Cultural Rituals And Saving Face

[quote style=”boxed”]IF YOU ARE OFFERED A CIGARETTE you must accept it, even if you don’t smoke, otherwise the other person will lose face.

Giving and receiving gifts throughout Asia is steeped in ritual, respect, and status. It is easy for more direct cultures to mistake these important ceremonies and status gestures as meaningless, and thereby give offense.[/quote]

It’s true that in today’s modern world, Westerners can get away with many things that a native Easterner might not. For example, the idea that you must accept a cigarette even if you don’t smoke is becoming a bit dated. To top it off, many Western cultures have fewer and fewer smokers. So, is it really a big deal?

Cultural Rituals Are Still Important

The problem is really knowing how important a ritual is. There’s a pretty good chance that a young, Westernized Chinese businessman offering you a cigarette is doing just that — offering a cigarette in case you would like one. But there’s no way to know this until you have built a strong relationship, and there’s no way to build a strong relationship if you inadvertently give offense.

The old saying, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do,” applies. That means taking the time to pick up on cultural cues, and demonstrate a genuine attempt to share some cultural experiences.

Most foreigners are inevitably going to make a few social faux pas. But the ones that go “over and above,” putting forth a genuine effort to understand culture and being perceptive to differences around them will stand out. It doesn’t take a great deal of effort. Awareness is key — awareness of your own cultural biases and customs, and a sensitivity to what’s going on around you.

In this particular case, having an appreciation for the concept of “good face” is important (in Asia “face” is a bankable notion, a literal statement of a person’s value). Likewise, appreciating how important relationship building is, and being aware of the long history and rituals around gift giving helps. With this background information, and a willingness to be vigilant and pick up on anything that is different from your own culture, you can put forward that genuine effort.

Tips For Westerners

When going anywhere in Asia, it’s best to be prepared. Know that gift giving has an important place, and be prepared to reciprocate. Remember the importance of “face.” If no one else brings a gift, give yours to your host privately so that you don’t embarrass the other dinner guests.

Look for subtle cues during conversation. Unlike in the West, there is much more going on than the spoken word. Most Middle-Eastern and Eastern cultures are very expressive without relying on words, so cues such as silence, gestures, and especially story telling will be important. If a story is being told, there is probably a reason behind it.

Also, don’t be rushed. Keep the mantra, “all things in due time” in your head. Relationship building takes time, and rushing through it will seem insincere.

Tips For Easterners

When visiting the West, don’t expect gifts — the business culture of the United States, in particular, discourages gift giving. In many situations, gifts are considered bribes and can even be illegal, except in a few rare cases (such as birthdays or special gift exchanges where everyone participates and receives a gift of equal value).

When it comes to communication, expect very direct questions and challenges. Your Western hosts will likely expect you to respond in kind, since honesty and “cutting to the chase” (not wasting time by being sensitive) are both valued traits. What will pass for politeness in the West will look like startling rudeness to you.

Finally, expect your Western host to be very structured when it comes to time. Meetings will usually have an agenda, and little time will be set aside for building a relationship. It’s generally assumed that business and personal relationships are, for the most part, separate. As such, business relationships will seem much more shallow than you are used to. Adding depth to these relationships may be hard, as your host could seem resistant. Keep in mind this is not a personal offense, it’s just the way business is done in the West.

Check back frequently for more “sagacity” tips. I’ll be picking one each week to blog about, along with other regular topics.

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