WHILE on a business trip to China some years ago, I met up with the local authorities over lunch to discuss a tricky security situation my organisation was facing.
My highly experienced Chinese counterpart brought up the issue at the end of the meal, in the midst of toasting. Without asking for details, an official simply responded: "One of my men will look into it." And the issue was eventually resolved.
I realised I was too eager to "lay all the cards on the table" whereas my colleague was more intent on building "guanxi" (relations) with the authorities.
In today's global business environment, it is therefore essential for a successful businessman to be aware of basic cultural differences, especially in Asia. It is also vital to take into consideration the cultural sensitivities when dealing with your international colleagues and business associates.
Here are three cultural approaches the savvy global businessman should take note of:
High versus low-context cultures
In low-context cultures such as the United States, people are relatively direct and explicit in their communications.
In high-context cultures, people avoid criticising or damaging a co-worker's reputation. Despite the growing Western influence in Singapore, it is still relatively high-context.
Superiors and colleagues who exercise diplomacy in office relationships are well-respected, even though it is more common for employees of multinational corporations (MNC) to be more direct in their communication style.
In a high-context society such as in China, preserving harmony is very important. For example, to avoid coming across as rude, the Chinese may say "let's consider and discuss again", rather than rejecting you outright.
Tip: Understand the culture of the co-worker or business associate you are relating with and adapt your communication style accordingly if you want to sustain good relations.
Monochronic versus polychronic
The way people view the importance and value of time varies from culture to culture. During my working stint in China, I used to get extremely frustrated whenever I requested for urgent reports and was told "ma shang dao" (meaning "arrive immediately").
I never got what I requested immediately. In polychronic cultures, such as those of the Middle East, India and China, people tend to emphasise the completion of tasks rather than the adherence to a schedule.
Being on time is less important for the polychronic than the monochronic. Americans (monochronic) are thus often frustrated when working with people from polychronic cultures who view time as fluid and have a tendency to change their schedules.
In Singapore, the work culture has become generally monochronic and some social customs are gradually moving in that direction too. For instance, Chinese wedding dinners used to start at 9pm even though the invitation card indicated 7.30pm. Some dinners actually start on time these days.
Tip: When planning a business trip to a polychronic culture, add in some "buffer" days to avoid feeling frustrated and pressured to finish your work. Seemingly frivolous time spent together at dinner tables or sight-seeing with your business associates will be helpful to your business.
Different cultures have different rules toward personal space. An etiquette-savvy person easily senses and respects the territorial space of others.
Americans appreciate keeping an appropriate distance between two parties. They may step back unconsciously if they feel that the other party is too close. The other party may find it offensive if he prefers closer personal contact.
In a densely populated place like Bombay in India, buses are constantly filled with at least three times more people than the allocated capacity. It is thus common for people to be packed very closely together while commuting.
A participant from India once shared how "lonely" he felt when he first arrived in Singapore, interpreting our need for more personal space as a "distant behaviour" in the "highly territorial" culture.
Tip: Understand the norm of space in the country you are planning for your business visit. Again, the rule of the game is to adapt to the culture.
If you feel your personal space is being invaded, avoid stepping back immediately as this may come across as insulting. Try adjusting your distance gradually and subtly, otherwise, suggest sitting down.
Building long-term relationships
No man is an island. The basis of all transactions rests on human interactions. Cultural adaptation plays an important role in business relations.
It is thus worthwhile to invest your time to understand the cultures of your business counterparts and make a conscious effort to relate with them accordingly. This helps to develop mutually beneficial relationships.