Recently, I introduced a Western medical device company to a distributor in Asia. The owner of the Asian distribution company was Mr. Ben Chu. During the initial part of the meeting, the Western medical executive asked Mr. Chu if his father had fought at Pearl Harbor.
Obviously, this was a ridiculous question as Mr. Chu is a Chinese guy, and the U.S. was fighting Japan and Japanese soldiers during World War II. While this may seem like a silly example, Westerners who fail to differentiate between Asian cultures continues to be a problem.
While Western executives do not need to become Asians in culture, it is important for Western executives to feel at ease with Asians and to make Asians feel at ease with them if they want to be successful. Each Asian country has a different culture, ethnic composition, and historical background, and oftentimes several religions.
For example, if you visit Japan and Korea, you will notice the populations are very homogeneous and there are not many minority groups. However, if you go to a country like Malaysia, the ethnicities vary quite a bit, with a population consisting of 50 percent Malay, 30 percent Chinese, 10 percent Indian, and 10 percent other. Singapore is quite ethnically diverse as well, with a population of 75 percent Chinese, 13 percent Malay, 7 percent Indian, and 5 percent other.
Besides ethnic diversity, many of the Asian countries have a great deal of religious diversity. In Korea, 30 percent of the population is Buddhist and 25 percent is Christian. In Japan, 85 percent of the population is Shinto and Buddhist. In Vietnam, 80 percent of the people are atheists, 10 percent are Buddhists, and 7 percent are Catholic.
Each Asian country also has a unique culture. For example, doing business in India is totally different from doing business in most East Asian countries. While Indians are normally well educated, they can be very aggressive in business and can negotiate forever. Japanese people, on the other hand, are generally more formal, outwardly polite, always want to know the full agenda of a future meeting well in advance, etc. In short, not all Asian countries conduct business in the same way or have the same attitudes, values, and mindset.
The main thing that is common throughout Asia is the notion of personal relationships. Cultural insensitivity and business-first attitudes are the greatest handicaps for foreign businesses in Asia. Trust and interpersonal communication are essential. Thus, when trying to do business in Asia, Western executives need to first study the culture, ethnicity, religion, and history of each of the various Asian countries and build personal relationships — not threaten lawsuits.
While a better understanding of Asian cultural issues is crucial, it is also important to realize that in the end, people are people, and everyone around the world shares common goals and desires such as job promotions, higher salaries, and a happy family life. If Western executives keep this point in mind, and have a good grasp of Asian cultural issues, their businesses in Asia will be much more likely to succeed.