Are You Being Polite?

Global Manners
Quick guide to going global: 35 tips for 10 countries

Zendesk recently published a great little infographic, a Quick Guide To Going Global. It offers some great contrasts between different cultures, and how the rules of being polite in one country may get you in trouble somewhere else. As Andrew Gori writes:

Being polite might seem easy: Someone does something nice, you say “thank you,” right? As it turns out, that all depends on your location. Manners are different all over the world.

As Andrew points out, there is one thing that’s consistent: To be polite you have to treat people with respect. But memorizing a handful of superficial rituals isn’t the way to do it. Instead, take the time to understand your own culture, and become sensitive to business cultural preferences. You can get started by taking a look at my videos on business culture.

Just as every country and every region and every people have social cultural preferences, the corporate world has business cultural preferences. These preferences define how we communicate, how we relate to our boss or employees, even how we manage time. They can’t be taught, trained, or educated away, either. It’s not about knowledge, it’s about feeling how to act properly in a particular social environment. Culture is something we start to pick up as a child, and that includes the culture of business in our country. Most of us don’t even think about it. It’s “just the way things are,” and that’s what makes it so hard to change our cultural preferences.

Be sure to check out Andrew Gori’s original article on Zendesk.

Communication Style And International Success

If you missed the first part of this six-part series, see: Part 1 of the series, Creating An International Culture Of Success, or see the entire series right here.

I’ve posted a lot about how communication style varies dramatically from one culture to another (including this great infographic on how different cultures negotiate). It’s both very obvious, a clear variation in how we interact, and at the same time deviously subtle in how quickly it can derail an otherwise healthy team and project.

Different Styles Of Communication

Low context cultures, most often associated with Western, industrialized countries, pride themselves on a directness that is unparalleled in other cultures. Lack of subtlety and being “honest and straight-shooting” is the norm. But these cultures end up missing most of the conversation when confronted with high context, rich communication styles.

High context cultures (especially Middle Eastern and Asian, but also South American, some European, and African countries) don’t know how to communicate in this simple, direct style. Confronted with direct, low-context partners, it’s as if 90% of their vocabulary is stripped away. The rich subtlety conveyed in circumstance, timing, silence, body language, story telling, deference, saving face, and tone are missing — leaving behind nothing but blunt, inelegant words (often, to make matters worse, in a second or third language on top of it).

Communication Style: Expressing Opinions (East vs. West)
Communication Style: Expressing Opinions (East vs. West)

Understanding one another’s communication style and being able to adapt, and interpret signals from both cultures accurately, is critical.

The Global Project Compass™ (introduced in Part 1)  identifies the following management disciplines as being most directly affected by communication style:

  1. Continuous Improvement Plan
  2. Segregation of Duties
  3. Project Management Plan
  4. Project Monitoring, Execution, & Control
  5. Change Control & Management
  6. Communications Plan
  7. Performance Measurement

Continuous Improvement Plan

Your continuous improvement plan is absolutely affected by other business cultural preferences, but communication style has a huge impact. Continuous improvement relies on understanding each other without ambiguity. Anything that stands in the way will throw sand into a delicately working machine. Processes like CMMI (the Capability Maturity Model) rely on putting complex, integrated processes into action. Everyone has to understand the process, support it, and pursue it’s objectives.

Segregation of Duties

The Compass also identifies segregation of duties as highly affected by communication style. Clearly defined roles are important in any organization. Segregation of duties is intended to create checks and balances to enforce standards or, in some cases, prevent fraud or malfeasance. One way of looking at this is whether control is unchecked in one person (or one office). A common reason to separate quality assurance, giving it authority on its own, is to support a separate office that has the authority to enforce quality (or at least, stop a project that is not going well).

For this to work, communication lines must be clear. How can quality assurance know how the project is going if there is limited, inaccurate, or unclear communication?

It’s important to note that power distance also deeply affects segregation of duties. The political alignments and often muddied visibility of some organizations create complex, co-dependent relationships. These relationships interfere with the goals of segregating duties.

Project Management, Monitoring, and Change Control

Excellent project management relies on clear communication as well. Across a culturally diverse organization, “clear communication” can mean many things. How does the American manager interpret his Chinese subordinate’s silence, when critical feedback is expected? How will an Indian employee react to the direct communication of a German boss causes him to lose face? Building a project management plan that works well within the multiple, diverse cultural environments of a multinational organization is a challenge.

Performance Measurement

Knowing how your team, and your company, is doing demands no ambiguity. You’ve got to be able to assess performance accurately. For business performance, that means getting accurate, timely information. To assess your team, you need to understand and assess your team member’s contribution. That means understanding what everyone has to say, in their own subtle or not-so-subtle communication style.

Western-style “360 evaluations,” where employees critically evaluate their peers, subordinates, and superiors, rely on American-style direct communication. When used in other cultural settings the 360 evaluation completely fails. When compared to typical American feedback, French and German respondents more easily criticize, but hold back compliments — so evaluations appear much less positive. In many Asian cultures, the idea of openly criticizing is taboo. Here, evaluations come back with seemingly perfect marks — and that can lead to incorrectly concluding that the Asian office is perfect.

Communication: The Tip Of The Iceberg

Most often, problems between multinational teams get put down to bad communication. It’s true that communication is important. It’s also true that most cross cultural situations have communication barriers (and often serious problems). How well people communicate — or, how poorly your team is communicating — is a very visual indication that there are problems.

Just like an iceberg floating in the ocean, this visual indicator usually means there is more going on beneath the surface. When your team isn’t communicating, it’s time to look for other problems too.

Cover graphic attribution: The artist and visual designer Yang Liu was born in China and lives in Germany since she was 14. By growing up in two very different places with very different traditions she was able to experience the differences between the two cultures first-hand.

Recovering From The Holidays & 10 Tips To Ease Business Travel

Getting back into the swing of things after a major holiday break or personal vacation can be a challenge. It’s January 14 already. Two weeks have flown by and I’m already behind writing this article.

It’s not just about getting back to work and getting caught up, though. For International business people, the rest of the world runs on a different schedule — and that means business kept right on moving while you were out. As I was enjoying Christmas and the New Year break here in the United States, many of my colleagues have been sending emails and patiently awaiting my return to the office. My to-do list on January 6, my first day back, was so long I didn’t even know where to begin.

Business Travel And The Chinese New Year

I remember a client’s story about his first trip to China. Bill had been talking with his manufacturing partner about visiting after the New Year’s holiday for some time. Bill always had at least three calls every week with his partner, most often talking with the production floor manager to get updates regarding progress, issues with the design process, or resolve any questions that came up. Bill’s role on these calls was to make decisions. Most often he spoke with Dewei, who ran the design and production operation. When Bill brought up a visit, Dewei was thrilled to know that he would be coming and made it clear Bill would be very welcome. He said he would take care of all the details, so after New Year’s break Bill decided it was high time to see his operation in China. He sent a note to Dewei suggesting a trip near the end of January. Dewei’s reply was enthusiastic, telling Bill it would be a great time to see China because he would be just in time for the Chinese New Year celebration. Dewei promised to give Bill a grand tour and make him feel very much at home.

He’d never been to China before, and didn’t really occur to Bill that Chinese culture would be dramatically different from American culture. Of course he expected the obvious differences: Language, food, and customs. But business was business around the world right?

Bill arrived in China the evening of Tuesday, January 27, 2009. The Chinese New Year varies from year to year, but in 2009 it started on January 26.

Dewei had arranged for a car to pick Bill up at the airport, and true to his word had made sure all the details were in order. His hotel was nicely appointed, and the hotel manager personally greeted him. Bill was looking forward to a productive week touring his factory, looking over designs, and seeing the final preparations as the factory tooled up for production.

His trip was not going to go as planned.

Even if you live and work there, you can never be entirely sure you understand. It is best to assume that you do not. — Muhtar Kent, Chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola Company

Dewei met Bill on Wednesday afternoon and announced plans to see the city. Bill was eager to see the factory, but Dewei told him it was closed for the New Year celebration. They would absolutely visit it, but there would be no point in seeing it before next Monday since all the employees were taking vacation: It was the Chinese New Year! Nobody would be working that week, and hardly anyone would be coming to the office on Monday either. The Chinese New Year is very much like Christmas and New Year’s combined in the United States. Bill’s visit to China became a cultural tour, spending the first three days and a weekend seeing the city. There was no visit to the factory until the following week, and even then only a skeleton crew showed up, mostly to meet with Bill. His agenda was completely changed, and Bill ended up having two New Year’s holidays that year. Fortunately, he was able to extend his trip and stay an extra week. As things got rolling the week after the holiday, Bill was finally able to get to know his factory.

In the long run, Bill learned a few important lessons, but he also built a strong relationship with his team in China. Spending that extra week over the holiday meant meeting the family and friends of his partner’s team. It meant getting to know everyone a little bit better, and it meant learning some small bit of Chinese culture. All of this built a stronger relationship, and it was time well invested. At the time, of course, Bill was aghast that nobody had told him he shouldn’t come until after the Chinese New Year. Much like in America, everything shuts down for the holiday, and people don’t get any work done for about two weeks. A good rule of thumb if you’re planning on visiting China is to wait at least a couple of weeks after the New Year’s holiday before visiting — and of course, check your calendar to see when it falls! This year, the Chinese New Year is on January 31. That means the first week of February, nobody’s going to be working. For two weeks afterwards, people may be on vacation, or they may be coming back to work and looking at all that email that piled up from their International partners. As they’re catching up, you’ll be waiting patiently to get back to business.

Learn To Be Flexible

Bill’s trip could easily have been a disaster, but fortunately, Bill was an easy going fellow who really cared about his employees and his partner. I’ve met plenty of Americans that are too focused on schedule and would have been absolutely furious to have had their’s interrupted. Planning your International visit is going to take some extra thought and preparation.

For example, why didn’t Dewei tell Bill it was a bad time of year to visit? I’ve written about power distance and communication quite a bit in the past (and will write much more). In this particular situation, it simply wasn’t appropriate for Dewei to correct Bill. That would have been presumptuous and Dewei’s part, and from his point of view, would probably have meant a loss of face for Bill — who is, after all, his American customer and the CEO of the company. When the CEO tells you he’s coming to visit, you say, “Wonderful, we can’t wait for you to arrive!”

10 Tips For International Business Travel

Here are a few more tips that you might not think of when planning your International business trip:

  1. Get an International calendar and be sure to coordinate around foreign holidays. If you don’t know what a holiday is, find out. some might just mean a few people won’t come in to work, but others could call for a two-week long shutdown!
  2. Look into cell phone use a few week’s ahead of time. You may need to rent a tri-band phone, or get a disposable phone on your arrival. It may not be that easy, either. On my last trip to India, it took an entire afternoon to set up an account, largely because of laws intended to limit terrorist access to data and cell networks.
  3. Plan to take more time than you think you will need. Most countries, especially Eastern and collectivist cultures, will move at a different pace. You’ll want to take time to build relationships, get to know people, and accommodate a different pace at the office. You can’t have the mentality that it’s a quick “get in and out” visit.
  4. Find out if your credit card will work while abroad, and take plenty of cash (in a well protected place). Depending on where you visit, credit cards may not be widely accepted. Also, it’s probably worth upgrading to that Platinum American Express or getting a Capital One business card, just to save the 2.7% foreign currency conversion rates (there are no conversion fees on either card).
  5. While it may seem like a lot of trouble to be interviewed by Homeland Security, getting a Global Entry pass really makes travel go more smoothly in most International airports.
  6. Consider sending your bags ahead, and confirming their arrival at the hotel before you leave. This can save you a huge headache, and makes the trip a little bit less stressful.
  7. Rely on your International partner to help you find good accommodations, set up your travel itinerary, and provide you with a car, but also be sure to explain what you are looking for. “Good” accommodations in one country may not be what you’re expecting! Knowing that you will be taken care of while visiting takes a lot off your mind.
  8. Don’t forget about insurance. Check with your medical coverage to see if they provide services and coverage where you’re going. If not, look into a short term travelers medical policy from a provider such as HTH Travel Insurance, Medex International, or Worldwide Assistance. Also check the CDC site before you go, and make sure you have appropriate medication and shots (such as anti-malaria tablets when visiting Asia, and remember most inoculations are taken 3 weeks before travel).
  9. Plan a day after arrival to recover from jet lag, and don’t forget it happens coming home too. You won’t do anyone any good if you keep falling asleep at the office.
  10. In my last post on travel and International relationships, I mentioned the work week. Be sure you anticipate the local work schedule. It might not be Monday through Friday!

Best wishes for a happy and prosperous new year!

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.

How To Avoid Being Blunt, Rude, And Inappropriate With Your International Partner

Americans in particular come across as being blunt, rude, and inappropriate in many parts of the world. They have a reputation for being close-minded and difficult to get along with.

This is news to most Americans.

The Real Challenge Of Cross Cultural Communication

Part of the problem is how different cultures communicate, and it’s not limited to Americans. Germans, the Swiss, and other Westernized people such as the English also encounter similar obstacles — although, it tends to be worse with Americans.

Here’s a good example. One of my overseas colleagues relayed the story of Jack, a U.S. businessman visiting Thailand. Jack and his host, Gan, had concluded a few days of negotiations on a contract. While there had been a few missteps and mistakes, Gan was tolerant for the most part and did his best to ignore his guest’s loud, boisterous manner and overly familiar gestures. Even so, I think both of them were relieved to sign the contract — easily worth a few million dollars in revenue to each of them. Everything looked like it was going well and Jack felt a celebration was in order. As he loudly slapped the table in celebration, he pulled out two cigars, and casually offered one to Gan. Gan, always respectful and polite, genially accepted the cigar without smiling but declined the offer to light it. Then, Jack did the unthinkable in Thailand: He leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on the table, and proceeded to light his cigar. Jack was utterly clueless when his host stood up, tore the contract in half, threw it in the trash, and with a perfunctory shallow bow, turned and walked out of the room.

Jack lost the deal and headed home without talking to Gan again. Had he been more perceptive to the communication cues Gan had been sending, he would have known he was on thin ice. Throughout their meeting, Gan had often responded to Jack with typically subtle Thai messages. Sometimes responding without the characteristic Thai smile, with silence, or with direct eye contact. At one point Gan had even given an oblique story about how many Thai’s could not understand America’s brash culture, but the meaning was lost on Jack who laughed it off. He said America was “the Wild West,” and seemed to think it some kind of compliment.

It’s most likely that Jack was equally confused by Gan. Clearly, their meeting ended in a way that totally surprised Jack. It’s also likely that he thought Gan’s comments about his “Wild West” country was just an excuse for him to act more like a cowboy. Unfortunately, it was that very same thick American skin that kept him from seeing what was developing.

Low-Context versus High-Context

Team members in multinational projects come face-to-face with differences in business culture every day. Most of the time, problems crop up from these cultural differences, but go unnoticed until it’s too late — for instance, until after quality problems have been “baked in” to a product. By then, the project is well on the road to failure.

Lack of perception and appreciation for other cultural cues lead to many misunderstandings. Communication around the world varies widely, along a spectrum defined on one end by low-context and the other by high-context communication.

Western business culture, perhaps most dramatically represented by the United States, Germany, and Australia, relies on low context communication. These cultures rely predominantly on words — something common with extremely diverse cultures. As so many people of diverse backgrounds have come together, the lowest common denominator survives as the principle means of communication. In the United States, English, more than anything else, is relied upon almost exclusively. This reliance on the English word, and little else, helps explain why long legal agreements have become typical of American business culture: The written word entirely represents the relationship.

In strong contrast to this, cultures belonging to the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South America and other Eastern cultures) are intensely high context. They rely on rich communication techniques. These cultural methods of communication include formal and informal address, story telling, silence, body language, over-confirmation, timing, eye contact, and a host of other cues that are completely lost on many Westerners.

Cultural cues vary dramatically from one culture to another, and Westerners will blithely ignore what isn’t immediately recognized. The Indian head waggle is a great example. Because they don’t recognize what it means, Westerners assume it means nothing. (The waggle can mean, in a uniquely unenthusiastic way, “Yes,” “Nice to meet you” and “I completely understand what you just said.” It can also mean “Maybe,” “Hell no,” and “You are the enemy of intelligence.” Interpreting it requires time, practice, and above all, a personal presence).

Tips For Cross Cultural Communication

Every culture has its own unique characteristics. Knowing in advance what to expect, especially if you work across many cultures, is not something that comes quickly.

Beginning to build sensitivity toward communication cues is pivotal for anyone working in a Global context. Probably the most important single step to take is developing an awareness of your own culture. With this awareness, comes a sensitivity to things that don’t fit. For example, simply being aware that you don’t know what an Indian head waggle means can prompt you to ask what’s going on.

Here are a few more practical tips to keep in mind when working with international partners.

  1. If you come from a Western culture, be watchful and observant. Realize that meaning is attached to more than direct words. If you don’t understand something, ask for clarification.
  2. While Westerners generally tell stories for entertainment value, Easterners will usually look for hidden meaning in those stories.
  3. Silence, in the East, is a form of communication and is not at all uncomfortable. Westerners tend to fill the silence, leaving Easterners feeling uncomfortable or rushed.
  4. If you come from an Eastern culture, keep in mind that your Western partner is paying attention chiefly to words, and not very much to other forms of communication.

As Jack learned the hard way, the feet are considered unclean, or the lowest part of the body. In Asia, feet should not be used to touch things, such as closing a door, or put up on a desk or table. Just pointing your foot at someone is extremely distasteful. Having the sole of your foot facing anyone is an exceptionally rude insult — a form of communication that, as Jack learned, was unforgivably obtuse. Throughout most of Asia, feet are commonly regarding in this manner. To be safe, make sure your feet are flat on the ground at all times.

When traveling or working internationally, the best thing to do is to get some exposure early. Develop some sensitivity to your own cultural cues, and try to explore your host’s cultural preferences. This could be a vacation, or a coaching session, or even a conversation with a friend from that culture. Above all, avoid jumping in blindly and thinking the business culture of another country is going to be just like home.

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.

Surviving The Asian Dinner Ritual

Westerners frequently miss the importance of the Asian dinner ritual. In fact, some Western business cultures, like the United States, keep personal relationships and business relationships so completely separate that the idea of one influencing the other is taboo. In Asia, the lines between business and personal relationships are very different. Misunderstanding this important cultural shift can lead to unrecoverable missteps.

Tips To Survive The Asian Dinner Ritual

Most Asian cultures place tremendous importance on building a strong relationship before entering into business together – or even before discussing business. Relationship building is an important precursor to developing a business relationship, and one of the best ways Asian business people get to know each other is over dinner and drinks.

Unlike in the West, the dinner ritual is not a celebration of a “done deal.” It’s part of the relationship-building in which Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian cultures invest so much importance. This is an opportunity to get to know your hosts, and vice-versa, but it’s definitely not about talking business. Expect to discuss everything except business, from the weather, to your family, to kids and hobbies. If your partners love American baseball or golf, the conversation will definitely go there. Women will often find themselves being faced with topics that are inappropriate in countries such as the United States, like what their plans for raising children are. The more open, honest, and genuine you are, the better to cement trust. This is where personal relationships are built, and business in Asia doesn’t happen without a strong relationship as a foundation.

Chinese Dim Sum in bamboo steamer
Chinese Dim Sum in bamboo steamer

Most of my clients ask about gifts. They are appropriate, usually after signing a business deal or finishing a tough negotiation or project together. As your relationship grows, it’s likely the gift giving will become more expensive. Start with rice wine (bai jiu), a good red wine (from your home region, if you live in a wine producing state), or expensive Chinese or U.S. brand cigarettes (most Chinese professionals drink and smoke). Remember the importance of “face.” If no one else brings a gift, give yours to the host privately so that you don’t embarrass the other dinner guests.

Heavy drinking is very common, but don’t overdo it. I recall one situation where an American employee got a little bit too drunk, and ended up being too straight-forward in his opinions about the project the team was working on. What he said was not complimentary to the team, and the next day I received a formal request to remove him from the project. While dinner parties can be a lot of fun, remember you are still building a relationship. Your host will be finding out who you really are, and decisions about your future business relationship will be based on the personal connection made, or not made. Let your host lead the toasts, and don’t think you’re in a drinking competition. Saying “I’ve had enough” helps your host gain face.

When it comes time to pay the bill, if you’ve been invited your host will pay. Your thanks will be welcome and appreciated. If you do feel the urge to pay, let your host know well ahead of time and avoid fighting over it at the table.

Also, if you have any special dietary requirements, let your host’s assistant know ahead of time. Your host will be very happy to accommodate your requirements, but keep in mind that events are usually planned days in advance, and you may be meeting new faces at dinner. Be considerate, and allow plenty of time to prepare.

Speaking of new faces, be sure to bring plenty of business cards. Exchange of business cards is an important ritual throughout Asia, and not having cards can be construed as disrespectful. When receiving or presenting a card, do it with two hands, thumb and forefinger grasping the corners of the card, and orient the card toward the person receiving it. A bow will often accompany receipt of a card, and you should always take time to read the card. This demonstrates respect for the person presenting it, and gives you the opportunity to find out who at the table is due the most respect.

Above all, be genuine and forthcoming, and get to know your host. By building a strong personal bond, you can look forward to a long and successful business relationship.