I’m often asked, why do you need to worry about culture — after all we live in a globalised world. Isn’t business the same everywhere?
The answer is pretty much NO. And the reason is more deep-rooted than you might think. It is not simply about business etiquette.
The cultural subtleties that influence international business reach far beyond the ability to greet your Asian counterpart correctly or choose an appropriate gift for a particular situation or present your business card in the right way.
Whether doing business in China or Japan or South Korea or any of the ASEAN markets, knowledge of a culture’s attitude to time and punctuality, whether the society is more collectivist in behaviour than individualist, the nuances of respect and hierarchy, are key elements.
Such knowledge can radically affect your understanding of the guy waiting for you in the next office or the woman across the table at a business lunch. Above all, it can affect your own chances of being correctly understood.
Yes, we live in a world of globalised business.
But the ubiquity of the internet and social media are no guarantee of avoiding unnecessary blunders (even insults!) towards your Asian hosts.
Ignorance of whom you are really dealing with may actively destroy your chances of building personal knowledge. Without that, you cannot create the kind of credibility and trust that engenders long-term success. And Asia business is all about long-term relationships.
Even the way you frame your e-mails can jeopardise relationships across cultures. English may be a lingua franca, but in many countries of Asia this lingua franca conceals a strong attachment to local languages, customs, dialects and deep-rooted beliefs.
Ignore them at your peril!
Asian countries are considered to be ‘high context’ cultures. In a high context culture many things are left unsaid, letting the culture do the explaining.
Depending on the particular economy and how deeply Western models influence it, communication is largely indirect.
A straightforward ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is not usually offered to a direct question, especially in a country like Japan. On the other hand, Asians are often persistent, if passive negotiators.
By contrast, Westerners largely come from ‘low context’ cultures. They communicate directly, get to the point and move on quickly in business so as not to ‘waste time’, even if they don’t know someone well.
Action and getting down to business are viewed as priorities, which often means that ‘high context’ Asians view their Western counterparts as impatient, insincere or casual.
Or all three together!
Of course there is nothing wrong with getting to the point in business negotiations.
However, in Asia it is generally considered more appropriate to take these negotiations step-by-step, drawing in and referring to each person or department responsible for each aspect of the deal.
When all parties are fully convinced that their concerns are covered, the trust is built that may eventually ensure long-term business relationships in Asia.
For those who are unwilling or unable to spend sufficient time in Asia to achieve this, a parachute in-and-out visit will not be of much assistance.
Your company’s local representative must maintain ongoing contact with your proposed partner. Trust must be developed to the extent that your Asian partner or client is assured of the TOTAL VALUE of the deal in the LONG TERM.
For Asian business people, this is far preferable to short-term business deals that always have to begin again from scratch when the next step is negotiated.