How do you address people respectfully in Asia’s diverse cultures? And how do you greet them in the crucial moment before business cards are exchanged? How do you make a good first impression?
These may seem like very obvious questions to Western people, used to our relaxed cultures where first names are usually the norm and ‘Hi’ has even replaced ‘Hello’ or ‘Good morning’ as the way to show you are cool and confident when meeting other people, even in business circles.
But as people who have travelled or worked in Asia will know, easy-going Western forms of meeting and greeting are not as prevalent as some would expect.
Indeed, in most Asian countries, there is a marked cultural preference for displays of respect and awareness of position and hierarchy, even in superficially ‘international’ cities like Hong Kong and Singapore.
Being overly casual when meeting and greeting, or in communicating via email and business correspondence, is not the way to gain entry to Asian business circles or to build long-lasting relationships.
CORRECT MANNER OF ADDRESS
When addressing someone, for example, it’s always better to err on the conservative side. Don’t assume that you can use the informal first name as Westerners often do. Go with the more formal title of Mr. or Mrs. or even Dr. if appropriate (Asians tend to be very respectful about education and qualifications). Also, remember that married women always retain their maiden name.
In Japan, it’s slightly more complicated since it’s usual to add an honorific to the last name of a client (for a man this would be ‘-san’ as in ‘Watanabe-san’) instead of using ‘Mr.’ However, it is not appropriate to use the honorific when referring to your colleague or a family member, since that puts them higher on the respect scale than a Japanese person would consider appropriate.
Chinese surnames are usually first in what is usually a three-name series: Li ka-shing. But when introducing guests, the Chinese usually use full titles and company names, such as Doctor Michael Williams, CEO of United International Bank. You should do the same for the Chinese.
The Thais replace Mr. with ‘Khun’, the Filipinos will often call you ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ before your Christian name (if you are known and trusted) or before your surname. The South Koreans use both their full three-part name like the Chinese, and also a shortened Western form (Mr. Park and Miss Kim). The Myanmarese usually use their entire name with various honorifics (Ma Ma Naing or U Khin Nyunt) and they would expect you to do the same.
In other words, the overall rule is simple: don’t shorten anyone’s name or create a nickname for them. If they really like and trust you, and you are not very senior management, you may end up being called ‘Mr. David’ or ‘Sir David’ or ‘Khun David’ or even ‘David’ as I have been in various Asian countries.
But don’t assume that will be the case. It depends on the length of the relationship, the level of your acceptance and your seniority. It also depends on how Westernized is the prevailing culture. The Hong Kong or Singaporean Chinese may refer to you by your Christian name, but only after the relationship is established and you have begun to do business together.
HANDSHAKE OR BOW?
At the initial and indeed at all consequent meetings with your Asian counterparts, watch out for the Mr. Bean moment. By that I mean being put off by the formal bows, or clasping of the hands to the forehead, or other gestures of respect and greeting that your hosts may adopt with each other and occasionally with you. Do not be tempted.
I have had some hilarious moments in the foyers of Thai or Korean luxury hotels or fancy Japanese receptions when in my formal suit I have attempted to replace or follow the usual Western handshake with a more Eastern bow or tenting of the hands to the forehead. Sometimes my imitative gestures would work. Usually, I ended up looking like Mr. Bean about to keel over.
The general rule is: stick to the handshake. It is a quite common greeting when doing business in Asia (although Muslim women will not shake hands with men).
When a hand is proffered, shake it immediately, but again not in a Mr. Bean way by pumping it or holding on too long or too firmly. Filipinos are especially open to handshakes and are generally more Americanized and relaxed about etiquette.
FINDING THE MIDDLE WAY
Both the Japanese and the Koreans have been called ‘the great ceremonious people of the East’, and bowing between business colleagues (and almost anyone of equal or higher standing) is an accepted sign of respect. But unless you have been coached, or have been living in Asia a long while, it is better to go for the handshake.
If you feel confident, a slight bow of the head can accompany the handshake. In China, a group may greet you or your group with applause: simply applaud back. A slight concession to Eastern traditions is often the key to successful business relations in Asia.
In general, it is best to remember that Asians are understated. They do not appreciate body contact with strangers such as back slapping or touching, clicking fingers, pointing with index fingers (use an open hand facing downwards), whistling, legs on the table, placing your feet in the vicinity of someone’s head, leaving hands in pockets or sucking in air loudly to express surprise.
Be respectful in Asia, where good manners and good personal branding are even more important than in Western countries. Don’t come over as loud, casual or lacking in graciousness. It may sound like an old wife’s tale, but the more you are in harmony with your surroundings in Asia, and the less you stick out, the more likely you are to succeed.
Are there aspects of Asian business etiquette and customs that you can’t quite figure out? Do you feel that your mistakes may be losing you business? If so, I’m here to help you.
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