In the last four decades, Asia has driven global economic growth and become a frontrunner in the global economy. To create lasting and prosperous business relationships with your Asian counterparts depends on sharpening your cultural awareness. From time management to the power of contracts, these distinctions vary between Asian countries as well.
Don’t leave your Asian business relationships to chance or fate. These six key concepts will help improve your international business etiquette.
- Power is achieved through consensus building
In ascriptive cultures, characteristics such as class, age, gender, and higher education are considered more important than achievement, and power often is held over people. But in Asia, many countries consider power to be participative. Even higher-ups can only use their authority to guide, not direct, people in achieving consensus on decisions.
Fast fact: In Japan, companies are hierarchical. Yet decision making, even within large corporations, is a bottom-up, consensus-building process conducted in steps.
- Contracts are renegotiable.
In the United States, written rules are sacrosanct; a contract is the relationship. Not so in most Asian cultures, where people see the world holistically, or composed of completely interdependent relationships.
Fast fact: In China, business agreements may be regarded as merely guidelines. A businessperson there may be surprised by a Westerner’s refusal to renegotiate a price or contract.
- Interruptions are normal.
In monochronic Western cultures, time is regarded as linear, or sequential, and people do one thing at a time. In polychronic Asian cultures, people typically multitask. Consequently, interruptions are routine, agendas dispensable, and schedules subject to change.
Fast fact: In Taiwan, employees work an average of 2,200 hours of work annually—20 percent more than in Japan and the United States. Some Taiwanese companies offer workers noonday “nap time,” including dimmed lights and soothing music.
- Communication is indirect.
The United States is a low-context culture; people are direct communicators, placing emphasis on their words. In business meetings, participants are expected to make their point and move on. In high-context Asian cultures, communication is indirect. Words can only be understood within the context of the speaker’s body language and facial expressions.
Fast fact: When Singapore businesspeople preface a statement with “In my humble opinion,” they are actually giving a firm directive.
- Work includes a social life.
University of Delaware researchers found that U.S. employees spent 80 percent of their workplace time on work-related tasks, and 20 percent on social activities. In Asian countries, including India and Malaysia, the split was 50/50, underscoring the importance of relationships in collectivist cultures.
Fast fact: In Malaysia, business guests are expected to recognize and respect the country’s diverse Bumiputeras, Chinese, and Indian cultures, and to accommodate each culture when celebrating, dining, or socializing.
- Gender roles vary.
The Third Billion Index by Strategy& (formerly Booz & Company) is a helpful gauge on how women succeed in the world of work. Using economic, political, educational and health based criteria, this annual index ranks over 128 countries, from Iceland and Finland at the top to Yemen at the bottom.
Fast fact: Filipino culture may value machismo, but in business, women are considered equal to men. The Philippines ranks in the top 10 on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index — higher than the United States, which ranks 20th.
Asked why the East and West think so differently, a Chinese philosopher replied, “Because you had Aristotle and we had Confucius.” These differences lie at the very core of the culture. But accepting and respecting them will in turn inspire trust and respect within your Asian business relationships.