How to succeed in Asia without offending anybody

June 2, 2015, 5:36 PM UTC
smoking woman cigarette
smoking woman cigarette
Photograph by Stephan Geyer—Getty Images/Flickr RF

When was the last time your team applauded when you walked into the room? If you’ve spent much time doing business in China, maybe it wasn’t so long ago. Applause is a common greeting there and, if you didn’t respond by clapping your own hands, you should have.

There’s no way of knowing how many potentially lucrative deals in Asia have been torpedoed by innocent displays of terrible manners. But a look through a new book, Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Guide to Building Trust, Inspiring Respect, and Creating Long-Lasting Business Relationships, suggests that well-meaning Westerners commit an almost limitless list of everyday blunders simply by behaving the same way they would at home.

In much of Asia, for example, blowing your nose on a linen handkerchief and then putting it back in your pocket is seen as, well, pretty gross. In fact, it’s offensive to blow your nose, yawn, or even clear your throat except in private. Chewing gum in public is not only illegal in Singapore, it’s seen as rude everywhere else. But spitting on the sidewalk is acceptable, and smoking, including in restaurants, is fine (except in Beijing, which recently instituted a public smoking ban). Particularly in South Korea, politesse demands that you offer each of your companions a cigarette before lighting your own.

One frequent faux pas: Improper use of hands. Many Americans, for instance, were taught as children that pointing at a person is rude. But in China, Japan, India, Malaysia, and other countries, using your index finger to point at anything — a building, say, or a sunset — is obnoxious. Use your whole hand instead. Likewise, to make a beckoning gesture, “instead of pointing, use the whole open hand at waist level,” the authors advise. “Extend your hand, palm down, and curl your four fingers together several times.”

If some of this sounds trivial, it isn’t, co-authors Sharon M. Schweitzer and Liz Alexander write: “Know that recovery from an offensive hand gesture is nearly impossible.” There goes your deal.

Symbolism counts, too. Maybe you knew already, for instance, that you’re expected to bring gifts to your first meeting with your Chinese counterparts. But if you brought, say, 12 of them, you goofed. Any multiple of 4 will be noticed and is considered an unlucky omen. If you presented each gift with both hands, ideally while bowing at a 30-degree angle with your eyes lowered, good for you. But next time, skip the Tiffany cigar-cutters. Offering any sharp object as a gift, the authors note, “represents the severing of relationships.”

Perhaps the biggest blunder Westerners make is talking too much in the first-person singular. China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, and Taiwan are “group-oriented cultures, where consensus prevails,” the authors observe. So, “avoid the overly confident use of ‘I,’ ‘me,’ and ‘my,’” in favor of “‘we,’ ‘us,’ and ‘our.’ Asians will focus on making sure you will be consensus-seeking and team-oriented before they will commit to doing business with you for the long term.”

Your new colleagues may also want to take you out drinking. In China, “the toast Ganbei (ghan-bay) means ‘bottoms up’ and kai pay (ki pay) means ‘empty your glass,’ with the expectation that you ‘do a shot,’ or empty your glass all at once,” says Access to Asia. To signal that you’ve had enough of that, “say sui bian, which roughly translates to, ‘Please proceed in your way, and I will do it my way.’” Good to know.

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