I often hear Western businesspeople, including my own clients, say that they have difficulties understanding the right communication style to adopt in Asia business meetings or with members of their company’s Asia team – for example, when videoconferencing.

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There seem to be two major challenges: knowing when it’s your turn to speak, and knowing how to interpret the silences or long pauses with which the Asian team greets the lengthy comments, analyses and proposals of the Western team.

Both of these issues repay careful consideration, not least because they require reflection on your own communication style, which is not necessarily the same all over the world.

KNOW YOUR CULTURE FIRST

To understand how other cultures work, you must first know how your own culture works. Examining the kind of assumptions and habits that make who you are is the first step towards success. Without this self-knowledge you are unlikely to be able to adapt to other ways of doing things.

In most Western cultures, business meetings are run on the basis of certain rules. These include turn taking, who speaks and who doesn’t, and above all, when is the right moment to speak.

Team members in Western countries are expected not only to show cooperative and team skills, but also independent and creative thinking. If a senior executive is present, they will often try to impress their boss and in the process have an impact on decision-making.

Each individual usually has a right to speak in a Western business meeting and gives a subtle cue when he or she is finishing. The next individual can then speak without leaving a pause, but also without interrupting the previous speaker.

Such a meeting style allows team members to assert themselves and ‘make a difference’ without being either too thrusting or too passive. This is how everyone contributes to a lively and fairly seamless discussion.

BUT WHY DON’T THEY RESPOND?

However, in many East Asian cultures, the rules for turn taking in meetings are much more influenced by notions of harmony, face and hierarchy.

Deferring to an elder or more senior person often means not interrupting, allowing for longer pauses at the end of comments, and perhaps even total silence.

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This means that a Japanese team may respond to a detailed proposal with an ominous silence, or even appear to fall asleep. A Singaporean team, despite speaking fluent English, may seem reluctant to comment at the end of your careful and very detailed presentation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Western teams react to these scenarios with bafflement. They feel threatened by what they see as a lack of participation.

AVOIDING BAD MANNERS

In fact, these pauses and silences indicate respect and careful thought – rather than any rush to fill the gap or respond to questions that demand immediate answers as in more individualist Western countries.

In Asia Pacific, those with lower status only contribute to discussion when invited to do so. Team players do not draw attention to them selves or show pride in their independent or out-of-the-box thinking.

A consensus is often found in East Asia before a meeting, taking into account the views of different teams within the organization. Discussing in the Western style, with short pauses and high volubility, can seem rude to Asians or even bullying.

Westerners who then fill in these pauses with repetitions, paraphrases and intensive explanation heighten the clash of communication styles and reinforce the Asian team’s impression of bad manners.

WAIT TO BE INVITED

Business meetings in Asia Pacific often turn on the principle of being invited to speak. This is particularly true in industries or sectors controlled by the government or in meetings with local government officials.

Moreover, the Western style of taking turns by passing the ‘speaking baton’ does not apply in the more face-conscious, collectivist and hierarchical societies of East Asia.

Even in English-speaking Asian societies, where English is probably a second or even a third language, clarity, brevity, pauses and silences are essential for conveying your most important messages.

Brainstorming will not be the Asian response to your messages. Reactions will be conveyed slowly and obliquely, possibly not in the meeting itself, and often through non-verbal channels and body language.

It is therefore essential to prepare yourself for meetings in Asia Pacific with different expectations to those usual in your own culture. Only then will you find yourself on the right wavelength.

Have you had a communications problem with meetings in Asia or with your company’s teams in Asia or with other aspects of business in Asia? If so I’d love to help you.

I’m opening up some spaces on my calendar to discuss your specific challenges so if you’re ready to take action now, complete your details below and we’ll be in touch.

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