7 Ways Western and Eastern Business Relationships Differ

Something that always surprises Westerners about Asian, South American, and Middle-Eastern (or “BRIC”) business culture is how deeply relationship driven it is. Westerners tend to think business in the East is much like business in the West, and that a good sales pitch makes a good sale. After they try this approach, we hear those same business people saying, “We’ve made so many trips to India, and it seems like there’s a lot of interest but nobody is closing the deal!” Sometimes we hear, “They don’t seem to want to spend any money, but they keep meeting with us and nobody commits to anything. We should pull out, there’s no market here.”

Eastern Business Relationships

The fact is, BRIC culture will not engage in business until a strong personal relationship has been built. It takes months, if not years, to build these relationships. In China, for instance, it is assumed about half a dozen dinners, over many months, is about right to get to know each other. During these largely social experiences, conversation is about life, children, philosophy, the arts, and a host of other topics that have nothing to do with business (a few things that should be avoided include politics, and anything related to business). Only after a potential partner gets to know you, and trust you, will the door be opened to discuss business.

Relationships are so close in many Asian cultures that the distinction between “business” and “personal” becomes blurred. For instance, Indians are welcome to drop by the home of a potential partner to get to know them better, and it would be rude not to invite them to stay for dinner or even to spend the night if they have travelled far. This holds true in many countries across Asia and the Middle-East.

Years ago I hadn’t done my research before making my first Indian business trip (there wasn’t much information available at the time). That first trip was difficult, not only for me but also for my Indian business partner. My brusque American nature and “let’s get it done” approach didn’t fit well with local culture. Twenty years later my trips around Asia are far more successful. I know the importance of slowing down my “American clock,” and of building those strong relationships. I focus on building strong business connections that are much more resilient than Western ones. On my last trip, I spent every evening having dinner with different groups of people, or spending some time at their homes. It was during these social periods that I learned important things about our project: Who we could trust implicitly, what problems we might run into, and where the political lines lay. These things aren’t discussed in the office because it’s too formal a setting — so if you don’t build the personal connections, you miss out. By the end of the trip, we knew each other better — and that means today we know how to do business together.

Eastern cultures, at least in comparison to Western norms, place higher value on strong relationships, saving face, and long term planning. Of course, ascribing the same attributes to all of the BRIC and all of Asia would be misguided. Keep in mind that the following is a list of core cultural traits that Easterners will generally value more highly than Westerners.

  1. Relationships are emphasized more than the “letter of the law”
  2. Aspiration and intentions matter strongly, not just measurable performance
  3. The good of the group outweighs the needs of the individual
  4. Face-saving tact is absolute (I’ll post an article on this complex topic soon)
  5. Long past history and achievement matters, often more than recent history
  6. Rewards should be consistent with effort, not just results
  7. Long-term thinking (years ahead, not just this year) versus short-term gains

Of course, jumping in with both feet and no preparation is the worst thing you can do. Take the time to prepare. Something as simple as talking over your plans with someone from the target country can go a long way. And if you really want to know how well your team will do, consider a cross cultural assessment or workshop.

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