The economy of East Asia is one of the most successful regional economies of the world. It is home of some of the world’s largest and most prosperous economies: China, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea.

Hong Kong by night
Taken by: Jeraldine Phneah


When conducting business with clients in this region, it is important to avoid the social blunders and damaging errors by finding out as much as you can about their culture.

Using these tips on business etiquette in Asia could improve your chances of success when dealing with Eastern cultures.


1) Respect ranks and titles

In Western cultures, people tend to be more democratic and consultative. You believe that your society is not that class-conscious and not obsessed with social status.

However, this is not the case in East Asia. According to Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory, East Asian countries tend to have a high power distance index. Meaning to say that the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.

As such, we tend to give more respect to people who we perceive to be of higher authority like an older person, a boss, higher ranking colleague, our parents or someone else’s parent.

In Western countries, you are used to calling people whom you don’t know very well by your first names. CEOs and workers may address each other by their first names. Even telemarketers call you by your first names!

However, do not do this in East Asian countries. When you first meet someone in a business context and for the first time,be formal in addressing them.

Another thing to avoid is hugs and kisses. In the West, people tend to greet each other through hugs and kisses. However, many Asians are very uncomfortable with physical touch with strangers. By tradition, Asian people greet each other through bows but we’ve adapted over the years to use handshakes too. So, use handshakes instead of hugging unless you are very close with your Asian counterpart.


2) Make friends first and do business later

In some western countries, efficiency is highly valued and people pride themselves on getting straight to the point. You want to cut to the chase and save time.

However, in East Asia things work differently. People like small talk and pleasantries. They want to learn more about you as a person before doing business with you so they can build trust. Initial meetings are rarely expected to produce results. As such if you do business in Asia, you may notice that the people would like to wine and dine before they sit down to talk.

The reason for this is because Asain people value and want to cultivate “guan xi”. To make things happen in China, you have to know people. “Knowing” is what the Chinese mean by “guan xi” or “connections.”

When you cultivate “guan xi” with people, you might get them to bend over backwards for you, let alone buy into your demands and style.

However, if you show up with a legal document before people get to know you and feel comfortable with you, you won’t go far or make long-lasting deals.

So, do not cut to the chase too fast. Let people feel “connected” with you before you proceed.


3) When giving gifts take note of these

East Asian people have a habit of giving gifts because it is polite to do so. Here are some things to note when giving presents.

When you give a present, do so with hands.

Gifts are generally not opened upon receiving. Resist the temptation of opening it on the spot

Older people usually refuse a gift at first to be polite. Offer a second time.

Do not give gifts in sets of four (a number associated with death). Giving things in pairs or in eights (a number associated with prosperity) would be great.

Avoid colours like green because the phrase ‘wearing a green hat’ has connotations of someone being cheated on. Avoid white and black which are colours worn at funerals.

Instead, try to wear red to celebratory occasions or cocktail events as red is an auspicious colour in most East Asian cultures.

Jeralddine Phneah
One of my favourite red dresses

4) Understand eye contact has different meanings in the East

Eye contact is expected in Western culture. It shows that a person is interested, engaged in the conversation and confident. If somebody doesn’t give any eye contact during a conversation, it may be considered insulting.

However, in Asian cultures, things are a little different. Asian people place great importance on respect. Hierarchies are much more visible in their society than in Western cultures, and their social behaviors mirror this. Thus, in countries such as China and Japan, eye contact is not considered an essential to social interaction, instead it can be considered inappropriate. It is believed that subordinates shouldn’t make steady eye contact with their superiors.

For example, students are discouraged from making eye contact with their professors, as it can be interpreted as a sign of disrespect. Similarly a daughter will point her eyes downwards when her father is reprimanding her.

Go easy on the direct eye contact when communicating with your East Asian counterparts.


5) Remember to give ‘face’

The abstract concept of “face” (面子) can be described as a combination of social standing, reputation, influence, dignity, and honor.

This is very important in the eyes of East Asians. A recent study conducted by the China Youth Daily found that over 93% of the 1,150 respondents surveyed admitted that face is very important to them, with 75% acknowledging that making a mistake in public was, by far, the most humiliating experience they could ever have.

Asian people are also worried about letting others ‘lose face’. So they seldom say “no” or make negative comments directly. Instead of saying no, they often express their disagreement by means of a graceful excuse or a suggestion.

Here is what you can do to respect the importance of face to East Asians

• Avoid pointing out someone’s mistakes openly in front of their peers or strangers. Any criticism should be delivered privately, discreetly and tactfully, or else, just opposite to what you wish.

• Always give sincere compliments when they are due.

• Show extra respect and defer to all elders and people of rank, title, or uniform.

• If offered, always allow your host to pay for your dinner.

• Never insult, embarrass, shame, yell at or otherwise demean a person



Hope this post has been useful for you! If you have more questions regarding East Asia and working here, please feel free to drop me a message.