business in Asia. Business etiquette is not an optional add-on to building successful relationships in Asia; it is an essential means for showing respect and therefore creating long-term trust.
It doesn’t matter if you’re not very good at it – at least to start with – or that you make some basic social or cultural mistakes. The mere fact that you aim to participate and to learn already shows respect, and your faux-pas will often be greeted with humour as well as indulgence.
IT’S ALL IN THE MINDSET
For what differentiates almost all Western business people that are successful in Asia, as well as almost all successful business travellers, is that they have learned to see the culture of the country in which they are a visitor from another viewpoint to their own, more Western-oriented culture.
They are able to enter into the spirit of that country through willingness, preparation, emotional intelligence, empathy and lateral thinking.
To take a simple example, ask yourself whether you would be flattered to be called ‘primitive hunter-gatherers’ because you still eat with a knife and fork. Or whether you would be happy to be termed ‘inelegant’ because you were hooked on McDonald’s burgers (which you eat with your hands, by the way).
These are not incidental questions. Countless surveys have concluded that the way you present yourself in the office and work environment accounts for almost 80 per cent of business success.
Business is often based on first and on-going impressions, body language, common courtesies and attention to small details.
How much truer is this in an Asian context, where fitting in and collective ‘harmony’ are at a premium, as well as building long-lasting relationships and saving face (avoiding embarrassment) at all costs.
Showing some awareness of and interest in local customs, demonstrating a personal interest in the family, lifestyle, travel plans and hobbies of your partner, all these build personal rapport and create the trust that is so central to building profitable business partnerships in Asia.