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Business in Asia – A User’s Guide
by Sue Dockstader
How should you present your business card in Hong Kong?
Have you thought of extending your business into Asia, or even of just visiting on vacation? For many this desire is never fulfilled because of the feeling that it is all too far away. For others, one bad experience has put them off from dealing with Asia permanently. Often, even for people of Asian ancestry, the Orient is still a mystical and unknown place. Although economic news of Japan and China is frequently reported in the U.S. media, there is still much ignorance surrounding Asia as a whole.
There are, of course, the well-known taboos of not touching a Thai on the head or eating durians on the Singapore subway. But to be really successful in Asia you need to do more than just learn a few superficial do’s and don’ts, you actually need to relearn the things you already know! It long has been presumed that if you are good at your job in your home country, you naturally will be a success elsewhere. Just plough on with the tried and tested business and social strategies and eventually the message will get through.
Unfortunately life in the Far East is not that simple. Just think of the difference in attitudes and business methods between say Wall Street and Solana Beach, not to mention Tokyo and Jakarta!
It seems that even President Bill Clinton, who you would assume to have the best possible research resources available to him on overseas trips, caused some diplomatic red faces during his trip to Korea. One newspaper reported that In a series of protocol missteps, Clinton embarrassed Korean officials, confused his translator, baffled some dinner guests and delayed dinner briefly. It appears that the worst of his strings of faux pas was unexpectedly inviting a translator to stand between himself and Korean President Kim Young-sam. In Korea it is an insult for anyone to stand between two heads of state. Sharpening your sensitivity to cultural slurs and taboos is essential to avoid such cultural gaffes.
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.