Doing Business in Asia – Important Etiquette Tips

The financial crisis hit and bruised the global financial centres like New York and London. Though, it doesn’t mean they are going anywhere, anytime soon, the financial powerhouses and dealmakers continue to look at Asian cities like Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai as the new world financial leaders. With so much at stake, it’s important that corporate honchos and financial bigwigs understand Asia, the many diverse cultures within it and how to work with and around people from the various nations.

Asia is a melting pot of diverse races, religions, cultures and ethnicities. As you move from one country to another, you will not only find that the language changes, but also the way the people dress, greet and behave.

For successful business relationships in Asia, it’s recommended that you learn a little bit about the various cultures, customs and etiquette. Doing so helps to build trust, understanding and confidence with those you come into contact with and can lead to very successful and longstanding business partnerships and relationships.

So let’s take a look at the key items to keep in mind when meeting people and conducting business in different Asian countries:

China

  • Chinese take time in decision making, so don’t expect a quick conclusion.
  • During presentations or meetings, avoid pointing with your index finger; use an open palm.
  • The Chinese do not use much hand movements. Avoid using large hand movements.
  • Exercise great caution while business gifting. It’s best to avoid clocks, handkerchiefs, or something in white, blue or black; as they are all associated with death.

Japan

  • Most people are familiar with the bow being the customary greeting in Japan. However, it is not uncommon to find Japanese people shaking hands, although a weak one.
  • The Japanese place a lot of importance on addressing people properly. Attaching the suffix ‘san’ to their last name is a sign of respect.
  • While accepting business cards, receive it with both hands. Look at it and make a positive comment about it. Do not scribble on it.
  • In a business luncheon or dinner, never pour a drink for yourself. Let someone else pour for you and you do the same for him.
  • Make sure the gift you take for your host is gift-wrapped. If you receive a gift, do not be in a hurry to open it. Save it for later.
  • Tipping is not expected and hence rarely done in Japan.

Thailand

  • Thai people love food. Do not be surprised if you are called for initial meetings over lunch or drinks.
  • Thais appreciate it if you greet them with the traditional Thai‘Wai’, a gesture made by pressing the palms of your hands together.
  • Thais consider feet to be unclean. Avoid pointing your feet at a person. Keep the soles of your feet facing down.
  • Thais hold their king in very high regard. DO NOT be disrespectful to the king or the royal family. That means, any object or paper with the king’s image should be treated respectfully.

India

  • Though many organisations now have the culture of addressing people by their first names, it is advisable to call people senior in age or position by addressing them as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ or adding Mr./Mrs. to their last name.
  • It’s improper to gift items of a personal nature. However, you can gift a household item or something for the kids.
  • In most urban centres, handshakes are perfectly acceptable. However, rely on your intuition to know if a woman is not comfortable with a handshake. Women generally do not offer their hands for shaking. If you are invited to someone’s house, refrain from shaking hands with the women of the family. Simply press your palms in a simple ‘Namaste’. Do not hug men or kiss women on the cheek.
  • Try to learn a few words of the local language and use it in your conversations. Indians love it when a non-Indian tries to speak their language or appreciates their local food. However, remember, Hindus do not eat beef and Muslims do not eat pork.
  • Feet are considered unclean. Avoid pointing your shoes at someone. Apologise if your shoes or feet accidentally touch another person.

Indonesia

  • If you are given a gift, refuse it verbally so as to show you are not greedy.
  • Indonesians place high regard on rank and status. You should always greet the most senior person first and address people by their full titles.
  • Meetings may not start at the scheduled hour. But do not dare to turn up late.
  • Always use your right hand to shake hands, offering or receiving something and eating.

 South Korea

  • South Koreans will expect you to refer to them by their family name.
  • It’s customary to bow when greeting people. The more senior the person, the deeper your bow should be.
  • They believe in building and cementing business relations through social affairs. So there are high chances you will be invited for after work drinking or dinners.
  • While out in restaurants and bars with business prospects, never pour your own drink. It’s a social faux pas. Whenever you find your neighbours’ glass empty, fill it. They will do the same.

Apart from the country-specific etiquette mentioned above, here are a few general pointers that you should remember when doing business in Asia:

  • Never talk about religion. You never know the religious inclination of the other person and your views might offend them.
  • Never call someone with your index finger; it’s considered rude. Also, do not snap your fingers, wink, or whistle in public.
  • When dining in these cultures, it’s best to follow your host or the natives. Eating habits vary greatly between these countries; what works in one might not in another. So take note of that.

The above is a preliminary guide to socio-business etiquette in different Asian countries. However, you should refer to a country’s etiquette handbook to have an in-depth knowledge of all its customs and manners.

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