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In China and Hong Kong, one shouldn’t point. Australians like a little humility. Singaporeans closely monitor body language. It’s bad form to order alcohol at a business dinner in India. And be very careful with your business cards in Japan.
Every country has its own customs, and the ability to navigate cultural differences is a critical aspect of building successful relationships with business contacts around the world. This is particularly true in the Asia-Pacific region, where westerners sometimes struggle to understand the nuances of communication and social cues about everything from the way to dress to how to enter a room.
Making a good impression means spotting potential blind spots and doing one’s homework about the country and the way business is done there. This often means preparing well in advance of a trip, doing things like printing business cards that reflect the local dialect, practicing how to properly greet someone, or learning a few words and phrases of a new language.
Demonstrating such sensitivity to cultural norms can show your overseas business colleagues that you respect them and can be key to closing a deal or establishing a long-term partnership. In that spirit, here is a sampling of etiquette rules from key countries in the Asia-Pacific region:
Though Australia offers a more relaxed business environment than many other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, foreigners shouldn’t take the casualness too far. Dress for business, don’t be late, and do not make jokes about the country, its culture or traditions (even when the locals are doing so).
Remember: This isn’t an opportunity to trot out one’s old Paul Hogan imitation. While an Australian might say “G’day mate,” the same phrase from a foreigner could sound offensive. Visitors should stick to what they would say at home. “Hello” or “Hello, how are you?” are perfectly acceptable greetings.
Speaking plainly also is highly valued in Australia. Bragging about one’s business, overselling or being overly aggressive can be turn offs. Overtly running down one’s competitors is also held in low regard. Stay modest, and remain positive.
A sense of humor can help as well. Just keep the jokes directed toward one’s self. And don’t be offended if you receive some ribbing. Good-natured banter is often used as an ice breaker in Australia. Roll with it.
In the world’s second-largest economy a respect for hierarchy, a subtle approach, and an emphasis on politeness are hallmarks of the business world. As in other countries, a few maxims apply across the board: Being late is a serious faux pas; dress to impress; and don’t engage in discussions about politics or hot-button issues.
Seniority and hierarchy are highly respected in China. When doing business there, it pays to keep a close watch on a person’s rank, especially when interacting with government officials. Senior members of an organization should be greeted first when entering a meeting. If you are traveling with a group, the highest-ranking member of your organization typically enters a room first and leads meetings. And at dinner, guests are seated in hierarchical order, with the highest-ranking member seated on the east side of the room or facing an entrance.
Attention must be paid to physical cues as well. Back-slapping or hugs might be a gesture of respect or admiration in the United States, but in China, body contact is uncommon in a business setting. Do not offer a handshake unless another person extends his or her hand first. Also: Try not to point with your index finger. In China, it’s a rude gesture.
For many westerners, the concept of gift giving may cause confusion. In the past, presenting a gift was a major part of doing business in the country. In the last decade, however, the government has cracked down on gift-related corruption. Great care should be taken in selecting gifts that are not too extravagant or that may have a negative symbolic significance in Chinese culture.
The way one treats business cards requires consideration. Optimally, your card should have a Mandarin side and an English side, and when it comes time to present it, the Mandarin side should be face up. Cards should be given and received with both hands, and you should not carelessly stuff a card into your wallet or pocket. Business cards in China are treated as an extension of the other person, and thus deserving of care and respect.
A subtle approach to speaking can also serve one’s business prospects. A blunt “no” is impolite, as are other strong, negative statements. “We will think about it” or “maybe” are preferable responses. If you are at dinner, keep it light. Business is rarely discussed during meals, and talk about your positive impressions of China. Your goal is to build a lasting business relationship — the concept of guanxi — so work to bond with your Chinese associates.
Hong Kong may be a part of China, but it has developed its own unique business traditions.
Here, for instance, a light, western-style handshake is the norm for greetings. A person should be addressed by title and surname. And as on the mainland, allowing the most senior person in a delegation to lead the group and be the first introduced is appropriate.
Also like China, business cards are prized. However, Cantonese, not Mandarin, is the primary language. Thus, business cards should be printed in both English and Cantonese. Present and accept cards (and gifts) with both hands. It’s polite, as well, to take a moment to study the other person’s card.
In Hong Kong, communication is also less direct than in the West. Pausing before responding indicates that you are giving the appropriate thought and respect to a question. Don’t interrupt this silence with conversation. And, as in the rest of China, avoid brusque negative statements. Try to find a more subtle way of expressing disagreement than a blunt “no.”
Dining has its own set of rules. If a business contact invites you to dinner, it is impolite to refuse the offer. If you can’t make it, suggest a more convenient time, and be sure to keep the date. Invitations are for you alone, not a spouse or significant other, unless they are explicitly included. At dinner, wait to be told where to sit (there is usually a seating plan), and let the host start eating before you dig in.
A few other basics: Don’t be late; don’t delve into controversial topics of conversation like Hong Kong’s relationship with mainland China; dress well and in dark tones like black or navy, which are associated with professionalism in the culture; and if you must point, do so with an open hand. Pointing with an index finger is as rude in Hong Kong as it is in the rest of China.
India is a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, pluralistic society with significant cultural differences from region to region. For visitors, doing one’s homework on these matters can help build relationships and improve business prospects.
Politeness and attention to detail are key. As in other cultures, conservative business attire is expected. Pointing with one’s finger or foot is considered rude. And take time to examine a business card once it has been handed to you as a sign of respect. Handshakes are a part of business etiquette. Don’t be surprised, however, if some use “namaste,” a greeting which involves pressing one’s palms together, fingers pointed upward, and bowing slightly.
As in China and Hong Kong, respect for seniority and status is expected. Visitors should address business contacts with the proper courtesy titles and their surnames. And they should only use a given name if they have been given permission to do so.
Further, one should ease into business conversations with a little small talk. It’s considered rude to dive directly into a business discussion. And using “no” can be difficult for Indian businesspeople, because it might offend the other party. Try to avoid using it yourself, and look for your counterparts in India to say things like “we’ll see,” “yes, but it may be difficult,” or “I will try” when they really mean “no.” That said, business can be slow in India and being told something “can’t be done” is not necessarily the end of a conversation. It’s appropriate to restate your requests firmly — but do it with a friendly smile.
When dining, eating with one’s hands is common, and sharing food is considered good manners. It is common, in fact, to order a number of dishes and share them among members of the party at a restaurant.
A few tips: Eat with your right hand, as the left is considered unclean in Indian culture (use your right hand to give out business cards, as well); do not try to serve yourself, wait for a waiter or your host; and it’s considered the height of rudeness to share cutlery, drink from someone else’s glass, or take food from their plate. Also, save your spirits for the plane ride back home. Ordering alcohol at a business meal can leave your business counterpart with a negative impression. Stick to tea.
In Japan, rituals matter. A westerner must remain sensitive to business traditions, keeping an eye on their language, tone, and dress, recognizing hierarchy, and remembering local customs on everything from business cards to the way to properly hold one’s chopsticks.
Respecting age and seniority are critically important factors when doing business in Japan. When interacting with business contacts, acknowledge senior members of the organization first and direct your attention to them. Wait for these greetings to be initiated by the most senior members of a team, and after exchanging bows, shake hands lightly and with both hands.
As in other countries, a best practice is to keep criticism and negative comments to yourself. Maintain a positive attitude, pleasant demeanor, and smile when you can. It also pays to be understanding when it appears that your Japanese counterpart seems unable to give a clear answer — such as firm “no.” Such directness can be interpreted as rudeness in Japan.
Acting with sensitivity applies even to the simplest of communications. Know, for example, that exchanging business cards can leave a significant impression on one’s business partners. It is appropriate to present and receive cards at the beginning of a meeting before sitting and to offer them with both hands holding the sides of the card and a slight bow. Don’t take a card and cram it into a pocket or wallet, however. This is considered a significant breach of etiquette. Simply place cards neatly on the table in front of you during a meeting.
Learning a few words of Japanese also demonstrates a level of respect and preparation that can leave a good impression with your business partners. So, too, does opting for business cards printed in English and Japanese.
In a culture where conformity is often emphasized over individual expression, dark, conservative business attire works best for both men and women. And it’s smart to wear nice socks and elegant footwear that one can easily slip on and off. You may be invited to a restaurant or other locale where shoes are not allowed.
If you are asked to dinner, take the time to loosen up and get to know one’s business colleagues. But don’t go too far. Revealing an excessive amount of personal information can make others uncomfortable. And as for chopsticks, never jab them into your meal point up. It’s is taken as a sign of death and is considered rude outside a funeral.
Maintaining a clean, highly livable environment is of critical importance to Singapore, and the city-state takes seriously its role in enforcing bans on undesirable activities that may seem innocuous for many visitors. Famously, littering chewing gum can result in a steep fine, and for westerners, it might be wise to leave their packs at home. A public run-in with the authorities over carelessly discarded Dentyne isn’t likely to endear one to your business colleagues.
In fact, it’s critical in Singapore to establish strong relationships with co-workers and business contacts to get deals done. Meals are an important part of the culture. During a meal, expect to share multiple dishes at the table. On a formal occasion, allow the host to order all of the dishes. Doing so shows respect and trust in the host’s judgment. Discussions may last an hour or more, so don’t plan to dine and dash. And remember to eat with one’s right hand, as the left is seen as unclean.
Body language is an important factor in communications in Singapore. As with other APAC nations, one may not hear a direct “yes” or “no,” as they might cause the other party discomfort or embarrassment. Overt emotional displays are also frowned upon. Instead, pay close attention — as Singaporeans do — to non-verbal cues. Be mindful of facial expressions, tone of voice, and posture. They may tell you far more than the spoken word.
When greeting people, a firm handshake and small polite bow are most common. Business counterparts should be addressed by their professional or courtesy titles, followed by their surnames. (Female business associates are “Ms.,” unless you are certain that the woman is married.) And business cards should be exchanged immediately. As in other countries, treat the card with respect: Sticking it in one’s back pocket is considered an insult.
Among other business dos and don’ts: Dress in a conservative business shirt, pants or skirt. Jackets are not necessarily required given Singapore’s proximity to the equator; be punctual; treat senior people with the utmost courtesy and respect; avoid pointing or touching the top of a person’s head (the head is considered sacred) and keep your feet on the ground. Putting your feet up on a table or crossing your legs and resting a foot on the opposite knee is considered unclean.
Close observation, empathy, and common sense are key attributes of businesspeople who build successful enterprises and relationships in the Asia-Pacific region. They go beyond simply minding their manners to embrace the diversity that makes the world so fascinating. The right tone, respect for traditions, and commitment to doing the work it takes to learn about a culture can help open doors, build trust — and most importantly, help a business thrive.
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