An exciting aspect of the modern world is the opportunity to conduct business with overseas partners. With Asia viewed as 'the engine of the world', Western companies naturally set out to forge long-term commercial partnerships with an Eastern ally, which in many cases is easier said than done.
Rather than diving straight into a seemingly simple joint venture, Westerners soon learn that tradition and custom can play a greater role in an Asian business than modern-day conventions, even at the highest levels of a company.
Conducting business in a respectful and cohesive fashion is a skill favoured in many lands, but none more so than Asia.
For Rowan D'Arcy, President and CEO of Sri Ayudhya Capital PCL, Thailand, a man who has worked extensively throughout Singapore and Thailand, dealing with an Asian company is an exercise in patience and humility.
"You should never embarrass someone publicly as this will never be forgotten," said Mr D'Arcy. "Although nothing directly will be said to you at the time, it will be remembered and held against you forever. Western practices of directness, personal ambition, ethical behaviour and lack of tolerance for tardiness or fraud can be seen as too harsh in many cases."
"All of these can be achieved by building personal relationships and gaining credibility with your team, staff and business partners. It can be viewed as dealing with direct family – you can be firm (in a way), but also lenient when required."
A light touch
Associate Director of consultancy firm, ITS Global, Khalil Hegarty has found this to be true of many Asian business practices.
"Being aggressive isn't tolerated very well," said Mr Hegarty. "Saving face is very important. Something frowned upon horribly is Western arrogance and the Western superiority complex. Humility can go a long way."
However, there are some countries with interesting exceptions to normal etiquette.
"Strangely, Singaporeans can be direct in the strangest of ways to a Westerner," said Mr D'Arcy. "Many think nothing about asking you what you earn, what your housing allowance is and many other questions which are considered bad manners in the West."
Complex cultural traditions and family customs also inform not only day-to-day life, but various levels of business.
"If you're dealing with a family-based conglomerate – and there are very many – family and related trust are very important, probably more important than anything else," said Mr Hegarty.
"Depending on where you are, it's very important to be attuned to the role ethnicity can play in business. I know that might offend politically correct Western ears, but it's simply how it is. In Malaysia, ethnic preferences influence laws and regulations, including public procurement and company ownership."
The situation is similar in Thailand, where becoming part of a team is akin to joining a second family.
"The concept of a patriarchal society is also something that you have to come to terms with," said Mr D'Arcy. "In some ways it can be seen as a patronage system. The boss is always the boss, unless he is not a Thai – Thais tolerate foreigners, but prefer to deal with Thais – then the most senior Thai is the one to whom patronage is seen to be owed."
Take a bow
Without being condescending, there are some Eastern practices that Westerners may find baffling, if not outright mystifying. Take, for example, the Japanese custom of bowing – a ritual of status observance and humility.
Whether at home, in public or at work, it is customary in Japan to bow when greeting or farewelling a person. How deep you bow depends on your status or level in the company compared to the person to whom you are bowing – the lower your status, the deeper the bow. When in doubt, watch the people around you and how they respond to each other and take your cues from there.
This custom is deeply ingrained in the Japanese psyche and is effectively an unconscious reaction for many. It is not uncommon to see a Japanese salaryman (businessman) speaking on his mobile phone in the street, bowing at regular intervals to the person on the other end of the line.
Eggshell with Romalian type
Another common ritual when doing business in Asia is the exchange of business cards.
"The business card represents the person giving it and should be treated with utmost respect," said Mr D'Arcy. "Never write on it! Do not put it into your back pocket! Read it and take some time doing this to ensure that you are giving them face."
Begin with the senior-most person in the room. After greeting them with a bow, offer your business card with both hands and another small bow; they will accept your card in a similar fashion and study it. Receive a business card the same way; then place it into a protective case or holder. If sitting down after greetings, arrange the cards on the table in front of you in order of seniority and do not play with them.
For a truly professional approach, print one side of your card in English and the same details on the other side in your business partner's native language.
While it all sounds like heady waters to navigate, it is still possible to retain your Western business sensibilities while forging a lasting relationship with an Asian counterpart. The fruits of your labour, as too your partner's, will be worth the time, effort and patience used to achieve them.
Had direct experience working with international companies? Share your tips in the comments section below.