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Working and communicating across cultures can be an unsettling business for many people, particularly if they are not familiar with the culture(s) in question.

Sometimes this is expressed in curious ways – such as wanting to find a quick rule of thumb, a sort of mini-guide that will fool proof you from making any mistakes in a new culture such as those of Asia.

I’ve often hear people say “Explain the South Koreans” or “Explain the Japanese” or “Explain the Chinese” to me, clearly expecting a quick rundown of the way all the citizens of an unfamiliar country or culture think and feel and behave.


Indeed, the question of behaviour is the one area that such people latch on to as being easily learnable. I often have requests for 5 or 6 bullet points on Japanese business etiquette, for example, or Korean dining habits or the best way to navigate a Chinese business meeting.

Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with trying to memorize some basic tips for dealing with countries or with teams – including multicultural teams at home – that require some knowledge of their beliefs, customs and traditions. Different cultures express their values through different behaviours in different contexts.

But if you want to communicate well and build successful relationships in these cultures, you should be ready to go beyond your usual comfort zone of ‘people like me’ and find out what works best in this new world, make mistakes, learn from them and adapt your behaviour without losing your authentic self.


The problem arises when you think your 5 bullet points, or a list of behavioural dos and don’ts, are all there is to the process of learning.

Many expatriate managers in Asia, including those who have been a long time in the job, as well as many leaders who handle multicultural teams at home, seem to think the answer to all their challenges lies in a simple guide to etiquette.

‘Yes, I know all about business cards exchange’ or ‘Yes, I know all about the depth of bows in Japan’ or ‘Yes, I know how to raise my glass before each course in China’ are common refrains from leaders who are often the first ones to complain that they don’t really ‘get the Chinese’ or ‘get the Indonesians’.

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And the reason they don’t ‘get’ the people from another culture is they are thinking that a culture is like a language. You can learn it, or at least a few phrases of it, and that will get the job done.

That’s why etiquette seems both an attractive solution and an end in itself. Knock off those 5 or 6 tips, commit them to memory (not so easy if you are dealing with more than one culture), and as the English say ‘Bob’s your uncle’!


However, Bob might not be your uncle if you think that’s the end of it – because, in the final analysis, you can’t learn a culture from a list. You have to experience that culture, you have to go out into it and be prepared to learn, listen and absorb.

You have to be ready to adapt not only your behaviour, but also an element of your thinking and beliefs, to the way that the Chinese, for example, regard contracts as being only a step in the process of building a relationship.

You may have to modify your ideas of decisiveness and logic in business to the much more personal and less rules-based mind-set of your Asian counterparts.

Yes, etiquette may be a good start. However, the only way to truly learn another culture – or indeed a number of cultures – is to experience them. And for that you need cultural intelligence – a skill that requires time, commitment and experience in real life (not virtual) situations.

Cross-cultural challenges are becoming an increasingly important fact of life in the new global economy. Leaders, business owners and organisations should take note and develop their cultural intelligence accordingly.

About David

David Clive Price, PhD, is an international revenue growth strategist, Asia and China executive consultant and keynote speaker. He is the author of the forthcoming Bamboo Leader – Cultural Intelligence For The New Global Economy. Previously the HSBC Group speechwriter for Asia, he has advised many global organisations on their cross-cultural communications and published several books on the diverse cultures of the world.

To find out more about using cultural intelligence to succeed in the new global economy, visit or email


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