Directions Conference and Incentive Management CEO Damion Breust shares top tips about mastering cross-cultural communication to achieve business success in Asia.
In the 25 years I have lived and worked in the Asia-Pacific region, I have seen many smart, well-meaning colleagues from Australia, Britain, and the U.S. become frustrated, even angry, when their normal way of communicating falls flat. I have seen relationships sour and business lost because someone from an English-speaking background, having grown up with certain customs and values, did not take the time to understand how business is done in Asia.
There is no simple, single answer, of course. The cultures of Japan and China are very different, as are those of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. And what works in Vietnam will be quite different from the approach you would take in India. So, how can you navigate these strong, distinct cultures and conduct business successfully?
Books have been written on the subject, and universities give entire courses on cross-cultural communication, so I will not pretend to give anything like a comprehensive set of answers. What I will give are the three most important things that I have learned:
Respect is the basis of everything.
This is true worldwide, but in Asia, the sense of respect is far more profound and deeply ingrained. In an Asian context, losing face, or being embarrassed or humiliated, is life-changing.
A flippant remark, or a well-intentioned piece of constructive criticism — something that may be part of normal cut-and-thrust in a corporate meeting in Sydney — may cause someone deep upset in Tokyo, and can undermine a relationship and destroy any chance of doing business. Gestures of respect are also important.
I once spent a week planning a meeting in Japan, focusing on the terms of agreement and exact wording of the presentations. My local counterpart was more concerned with the seating arrangements and the order of speakers. Until he was convinced that people were seated in order of seniority and importance, and that they would speak in that order and for an appropriate amount of time, he would not give any thought to the agreement or presentations.
Until I understood his priorities, and the extent to which respect for title and seniority mattered, I was just going to waste my time and get frustrated. I listened, we worked on his priorities first, and the meeting went smoothly.
Never make assumptions about the purpose of a meeting or assume that you have agreed on an outcome.
Do not assume that everyone wants to reach a final agreement. The meeting and discussion may simply be a step toward building a relationship. Do not assume that you have reached agreement, even if your counterparts appear to be saying “yes” and shaking hands. In many parts of Asia, politeness is a critical element of respect, and people may prefer to tell you what they think you want to hear rather than be direct and risk offending you. Only later, when you follow up, may you find out that your “agreement” was not as clear or as firm as you thought.
I once sat through an hourlong meeting to arrange a simple reallocation of work from one department to another. My Asian counterparts and I shook hands at the end and thanked each other for what I thought was the agreement. When I got back to my office, I discovered, via email, that there were quite a few gray areas. I realised that I had assumed too much. Instead, I should have been more aware of what was not being said, and I should have asked my hosts to lay out the terms of our agreement in their own words.
Relationships are at the heart of business.
Relationship-building is an important part of any business, but in many parts of Asia, relationships are the most important part of doing business — here it’s more about relationships than transactions. Strong relationships can take a long time to establish, but they are worth it. Taking extra time on a business trip to have lunches and dinners, and making more frequent trips to build relationships, will pay dividends in the long term.
Damion Breust is CEO of Directions Conference and Incentive Management, which has offices in Sydney, Melbourne, and Singapore.