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Business in Asia – A User’s Guide   (continued)

It is easy to be deterred from trying to establish business links with several different Asian countries when the particular customs and business practices of just one country seem so unfamiliar and new. But despite seemingly enormous superficial differences, many Asian cultures share very deep similarities.

Unfortunately, many of these traits are in themselves often at odds with traditional western thinking. For example, in America it is usual to look at the person you are talking to (although the average length of eye contact is in fact only one second); however, if someone appears to be deliberately avoiding your eyes they may be considered rather shifty and unreliable. In Asia quite the opposite is true where diverting one’s gaze communicates respect and a desire not to be intrusive.

Asian values are essentially traditional, with much of daily life guided by ancient customs and beliefs. In the United States, for example, a job is usually thought of as little more than a business contract; in Asia a job is much more of a personal relationship between the employer and the employees. Hence interpersonal skills are of tremendous importance and it becomes essential to understand the minds of the people you are dealing with to be really effective. The yielding to a company’s hierarchy, even by a high ranking executive often can be surprising.

Recently I heard of a situation where the ground staff of a U.S. carrier flying to Japan were amazed when a Japanese businessman repeatedly refused their offer to upgrade him to business class. After some minutes of trying to assure the gentleman that there was no extra charge and nobody would need to be moved, he finally became quite agitated and explained that he could not possibly accept the upgrade offer because his boss already was in business class! Deference to one’s superiors and elders is an integral part the Asian culture.

The family also is a dominant social and spiritual force in Asia and often caring for one’s family is the biggest motivation for the work force. The importance of family over self cannot be emphasized too strongly. Have you ever realized that English is one of the few languages in which the word “I” is capitalized? Similarly, there are many ancient beliefs, based on religion or long observed custom which still have a tremendous influence on modern day thinking.

Being aware of the historical reason for some everyday idiosyncrasies often can allow one to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings. Having learned as much as possible about the traditions and beliefs of the country with which you hope to do business, remember to show respect, especially in your advertising and promotional campaigns for that particular culture’s holidays, ceremonies, and the meanings of symbols, numbers, and colors. Red, for example, connotes good luck in China but signifies bad luck to many Koreans. In western societies, black is the color of mourning yet Asians traditionally wear white at funerals because it is the color of sadness.

From a more practical standpoint it is always worth checking for local festivals and celebrations before planning a business trip. Visiting Hong Kong during Chinese New Year may seem like a good idea, to witness the spectacular harbor fireworks and other festivities. However, as many businesses shut down for the owner’s annual pilgrimage to ancestral villages in mainland China, business conducted during that period is usually minimal. Furthermore, the mass exodus of people from Hong Kong to China and beyond causes chaos on all forms of transportation, so this really is a time to avoid all but essential travel.

Careful translation of English into the local language is an obvious requirement for successful communication; however, even where literal translation is accurate the meaning easily can differ from what was intended. “A rolling stone gathers no moss” is a well-known saying implying that if you are not moving on and up in your life you are gathering the moss of lethargy and passivity.

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