A guide to business etiquette in Asia

Asian business etiquette doesn’t sound like the most thrilling topic for discussion.

But if you want to succeed in any Asian market, a sound understanding of
business etiquette, what the words and actions of your partners, competitors and customers really mean is crucial.

In this article, we’ll look at some of the most important and obvious pieces of business etiquette in Asia:

Whether to bow or shake hands, when to hand over a business card, what gifts are appropriate…

But we’ll also touch on critical elements relating to the cultures, beliefs, values and habits which you’ll need to understand in order to convey respect and interact in a way which will make all of your dealings that bit easier.

Asian business etiquette in meetings

The initial greeting

It is perhaps something of a cliché, but the initial meeting with your Asian clients or partners will almost certainly have you worrying about the bow or handshake confusion.

Let’s not mess around. If in doubt, start by shaking hands. It’s become an increasingly common practice in most of Asia in recent years. If you’re sure about what you’re doing, a nod can be executed at the same time or a correct bow can follow afterwards.

But be extremely careful when bowing if you have not been taught how to do it properly – particularly in Japan. At best, you’ll end up appearing a little foolish.

In group situations or meetings, you may find yourself being applauded as a manner of welcoming you. In these circumstances, it’s polite to smile and applaud in return. In addition, should you be introduced to a group of persons or need to introduce a group of members of your own team, always do so in a line, with the most senior first.

Business cards in Asia

Business cards are – almost universally – vital to your success in Asia. They should always be treated with respect. For example:

  • Never put a pile of business cards on the table and invite people to take one.
  • Never slide them across the table as if they were playing cards.
  • Never write on someone else’s business card in their presence.
  • Never place a card you have received into your back trouser pocket.

You should also make sure that the reverse of your business card is translated into the local language for the region you are targeting.

Take care if there are multiple official languages in a region, such as Singapore – or numerous dialects, as in China.

What to say and what not to say

Titles and rules of address

To begin with, there are some broad rules to consider when addressing someone, especially for the first time:

  1. Always use a person’s more formal title. e.g. “Director” or “Mayor” is to be preferred to their general “Mr” or “Mrs” salutation.
  2. Never move on to addressing someone more informally until invited to do so.

You may already be aware of some rules of address for specific countries. But don’t be completely confident you know all of the details until you have them confirmed by an expert or someone native to the area.

For example, you might know that in Japan instead of appending “Mr” to the beginning of a man’s name, you add “-san” to the end of it.

You might not be aware, however, that you should never do this when referring to your own colleagues. It’s viewed as awarding them unsuitably high status.

Business communication in Asia

In more general terms, you should have an understanding of how business communication is likely to work in the place you want to trade.

For instance, if you’re used to conducting business in Europe or the United States, you’re probably used to a fairly direct manner of communication. People will broadly say what they’re thinking, with the most important thing to consider being the direct meaning of the words they’ve used.

In most Asian countries, you’ll need to consider context a whole lot more. You’ll also need to take into account facial expressions and body language to get the true meaning of what’s being communicated.

In fact, let’s take a brief look at this in more detail.

Body language

In addition to the different cultural traditions relating to when and how to bow in different countries, the nuances of body language are far more important to grasp in this part of the world than in most others.

By way of illustration:

  • Talking with your hands in your pockets should never be done.
  • Pointing is also commonly considered extremely rude.
  • Passing anything to someone with your left hand is also a no-no in many parts of Asia – no matter which is your dominant side – as the left hand is seen as unclean in some places.

There are also several small-sounding but very important rules, or simply ways to be polite, based on religion.

A Buddhist might be offended by the way your feet are positioned – particularly if you show them your soles, as they are the lowest part of the body and considered offensive. Conversely, your head is the highest part of your body and considered sacred. Touching someone’s head is thus viewed as very invasive – not something that should ever be countenanced.

Broadly put, if you don’t know enough about how body language is used in the culture in which you’re doing business, try to avoid making gestures entirely.

Make connections – networking

This is perhaps one of the most important tips for doing business in Asia:

If you want to succeed, you need to get to know the place and, most importantly, the people with whom you wish to make a deal.

You’ll want to spend plenty of time in the part of Asia you want to trade in – and it wouldn’t hurt if you liked the country either! Though of course, the latter is not a necessity.

The importance of building relationships and connections in pretty much any Asian country you want to trade in cannot be overstated. This is true at everything from the higher business-to-business level right down to individual interactions between employees in the workplace.

In countries such as Malaysia and India, the amount of time that employees spend relationship-building and socialising has been estimated to be somewhere around 50% of their standard daily tasks.

This more than anything else should give you an inkling of the value placed on making connections in Asian business culture.

Decision making – who has the last word?

The idea of a hierarchical business structure is not always understood in precisely the same way by many businesses in South East Asia.

Where in a British, European or American company the CEO might make a decision for the company on their own, even senior management in many Asian countries will only have the power to encourage rather than order a desired outcome.

In fact, in the overwhelming majority of Asian countries, a collective decision-making process is preferred to an individual one.

For example, in Japan, even the largest corporations will likely try to build a step-by-step consensus from the bottom up when conducting important business deals and decisions. Both Chinese and Singaporean businesspeople may also prefer to have group input when making many decisions.

There are exceptions to this pattern, however. Myanmar, for instance, is largely exempt from this sort of collectivist decision-making process.

An entrepreneur’s guide to Asian business conduct

This latter point just goes to show how critical it is to never forget one overriding fact of business etiquette in Asia:

Never generalise. A detailed understanding of the individual culture you wish to do business with will be critical to your success.

Because there may be many similarities between countries in Asia – just as there are between most nations in distinct parts of the world…

But there are also huge differences in Asian business etiquette between regions. When it comes to making these differences work for you, there’s no substitute for expert local knowledge.