Master the Business Etiquette of the Pacific Rim

Here are the dos and don'ts when negotiating in Asia-Pacific countries

Written by Jared Mitchell

Exporting to the Asia Pacific requires more than good products and services: It requires unusual finesse. Whereas dealing with Americans couldn’t be more straightforward, Asians are famously indirect and require careful but not obsessive attention to protocol. They will forgive small mistakes, but it pays to know what and what not to do when you’re selling your stuff in the region


The Chinese must get to know you before they conduct business with you. Work through an intermediary—a business contact, friend or an organization, such as Canadian trade councils and the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service. What we would call “networking,” the Chinese treat much more formally and put greater stock in it. It’s known as guanxi, and when done properly can result in lasting connections between families, friends, business associates and companies. The Chinese will view you not as an individual but a representative of your company, so conduct yourself accordingly at all times.

Rank is important—be aware of the senior person in the room and address him or her (there is no sex bias in Chinese business). Personal meetings are far more effective than E-mails or phone calls. Make your appointments well in advance, send an agenda in English and simplified Chinese characters (a modern form of Chinese writing) and never arrive late. Don’t be informal with senior people, especially in front of their peers or subordinates. Senior people generally sit opposite senior people from the other side.


Business greetings tend to be formal and involve a handshake and the Bahasa word “Selamat.” Indonesians, like other Asians, see the business card as an extension of themselves and their companies and they take them very seriously. Have one side of your business card translated into Bahasa, and use English and/or French on the other. Always present your business card by holding it with the fingertips of both hands, as if it were a miniature tray, with the Bahasa text facing the recipient. When receiving your counterparts’ cards take them with the fingertips of both hands and always take a moment to read them. Do this even when exchanging cards with other Westerners when you’re in the Far East to demonstrate to Asians how worldly you are. Never write on someone’s business card unless they suggest it.

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Although foreigners think of bowing when meeting a Japanese, it’s actually a complex undertaking: The depth of the bow is commensurate with the seniority of the person you’re bowing to. In this highly stratified nation, senior members of your party should sit opposite their senior counterparts and they always lead the discussions. Juniors should only speak when spoken to. And while they have a reputation of hard partying after hours, don’t expect to join your Japanese counterparts for a night of whisky and karaoke, at least not in the beginning. And be extremely restrained when touching the Japanese. Although they will indulge a Westerner’s handshake, don’t touch them on the back or put an arm around their shoulder.


There are pictograms on public-transport trains in Kuala Lumpur reminding riders that showing intimate feelings between members of the opposite sex (in other words, having a quick snog) are offensive and forbidden. Although it is a multicultural, modern nation, Malaysia has enshrined Islam as the state religion, so show its institutions and rules with great respect and be very circumspect. Remove your shoes when entering someone’s home unless they tell you not to bother. Chinese and Indians make up significant minorities and may have their own customs that differ from the Malay majority.

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While business people in Hong Kong may be raucous and feisty, Singaporeans are restrained, cool and reserved. English is the official language but it is still an Asian city, so strive to be earnest, courteous, punctual and precise. Avoid being familiar with business counterparts early on in negotiations. Singaporeans may also come off as pedantic, doing everything exactly by the rules. Show respect by not being critical of local sensibilities—never mention the country’s ban on chewing gum. If you give your host a gift, do not expect it to be opened in front of you—this doesn’t mean that they don’t treat your gift as important. It’s because Singaporeans don’t want to show disappointment in case they don’t like your gift. If the recipients are Muslims do not give them alcohol. If you are offered a gift, be modest and suggest you don’t deserve it, but take it. Don’t open it in front of the giver.


Like other ethnically Chinese places such as Hong Kong and Singapore, Taiwan puts great stock in mien tzu, the concept of face, which pertains to the perception of a person’s respect, social equilibrium and dignity. You can either give someone face or cause them to lose it. Although losing face is a more familiar concept (embarrassing, ridiculing or treating someone with less respect than their social standing warrants), giving face is also important. You give someone face by praising them or complimenting a group they belong to, such as their family, company or country. Do not single out an individual for praise when the effort has actually been made by a group—it will cause resentment just as it would in Canada.

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Despite their chaotic modern politics, Thais are justifiably proud of their ancient culture and are protective of the institutions of Buddhism, the monarchy and the family. It is a grave social offence to desecrate an image of Buddha and it is a grave criminal offence to besmirch the Royal Family’s character or even images of them. Thais greet one another by pressing their palms together and raising them, a gesture known as the wai. The higher one places the palms the greater respect shown. Always remove your shoes before entering someone’s home—even a display home in a new housing development. When you open a new office in Thailand, be sure to invite monks from a local temple to preside over it and confer blessings (this is a paid gig, so be prepared to make a donation).


This is still a developing nation so you must be patient with apparent inefficiencies and sluggishness. Becoming annoyed in public will cause you to lose face and thus the respect of others around you. Make business appointments well in advance but be punctual. Assume your first business meeting will be little more than an ice-breaker to open business relations. A decision on a deal will be far down the road. If you make a promise, even a verbal one, you must keep it, or risk loss of reputation and possibly the deal.


Here’s the exception in the region. Much as in North America, Australians get down to business with a minimum amount of formalities and chat. They don’t care for Asian-style indirection and prefer you get to your subject quickly and briefly. Bargaining isn’t customary and they may only tolerate a narrow range of negotiation. As in Canada, high-pressure American-style techniques are unwelcome and can doom your efforts. Another similarity is that relationships with your business contacts needn’t be deeply cultivated before getting down to brass tacks. Avoid hyperbole and hype—the Aussies don’t like it and they’ll tell you so. Australians coined the term “tall poppy,” and are modest about personal achievements almost to the point of stunting initiative within team efforts.

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