Understanding cultural differences is becoming more important in our increasingly interconnected global economy. That's especially true in fast-growing, emerging markets like China and other parts of Asia.
I recently asked experts on networking in several Asian countries to share advice on how to network effectively in their markets.
"Face is everything to the Chinese," says Jihong Hall, one of China's leading experts on networking. She means "face" in terms of dignity, prestige, honor, respect and status. For example, she notes that Westerners often make jokes at their own expense or at other people's expense. But she strongly recommends against such joking with Chinese individuals until you know them very, very well. If you cause them to lose face, she says, you will lose their business.
Hall offers three additional recommendations for dealing with Chinese businesspeople:
- When negotiating, always keep plenty in reserve. A deal must be a compromise in which you have given enough ground so that the need for "face" is satisfied.
- Numbers are very important to the Chinese. For example, if your company was formed in 1944, it is best to not mention it because that means "death, death" in their culture. Even prices are guided by the meaning of numbers.
- How you look is significant. Smart, casual dress is fine, but wear stylish clothes.
Ho Quang Minh, a Vietnamese networking expert, also recommends that you "look formal" when doing business in Asian countries. He says:
- Westerners should be aware that some Asian businesspeople may talk less because they do not feel comfortable speaking English. Don't assume that they are not driven business professionals because they come across as quiet or reserved.
- Discuss business over a meal, but do not get right to the point at the first meeting.
Avryl Au, a Thai and Malaysian networking expert, offers these additional recommendations:
- When doing business in Thailand, don't expect to shake hands. Instead, Thai individuals will put their hands together—palm-to-palm—and place them just in front of their face, close their mouth and bow slightly. It is acceptable for foreigners to do the same.
- In Malaysia, Au says, a handshake is the official greeting, but after that you put your right hand on your heart. Again, foreigners may do the same. Westerners may have a firm handshake, but in Malaysia, it's generally softer. This is not a sign of weakness, but simply the cultural norm.
Although Americans and Japanese have been doing business together for decades, some entrepreneurs may not be familiar with some of the cultural nuances. For example, "one big difference between the Japanese business culture and Western business culture is an activity the Japanese call ‘nominication,' which means drinking communication," says Asato Ohno, one of Japan's top networking experts. "In order to build any kind of meaningful business relationship with your associates, you must go out for dinner and drinks."
While socializing for business purposes is certainly common in Western cultures, too, it is much more important in Japan, Ohno says. "People believe they can build deeper relationship with others more quickly by drinking together. It is almost like having casual one-to-one's regularly."
Exchanging business cards is an essential part of most cultures. But it's more ceremonial in many Asian countries. In Japan, for instance, this ceremony is called meishi. The card is presented with the front side facing upward toward the recipient. Offering the card with both hands holding the top corners demonstrates respect to the other person.
The business card is admired much more in the Asian culture than in Western society. It is viewed as an extension of the individual and should be treated with respect. Tucking it into a pocket, writing on it, folding it or even looking at it again are considered impolite and could insult your Asian contact.
Most networking basics are universal, and with some care, you can factor in these and other cultural nuances to get a leg up. You can rest assured that your networking etiquette and respect will be greatly appreciated as your business increasingly takes you into other countries.
The old saying, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," is very appropriate. However, one thing I'd strongly suggest: Don't just "do as the Romans do," ask a few Romans in advance. I have had amazing suggestions from local businesspeople. Their counseling and coaching made a huge difference in my ability to connect in an appropriate way in many of the countries I have visited.