During my recent first foray into the Asian business environment, specifically an industry exhibition/conference in Singapore, there were several aspects of ‘doing business’ that stood out and contrasted my Australian, western experience. I have visited the region before, but to visit with a business purpose and mindset is very different to a tourist experience, and I’d like to share some of my reflections for those who haven’t yet travelled abroad for business.

As with travel anywhere, I experienced some cultural differences in how people interact with one another on both a personal and professional level, and I might also note here that there isn’t as obvious a distinction between the two as there is in western business culture. From the first meeting, there is an emphasis on the greeting and exchange of business cards, and this gracious display serves to set a tone for any future interactions. Upon later reflection, I realised that the culture and practised etiquette isn’t merely influencing how business is done, it is the way business is done. It carries through from that first point of contact, through meetings and negotiations, and outside of hours.

It is clear there are also significant differences in communication styles, looking beyond language. Conversations with local business people in Asia are less direct and firm than those from a western background, and would take some conscious adjustments to ensure that you are (particularly when asking questions) communicating in a way to elicit the response you require, rather than just an acknowledgement of your query. Yes/no responses are not easily delivered, with “yes” more tending to signify acknowledgement and listening as opposed to an agreement or commitment. A “no” response might be considered almost offensive or subordinate, as there is more consideration of individual’s feelings and thoughts than there would be in a western environment, where there is a more black and white divide between personal and professional spheres.

The blending of personal and professional also extends beyond the formal working day, to the seemingly demanding after-hours work of networking – either entertaining or being entertained most nights a week. There was very much a sense of ‘it’s who you know, not just what you know’ prevailing in discussions, which on a practical level equates to frequently going out and engaging with colleagues, acquaintances and others in the industry. It is easy to imagine western expatriates becoming burned-out quickly with these sorts of demands on their (what would have been considered personal) time. That said, there’s no question that connections formed and fostered in casual settings could certainly be of benefit in both the short-term and long-term either for personal growth and mobility, but also to stay up to date with who is working where and which companies are working on what sort of projects, and so on.

Of course there are several more aspects to doing business in Asia that differ from the western experience, but the one overriding similarity is the dedication to success and achievement. While the concept of ‘hard work’ might present differently between Australia and Asia, the end goal is a common one, and being aware of subtle differences and challenges that can influence interactions will help to calm the waters and keep everyone content.

For anyone seeking to grow their business and expand into the Asian market, preparation and market readiness is key to your success, and understanding the cultural nuances and practices of the local environment from the outset will position you strongly.

Our team at Alchemise Consulting can assist you and your company with your new market entry and expansion into the Asian market, from initial feasibility discoveries to creating and sustaining a productive local presence. We can also offer you more detailed guidance regarding the unique cultural practices and etiquette where it differs to the Australian business environment.

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