Doing business in Asia Pacific

3 min

For Western companies looking to establish a foothold in Asia Pacific, it is important to have an understanding of how companies go about their business in the region.

I am currently reading a fascinating book by the distinguished American professor of social psychology, Richard E Nisbett, entitled: The Geography of Thought – How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why.

This landmark book sets out to demonstrate that human behaviour is not hard-wired, but instead a function of culture.

In one example, Nisbett showed an animated underwater scene to two groups of students – one set American, the other Japanese. While the American contingent honed in on a big fish swimming among smaller fish, Japanese students focussed more on the background environment. Nisbett uses this and many other examples to highlight the underlying cognitive differences between Westerners and Asians.

In the time I have been based in Singapore and travelling extensively across the region, I have had numerous conversations about business etiquette in this part of the world.

You quickly learn that there are far more similarities than differences, but understanding some of the cultural nuances can be a crucial factor in ensuring you get the most from your business and networking in APAC.

The West could be thought of as analytical and detailed. They focus on the problem at hand and arrive at an outcome based on the pros and cons of that particular problem. The East, however, is known for its holistic view. The preference of the latter is to come to a well-rounded and all-inclusive solution.

Below are some learnings which will hopefully be of use to Westerners new to Asia Pacific.

Meetings: Punctuality is highly regarded in APAC. Ensure you turn up on time but also expect to spend at least 10 minutes discussing non-business matters.

Business Cards: This remains an important act in this part of the world. Make sure you have them with you and always receive and give with both hands. You are expected to study the business card and place it in front of you for the duration of the meeting.

Authority: In Asia Pacific, management figures typically see themselves as father figures whereas many Western managers will see themselves more as part of a larger team.

Communication: While Westerners tend to adopt a direct approach when issuing instructions, Asians prefer to include a range of non-verbal clues when exchanging ideas.

Keeping face: It is important in your business dealings never to allow another person to feel embarrassed. If someone has made a mistake, rather than telling them directly that they have made an error, the preferred approach is often to share the responsibility to help that person save face.

Questions: While Western employees are often encouraged to challenge the ideas of their bosses, this is much less the culture in APAC where there is a reticence to ask questions of their managers.

The word Yes: This is one of the more fascinating differences in culture. While Westerners typically use the word “yes” to confirm a commitment to do something, in Asia Pacific the word “yes” is more often used to demonstrate that someone is listening. It does not necessarily mean an agreement has been made or that something will get done.

Language: Many different languages are spoken in Asia Pacific and no one expects you to master a language in depth, particularly if you are operating across the whole region. Instead, try to learn local phrases and expressions that can be sprinkled into conversations.

Social Standing: Asians place a high value on their socioeconomic status and believe strongly that the higher their social standing the greater their career prospects. This contrasts with most Westerners who have a more relaxed view about their social status in relation to others.

Finally, something a little light-hearted but nevertheless informative, a link to a quiz to find out if your mind-set is more Asian or Western!

Explanations for each question are provided at the bottom.

Armstrong Craven is a global talent mapping and talent pipelining specialist with offices in the UK and Singapore.

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