10 Tips For Stress-Free International Travel

Ten Tips For Stress-Free International Travel is now available for free download. This second book in the series is a concise companion for international executives, expats, and frequent travelers. Not only loaded with 10 fantastic tips for making sure your next overseas trip goes smoothly, it also features a bonus chapter on device security courtesy of Dr. Stahl, President of Citadel Information Group. Be sure to travel both safely, and in comfort.

Tip #1: Time “Off”

10_Tips_for_Stress-Free_International_Travel_cover
10 Tips For Stress-Free International Travel (Zacharias Beckman)

Americans work more than just about anyone else in the world. In fact, Americans prioritize work above just about everything else: Family, friends, sometimes even holidays. It’s not unusual to ask employees to accommodate work activities, even if it impinges on a holiday. It’s a stark contrast to many other country cultures. The typical American gets two or three weeks of vacation, compared to six, eight, and sometimes more in other countries. These cultures place family and experiencing life above work in their priorities, and quite often their approach to work reflects this different attitude…

Read the rest of this tip, including which countries and regions it applies to and how to adjust to different business practices by downloading your copy today!

Look For More Tips…

Look for more guides as they go to press! They’ll be posted here, just like this one… Look for:

  • 10 Tips For International Travel
  • 10 Tips For Managing International Teams
  • 10 Tips For Communicating Globally

I’m delighted to offer them to you completely free, and hope you will enjoy reading them as much as I’ve enjoyed creating them.

Download All The Things!

Be sure to visit the downloads page and download all the things…

Dealing With Timezone Differences

Working in the global economy means spending lots of time connecting with clients and colleagues on the other side of the world. But multinational teams also face “multi-timezone” management problems. What seems like an obvious, potential problem can cause management nightmares for multinational leaders. Here are few tips on how to deal with time zone differences and build smoothly functioning, multinational teams.

Hi, I am Zacharias Beckman, president of Hyrax International, and today I want to talk about dealing with timezone differences. In my work, I’m frequently fixing problems with projects that have gone off the rails. That often means a lot of travel — going to international partners, finding out what’s wrong and fixing it. And when I’m traveling, then — that means being able to collaborate with my team, back here in the United States, is also a problem.

Timezone Challenges For Teams

Focus on finding a method for seamless communication, throughout your entire company, worldwide. You want your teams to break down barriers. You don’t want a team here to be thinking “Oh, I just cant call the other team because they are in different time zone, they’re half way around the world and I can’t bother them.” You do want them to pick up the phone and call or use Skype or whatever it is. The teams need to get to know each other. One way to do that is through co-location. Bring the foreign team home for a while. Or, send some of your team members there, so that you can build a tighter relationship.

But when co-location isn’t an option, you can turn to frequent short meetings — by phone, by Skype, it doesn’t matter. It’s the frequent contact that helps. It breaks down barriers so that the teams starts to operate as a single team, not as a bunch of different team separated by distance and culture. You don’t want your teams to feel distant, because then they are going to act distant.

The other thing you want to do is work on implementing collaboration tools that work really well with remotely located teams. So, project management systems that are easy to access, information radiators and easy to use communication tools. Plan your work days to overlap a little bit. It wont do to have your team in India working from 10 to 6pm and your team in the United States working from 9 to 5 because there is no overlap, there’s no communication. Instead adjust schedules a little bit on each side and try to have about an hour or so of overlap, so that your team can then have a daily or semi-daily stand up meeting. The idea is just to get everyone on the phone and in the virtual room together, so that they can find out what happened on the other side of the world and the they can ask the other team for what they need in order to move forward. The frequent contact and the direct connection is going to go a long way towards breaking down barriers between the team and making them more efficient.

But the meetings are short. They are just to touch base. They’re there for one team to let the other one know what happened and what they need so that they can move on and make progress, the next day.

10 Tips For International Business Success

I’m very pleased to announce our 10 Tips For International Business Success booklet is now available for free download. This first book in the series is a concise companion for International executives and managers. It provides 10 absolutely critical lessons when working abroad or with overseas partners and teams.

Tip #1: Time After Time

10 Tips For International Business Success (Zacharias Beckman)
10 Tips For International Business Success (Zacharias Beckman)

Americans associate being late with being unreliable. But in many cultures, timeliness is not expected and can be construed as being rigid and uncompromising.

Unlike some Western cultures, many Asian and Latin cultures have higher cultural priorities than timeliness. For example, in some cultures it would be unthinkable to end a meeting because the allotted time had run out. This would be taken as a direct insult, essentially sending the message that your host is less important than your own time. It’s understood that if someone is late, it’s because they are invest- ing time with another person. In time, your turn will come as well. This difference leads to cultural conflict and misunderstanding…

Read the rest of this tip, including which countries and regions it applies to, strategies for working successfully with these cultures, and how to adjust to different business practices by downloading your copy today!

Get 10 More Tips, Free!

We wanted to make sure you get a fantastic value here, so there are actually 10 more tips in the book, along with quotes from business leaders and luminaries throughout the Global business industry:

Relationships are built between individuals, not between companies. Thus it’s important to keep the same people coming to India so the process doesn’t have to be repeated for each neophyte. When Western companies reassign resources too quickly and put someone new in charge of an India initiative, they program themselves for failure. — Gunjan Bagla, Doing Business in 21st-Century India

Look For More Tips…

Look for our other International guides, as soon as they go to press! Our other guides will be posted here, just like this one… Look for:

  • 10 Tips For International Travel
  • 10 Tips For Managing International Teams
  • 10 Tips For Communicating Globally

We’re delighted to offer them to you completely free, and hope you will enjoy reading them as much as we have enjoyed creating them.

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!

Tips For Avoiding Culture Shock Pitfalls

In the first part of this article, Is Culture Shock Ruining Your Chances Overseas, I explored how immersion in a foreign culture can affect you, your team, and your organization. In this second part of the article I’ll introduce strategies for dealing with culture shock.

There are different ways to deal with culture shock. Early attempts at cultural migration lacked the insights we have today. For example, during British rule in India, it was commonplace for the British (as well as other visiting expatriates) to collectively distance themselves from local culture. In essence, the “shocked” individuals stuck together in small communities, socialized in clubs, and endlessly discussed how dreadful the locals were. This approach proved a very poor one when it came to cultural assimilation. It’s likely to fare no better today.

Preparing To Handle Culture Shock

Studying is one way we prepare ourselves for the adventure and challenge of an intercultural encounter. Simply reading this blog, or picking up a relevant book, provides an excellent avenue to begin such preparations. In a way, research like this is a premeditated defense against the anxiety that is likely to manifest itself. However, reading can only take one so far. What we retain after reading is far less than what we retain experientially. But more important, the value of face to face cultural experience far exceeds what we gain from reading.

More successful strategies at improving trans-cultural competence revolve around developing a healthy curiosity regarding local culture. Total immersion in a culture is by far the best way to experience its values and become attuned to the differences between it and your own culture. One of the best immersion techniques is learning the language of the other culture. While fluency is certainly an excellent goal, depending on the society, it’s often unnecessary. For instance, most professionals throughout India will have a functioning, if not fluent, capability in English. English is, today, the official language of India and more Indians speak English than any other language, with exception of Hindi. Today, English speakers in India outnumber those in all of western Europe, excluding the UK. But it’s important to remember that of the 125 million English speaking Indians, that means there are well over 1 billion that don’t speak English.

Even without fluency  in a local language, you will find that the effort you put into developing any language proficiency will be appreciated by your hosts. The goodwill of being able to speak a few phrases in common shows your good intentions. It demonstrates a willingness to learn local ways. Your hosts will often be much more forgiving of cultural mistakes, and may be flattered to see you trying hard to get to know them. Learning a local language is also an excellent way to develop a stronger sense of culture. Most language programs today will convey stories, history, and a sense of culture as part of the language course.

Avoiding the negatives of culture shock doesn’t fall entirely on the individual. Acculturation is an important topic for businesses to be aware of too. Consider the damage caused by poorly acclimatized people in the business environment: Lost sales opportunities, alienated partners, even entire lost markets. Knowing the potential dangers means limiting potential problems. That means sending well-prepared envoys, or at least minimizing cases where an incompetent or insensitive individual stays abroad, doing more harm than good.

According to Trompenaars, around twenty percent of expatriate managers suffer from severe culture shock and fail to adapt.1 Within this twenty percent figure, there are two specific, identified segments: Five percent develop such negative feelings that the local culture is actually despised, a feeling that usually takes hold after about six months abroad. These expatriates cannot function, and will demonstrate the worst negative symptoms of culture shock. Of the remaining fifteen percent, cultural adaptation never takes place. They follow in the footsteps of the colonial British around turn of the century India: Poor work will be blamed on living conditions, the ineptitude of the locals, and a backward culture. This group will identify other malcontents and avoid local culture. Both of these groups will only damage International relationships for their employers, and should return home as soon as possible. Of the remaining eighty percent, about half will function adequately, but essentially miss home and constantly look forward to returning. The remaining 40 percent of expatriates will integrate smoothly into the local culture. Performance improves, as does moral and overall productivity. This group is strengthened by their experience abroad, and will likely grow professionally because of it. Most often this group seeks out a means to stay abroad longer, if not permanently. Often they will regret returning home when it is finally necessary.

Culture Shock When Returning Home

This is where many employers fail their employees. Upon returning home, the repatriated individual again goes through the acculturation curve. Many expatriates experience problems. Individuals that have successfully acclimatized to foreign culture will experience reverse culture shock at home. Those identified in the most successful 40 percentile will quite often seek to emigrate again. These individuals can negatively adjust to “home” culture.

Employers must be aware of the cultural transition employees go through. Most often, it is when the employee returns home that their company let’s them down by failing to anticipate some of the complexities of International work and the consequences of culture shock. The employee will experience re-acculturation, just as the employee went through euphoria, followed by negative feelings and anxiety, and stabilization abroad. Those feelings, including the negative ones, will repeat. Nancy Adler, Assistant Professor of Cultural Management at McGill University, studied the re-entry process of two hundred corporate and governmental employees returning to Canada after working overseas for an average of two years. Re-entry into the original culture was found to be more difficult than the move abroad.⁠2 It seems that culture shock is not a one-time event — it happens every time someone transitions from one culture to another. This can affect work performance, take a negative toll psychologically, and even affect home life.

It can easily be made worse by an employer or a Human Resources department that’s blind to the problem, treating the employee as if he or she had merely been on vacation. Management or HR departments that have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude risk alienating an employee by dismissing their hard work and achievements while away — a situation compounded if the cultural achievements are not recognized as well. Returning expatriates are often a goldmine of information for a business. Having them talk about their cultural experiences, the challenges, and the opportunities presented is rewarding for the individual. It’s also immensely educational for local staff, and often strategic for the business at hand.

Ethnocentrism

Just as the individual experiences an acculturation curve, so too do guest cultures. People exposed to foreign visitors also go through a similar psychological reaction. The first phase of this reaction is typically curiosity, during which the host is open to the visitor — much like the euphoria of the acculturation cycle. This gives way to the second phase of the reaction, ethnocentrism, in which the host begins to judge the visitor by the standards of their culture. Such an evaluation tends to be unfavorable: Visitors are seen to be rude, naive, distant, culturally backward. Often a belief that the visitor is less intelligent emerges. Repeated or long-term exposure to foreign visitors can cause ethnocentrism to give way to polycentrism, an understanding that people of varied cultures should be measured by different standards. In other words, the view that one’s own corner of the world may not, in fact, be the center of the universe takes hold.

In When Cultures Collide, Richard Lewis very aptly wrote, “We can achieve a good understanding of our foreign counterparts only if we realize that our ‘cultural spectacles’ are coloring our view of them. What is the route to better understanding? To begin with, we need to examine the special features of our own culture.”⁠3

1 Managing People Across Cultures, Fons Trompenaars, Charles Hampden-Turner, Capstone.
2 Nancy Adler, Re-Entry: Managing Cross-Cultural Transitions, Group Organization Management September 1981 vol. 6 no. 3.
3 When Cultures Collide, Richard D. Lewis, Nicholas Brealey International.

Is Culture Shock Ruining Your Chances Overseas?

Traveling to a foreign country, living there, meeting new people, and facing success or failure abroad can trigger fear in all of us. To some, it’s a mild fear of the unknown. To others, it can be a stress-inducing, unpleasant experience. It’s rooted deep in our psyche: Differences in beliefs, race, color, religion, culture, and even language have led to innumerable acts of war and violence throughout human history. Believing that globalism has put it all behind us is naive at best. Those that think trivially of the differences between cultures, and the deep-rooted permanence of those differences, should think again.

Experiencing Culture Shock In The U.S.

Most willing expatriates will approach the prospect of an International sojourn with trepidation. Fortunately for most such feelings are usually manageable. Yet, intercultural issues absolutely cause stress. The stress of travel, of the unknown, being away from home and family, of making a mistake that leads to failure. Stress causes anxiety, and as humans we react to anxiety in much the same way we react to fear.

This exact situation happened to Venkat, after relocating his family to the United States. Venkat had been working for his employer a few years when he was invited to move to the U.S. office. It was an excellent opportunity and one that Venkat embraced wholeheartedly.

But, soon after arrival, Venkat started to have difficulty. Being from India, he was accustomed to a strong social network at work and home. Both he and his wife felt cut out of society because Americans just don’t connect like Indians do. Neighbors typically don’t become close friends, and co-workers rarely create strong after-work bonds. Venkat was unprepared for this. He felt excluded when his social invitations to neighbors and coworkers weren’t enthusiastically reciprocated. Soon, he came to feel the promises of “getting together after work” where well-meaning but insincere pleasantries — even the few times his efforts were successful the get together was stiff, brief, and conversation revolved around work.

Eventually, Venkat came to realize that Americans only get together rarely after work and when they do, it’s more an obligation than genuine camaraderie. He and his wife felt isolated, and decided to end their stay in America after about a year. The socially distant culture of America was never something they could get used to.

Understanding Culture Shock

Misunderstandings, embarrassments, and misinterpretations occur today, on a regular basis, between tourists and professionals alike. The accelerating pace of technology is speeding up communication — it’s becoming cheap and nearly ubiquitous. Where we relied on couriers that would take months to deliver a message, now we connect with people globally in seconds. The expanding pace of International business adds to the rapidly expanding, global reach of companies — and as it does, so our need to interact across cultures increases with it.

When a family, or husband and wife, are sent abroad, it’s often the partner who stays at home who experiences the worst culture shock. The professional in the family is embroiled in work, kept busy with professional obligations. The business network forms a sort of insulation from the cultural impact. This insulating effect can be stronger when an expatriate is positioned as an expert, visiting a foreign culture to lead a team, share important knowledge, or otherwise perform a critical function. At the same time, the one staying at home — possibly looking after children or a household — is not so insulated. There may be no support group to turn to. Learning to get around, picking up the local language, facing contractors or repair personnel, dealing with school officials, and learning local customs is often harder without the support of an eager team of coworkers.

Acculturation Curve

Culture shock is a normal situation. It affects nearly everyone that relocates abroad for any period of time. It may not set in immediately — in fact, early on, an opposite effect of euphoria often masks the anxiety most people experience. People living in foreign environments typically report a transition in their feelings that follow an “acculturation curve,” shown in the above figure and first introduced in Cultures And Organizations.1 Positive and negative feelings are shown on the vertical axis, while time progresses forward from left to right. The initial euphoric phase is typically short; it represents the initial feelings of adventure, seeing new lands, travel, and meeting new people. Culture shock sets in during Phase 2 in the diagram, as the euphoria begins to wear off and the realities of life in a foreign society set in. Acculturation, or adjustment to local culture, takes place during Phase 3. This is when the foreign national begins to acclimatize to differences in culture, learns to adopt and function within local customs, and establishes connections with a new social network. Finally, self-confidence and comfort with the local environment is established. This “stable state” of mind can settle as negative or positive when compared with home, depending on the individual and their circumstances. Those that are lucky enough to experience a relatively more positive stable state (4c) are ideal candidates for long-term repatriation, and quite likely are well suited to cross-cultural business relationships. This is when the visitor has “gone native.” On the other hand, a negative steady state (4a) can mean that the individual never becomes fully acclimatized. Instead they continue to feel out of place, discriminated against, or an outsider.

The feelings instigated by culture shock often lead to feelings of distress, of being out of place, longing for home, helplessness, and in some cases hostility toward the new environment (as pointed out in Managing People Across Cultures).2 Expatriates often experience higher incidence of medical problems soon after relocation, as opposed to later. These illnesses are linked to the mental state brought on by culture shock. Symptoms can be the same as those of mild neuroses, and can extend to skins rashes, appetite loss, depression, sleeplessness, swellings, palpitations, and more.

Getting Used To It

The time period for acculturation varies dramatically. Both temperament and situation factor into acculturation. The most significant common factor seems to be the time period of the foreign visit itself. People on short term assignments, say a few months, have reported experiencing all phases of the acculturation curve in the same short time. On the other hand, people on long term assignments stretching over several years indicate acculturation takes longer, as much as a year or more.

Culture shock can be so severe that assignments may need to be cut short. In extreme cases, anxiety, depression, or homesickness will directly affect work. Such cases can lead to significantly reduced performance, and even inability to function. In at least one situation I’m aware of, a family relocating to Europe experienced long-term problems with social integration. The stay-at-home partner, responsible for raising the couple’s child, developed a strong aversion to leaving the house and continually avoided learning the local language. This left the working partner saddled with most responsibilities for both business and household care, at least when it came to running errands, arranging services, and working with the local school or health care system. The anxiety of the cultural transition became exacerbated, leading to a strain on the couple’s relationship. After several years, there was little improvement. The “steady state” was clearly a negative one. Even though the husband wanted to stay abroad, the couple frequently discussed plans for returning to the United States.

In part two of this article, I’ll discuss how to prepare for and deal with culture shock, from both a management and individual perspective.

1 Cultures and Organizations: Software for the Mind, Geert Hoftstede, Gert Jan Hoftstede, and Michael Minkov, McGraw Hill.
2 Managing People Across Cultures, Fons Trompenaars, Charles Hampden-Turner, Capstone.

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.