To succeed in the global economy, business leaders have to be culturally in tune with their Asian counterparts. Only then can they create prosperous and profitable lasting relationships says Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., an expert in intercultural communication and international etiquette. A global consultant, trainer, and speaker, she is author of Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Guide to Building Trust, Inspiring Respect, and Creating Long-Lasting Business Relationships (Wiley).
Over the last four decades, Asia has driven global economic growth. India’s economy is expected to grow more than 6 percent this year, according to the IMF and OECD. China, the world’s largest economy in purchasing-power-parity terms, sits on $15 trillion in bank deposits, growing $2 trillion annually. Since welcoming global trade in 2012, Myanmar, formerly Burma, offers an extraordinary entrepreneurial environment — a “greenfield” advantage, in which a customized economy can be built to suit the modern world.
“As an intercultural communication and international etiquette expert, I’ve studied the cultures of China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan,” says Schweitzer. “From belief systems to business attire to communication styles, I help leaders gain the cultural awareness they need to succeed in Asia.”
Don’t leave your Asian business relationships, current or future, to chance or fate. Start with these eight key concepts and tips says Schweitzer:
1. Know how people prefer to act—individually or as a group
In individualist cultures, such as Canada, Great Britain, and the United States, people consider themselves individually responsible when making decisions and deals. Conversely, people in collectivist cultures common to Asia prefer group representation in meetings and negotiations. In China and Singapore, some will avoid making decisions without group input.
Fast fact: In Myanmar, people in senior-level positions are not as consensus seeking as leaders in other Southeast Asian cultures.
2. Know how power and authority are viewed
In ascriptive cultures where characteristics such as class, age, gender, and higher education are considered more important than achievement, power can be, and 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 gaining 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.
3. Know how people compare rules and relationships
Asked why the East and West think so differently, a Chinese philosopher replied, “Because you had Aristotle and we had Confucius.” In the U.S., written rules are regarded as sacrosanct; a contract is the relationship. Not so in most Asian cultures, where people see the world holistically, or comprised of completely interdependent relationships.
Fast fact: In China, business agreements may be regarded as merely guidelines. The Chinese tend to be surprised by a Westerner’s refusal to renegotiate a price or contract.
4. Know how people regard time
In monochromic Western cultures, time is regarded as linear, or sequential, and people do one thing at a time. In polychromic Asian cultures, people customarily multi-task. Accordingly, interruptions are routine, agendas dispensable, and schedules subject to change.
Fast fact: In Taiwan, employees average 2,200 hours of work annually—20 percent more than in Japan and the United States. Accordingly, some Taiwanese companies offer workers noonday “nap time,” including dimmed lights and soothing music.
5. Know how people communicate—directly or indirectly
The U.S. is a low-context culture: People are direct communicators, placing emphasis on their words. In business meetings, participants are expected to get to the point and move on. In high context Asian cultures, communication is indirect: Words can only be understood within the context of 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.
6. Know how formal or informal people tend to be
Michele Gelfand, a University of Maryland psychology professor, distinguishes between tight and loose cultures. Tight cultures have deep-seated social norms, showing little tolerance for nonconformist behaviors. Loose cultures tolerate informalities.
Fast fact: In South Korea, where hierarchy is highly valued, it is important to match the formality, rank, and status of a Korean counterpart in business negotiations.
7. Know how people’s social and business lives are aligned
People in the East and West also regard workplace time differently. 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 cultures, and to accommodate each one when celebrating, dining, or socializing.
8. Know how the concept of women in business is handled
The Third Billion Index by Strategy& (formerly Booz & Company) is a helpful gauge on how women succeed in the world of work. Compiled from a myriad of indicators that affect women’s economic standing, such as entrepreneurial support and equal pay, it ranks 128 countries, from 70.6 at the top (Australia and Norway) to 26.1 (Yemen).
Fast fact: The Filipino culture may value machismo, but in business, women are considered equal to men. The Global Gender Gap Index ranks Philippines second only to Norway in women’s ability to rise to leadership positions in enterprise.
“It’s misguided to assume there are global, universal ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving,” says Schweitzer. “Instead, by being culturally aware and knowing how to build trust and inspire respect, global economy leaders can create long-lasting business relationships in Asia.”