By David Cline Price
I often find client’s eyes glazing over when I talk about business etiquette, and their eyes close completely when I go on to business etiquette in Asia. It sounds so boring, doesn’t it? ‘Etiquette’ suggests the position of knives and forks on the table, protocols for meeting royalty, exchanging toasts at a wedding, that kind of thing.
And as for business etiquette in Asia, what’s that? Something to do with whom should talk first on the phone or whether you can interrupt a colleague at a presentation. If we ever stop to think about it, the points to observe on business etiquette could be written down on the back of an envelope. Business etiquette is hardly something that stands in the way of a deal. A transaction is carried out through logical moves and counter-moves, offers and counter-offers, a slap on the back and a handshake.
However, in Asia the way things are done in other parts of the world might not automatically apply. That’s because etiquette, and its close cousin culture, not only influence they way business is done. They ARE the way business is done. They are at the heart of your competitive intelligence.
Unlike Westerners, Asians emphasize the importance of the group rather than the individual. In general, they conduct business, make decisions and socialize as a group. So it’s no use expecting to walk in, say ‘hail fellow, well met!’ and sign that contract.
Anyone wanting to establish an essential business relationship in Asia must be present for long periods of time, must be able enjoy the country in which they find themselves, and must get to know its residents.
Asian business etiquette is not just about knowing how to present a business card, what gifts to give and not give, how to eat with chopsticks or spoon and fork, or how to address people. Etiquette reflects beliefs and cultural habits that are the fabric of Asian societies. It is the way a Japanese, Thai, Malaysian, Chinese, Filipino, Korean or Vietnamese show respect to each other. It is the way they blend in and interact, showing pride in their cultures and beliefs. It is essential, for example, for doing business in China.
So if you want to be accepted as a trustworthy, credible person and good friend, you’d better forget about how you do things at home, and put in your homework on business etiquette and culture.
The assumptions, values and beliefs that Asians use on a day-to-day basis are what make them tick. If you want to do business in Asia, you have to follow those unconscious, subtle and often indirect rules of business.
1. Find out everything you can about the society in which you plan to operate: the principle religion or beliefs (Confucianism, Buddhism or Islam), the nuances of respect and hierarchy, the attitude to harmony and ‘collectivism’ and family values, even the attitude to time and punctuality.
2. Research whether the business models you encounter will be influenced by non-economic issues such as religion, family ownership and other loyalty structures. Take advice from your partners and agents on the ground, experienced expats, and from local Thais, Malaysians, Singaporeans, and so on.
3. Be aware of the importance and etiquette of business card exchange in Asia. Make sure all your details are on the card and that English is printed on one side and the local language on the other. Always have an abundant stock of business cards. Practice the art of politely giving and receiving business cards with a colleague.
4. Inform yourself fully on the negotiation practices in the country, the incidence of corruption, and the habits of ‘gifts’ or ‘commissions’ that you or your representative will have to navigate.
5. Try to come to terms with the concept of ‘face’ (giving, saving and losing it), which is essential in dealing with Asians. Avoid putting possible clients and partners in ‘yes-no’ situations, and expect oblique answers as part of the process of creating a relationship.
6. Prepare yourself for attendance at local festivals and business dinners by learning what to give as gifts, what not to give as gifts, how to behave at banquets and home visits, and how not to give offense but to be a celebrated guest.
7. Give yourself face by presenting letters of introduction from business leaders (local or expatriate) known to your hosts, overseas members of the local business community, and former government officials who have dealt with the country.
8. Provide precise and clear written information in both English and the local language (s) on your company, your proposal and what your clients have said about you for use at the initial meetings and beforehand.
9. Be ready to build up a network of relationships that will bear fruit in the long term rather than the short term.
10. Rather than try to learn Japanese or Chinese or Thai in any depth, pick up some simple local phrases and expressions that can be dropped into conversation as an ice-breaker: such as normal courtesies and greetings, as well as an occasional saying that everyone will recognize.
11. In presentations or meetings, be prepared to be scrutinized and adapt your words, your timing and your body language accordingly. Learn to expect silences and pauses for your words to be digested. Always make sure to present yourself well in all senses and that your ‘personal branding’ is top-class.
12. Show cultural sensitivity and build up a network of business associates and a local team that reflects the country’s ethnic and religious diversity. Demonstrate fair-mindedness and inclusivity at all times.
If you follow these 12 commandments, I think you will find that ‘business etiquette’ and ‘business culture’ are not boring add-ons to your business plan. They ARE the business plan.
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