When it comes to doing business with people from other cultures, the differences can be as striking as the similarities. Understanding these cultural nuances and adapting your behavior appropriately is key to establishing trust and rapport with your contact—and avoiding any unintentional missteps that could have lasting consequences. To some extent, every culture has its own rules for how business should get done — whether it’s shaking hands or bowing, saying please and thank you or keeping a neutral expression in tense situations. But while general principles tend to be similar across most cultures, specifics can vary widely depending on where you are; in this article we’ll be focusing on the differences between Asian and Western business culture.
Differences in Communication Behaviour
In general, Western communication styles tend to be more direct, aggressive, and confrontational than those in Asia, which are typically more modest and indirect. Asian cultures place a high value on harmony and avoiding confrontation, so direct verbal attacks are considered very rude (in some cases, even a physical assault). For example, in the U.S., openly challenging your boss’s ideas would be considered appropriate and even expected, but in Asian cultures, it would be seen as extremely disrespectful. Similarly, in Asia, silence is considered a sign of respect and agreement, whereas in the West, silence is often seen as a sign of disinterest or boredom. In Asia, it’s common to respond to a statement with “I agree” rather than “I disagree,” even if you oppose the idea. And when debating an issue, it’s not uncommon for participants to avoid directly disagreeing with each other.
Confucianism and the Asian Culture of Harmony
One of the primary forces influencing Asian business culture is Confucianism, a philosophical system that has been central to Asian cultures for millennia. Centred on the idea of harmony or peace, the philosophy holds that human beings are inherently flawed and selfish, so people must work together to create order and balance. Because of this, Asian cultures tend to be extremely collectivist, putting the needs of the group above those of the individual. Those who have power are expected to use it for the greater good of society, often at their own expense.
Asian Values of Humility and Reciprocity
Asian cultures also place a high value on humility and reciprocal relationships between business partners. This is partly due to the hierarchical nature of Asian society, where people are expected to respect those who are higher up in the social ladder. One clear example of this is the seniority system, which requires that younger people show deference to those who are older. Another is the concept of Guanxi, which roughly translates as “relationships” and refers to the idea that you build trust with others through a system of favours and goodwill.
Hierarchy and Authority in Asian Business Culture
Hierarchy is a central aspect of every Asian business culture, with the chain of command highly important for maintaining order and promoting collaboration. In most Asian cultures, there’s a clear distinction between the people who make the decisions and those who execute them. For example, in Japan, it’s rare to see middle managers making presentations; they tend to focus mainly on executing orders from the top. These cultures also place a high value on obedience and submissiveness; employees are expected to follow their supervisor’s instructions without question.
As you can see, there are many cultural differences between Asian and Western business cultures, and these are just a few of the most important ones. Understanding these nuances and adapting your behaviour appropriately is key to establishing trust and rapport with your contact. If you can bridge these differences and build a strong relationship, you’ll be on your way to forming long-lasting partnerships and achieving your business goals.
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