Going to another country is an experience that can’t be replicated by anything. When you take that first groggy step off the plane, all your senses tell you that you aren’t “in Kansas anymore” – the smells, the humidity, the people, the languages they speak, and even the feel of a new airport is different. The further away from home you go, the bigger the differences often are. Ergo, if you’re going to Asia (literally, the other side of the world), you’ll feel like you’re on a different planet. Different regions have different customs, and knowing these customs before you step off the plane can make your time there go much more smoothly. Read on to know what to expect!
1. Yes, everybody bows.
The most important thing to know before doing business in Asia is that bowing is not just an old quaint tradition: everybody does it, and it’s the normal, respectful way to greet someone. Depending on where you go, you’ll also do something with your hands: in Thailand and Cambodia, for example, your hands will go in a stiff prayer position under your chin. In South Korea, your hands will either be at your side, or clasped over your stomach. The slower and lower the bow, the more respect you will be showing. Obviously, don’t overdo it though – if your counterpart gives you a quick, stiff bow, you’ll probably want to respond in kind. Each culture has its own specific rules about bowing etiquette, and people are forgiving if you don’t do it exactly how you should. But get your mind wrapped around it and embrace the fact that you likely won’t be shaking many hands during your stay.
2. Yes, you do need to know how to use chopsticks.
Fitting in to the culture means being able to eat with colleagues and friends, and just like any other place in the world, a lot of important events revolve around eating. If you’ve never been one to use chopsticks, pick some up, watch some youtube videos and get to practicing. If you’re going to South Korea, the chopsticks have an extra level of difficulty because they’re made of metal, which means they’ll be heavier on your fingers. If you feel super uncomfortable, don’t panic – many restaurants will have forks set aside for foreigners that you can request, and most Western restaurants will offer silverware by default. It will just be much easier for you to get around if you can use chopsticks.
3. Be prepared for infrastructure juxtapositions.
If there’s one thing the US does well, it’s driving. Complain all you want about how bad the traffic is in your own metropolis and how New York drivers are jerks, or how people in the South drive too slow. But after a day of navigating Ho Chi Minh City traffic around 8.5 million motorbikes, you’ll be begging to go back to NYC. Also, a glance at wads of electric wires lining major Asian streets will make anyone from the West wonder how an electric fire hasn’t already engulfed the city. The public transportation systems in Asia, on the other hand, are often fantastic. After a ride on the clean, colorful, timely Tokyo metro, the DC subway will seem archaic and grungy.
4. Circular discussions are the norm.
In the West, we like to look at an agenda and deal with issues one at a time. In Asia, linear discussions are often not how life happens. Issues are dealt with as they arise in conversation, which often feels meandering to those of us who are used to a particular order. This isn’t a manifestation of a business culture less developed than our own. On the contrary, it is a product of millennia of cultural evolution mostly separated from our way of life that makes perfect sense to people who grew up in that culture. As with anything, there is an order to the chaos. Do your best to follow, and make sure everything you wanted to discuss has been covered at the end.
5. Relationship building comes before doing business.
If you’ve ever felt like a colleague was spending too much time with his or her coffee and it was time to get down to business, multiply that feeling by everyone you meet in Asia. It is often essential in collectivist cultures to build a sense of comradery with others before discussing other issues. The relationship-building phase can also take days or even weeks; to build a great relationship, it can often take years. Business in Asia is done with those to whom Asians have a personal connection, and the time invested in that connection will likely pay off down the road. Think of it as planting seeds: make friends, and show you’re interested in a connection that goes both ways – in the long run, you’ll be glad you did.
As with all places, it goes without saying that you need to do research about the specific country where you’re going. Showing an interest in this new place will be a great way to make small talk with your colleagues, as long as you avoid taboo subjects for the culture. For example, you can’t talk about the King in Thailand. It’s just not something foreigners are allowed to discuss. Finally, be prepared for anything: in China, you can expect people to stare you down relentlessly, as gawking at people isn’t necessarily something that is taught to be rude. Smile, bow, and continue on your way. Wherever you go, make sure you participate. You’ll be glad you did, as it will enrich your experience and make it that much better.