In Asia, Cultural Slip-Ups Are Kiss of Red Ink

There is a curious affliction that strikes business travelers in Pacific Rim countries, often without warning and sometimes with undesirable consequences.

It is called "international communications disorder," a term used by international business consultant David James, author of "The Executive Guide to Asia-Pacific Communications: Doing Business Across the Pacific" (Kodansha America, 1995, $16).

Clear, effective, miscommunication-proof interactions are essential to doing business in the region, but they are not necessarily the norm, said James, a lawyer by training and former director of business programs at the East-West Center in Hawaii. The San Francisco-based James, who has worked and traveled in the Asia-Pacific region for two decades, now works as a consultant to companies such as Levi Strauss that want to develop business strategies for the region.

"The main problem people have is the assumption that business is done there in the same way it's done here," James said. "Many companies step on their own feet in the process."

Many of the mishaps stem from cultural differences, but often problems arise from things that seem almost trivial to an American.

For example, it is common in Southeast Asia and China for business people to list their advanced academic degrees on their business cards. Americans, who find that pretentious, should include their degrees on cards for use in those countries, James said. And using red ink to sign something is a cultural taboo, since in some countries, especially Korea, red ink indicates death.

Such cultural nuances abound throughout Asia. Some Asian business people are highly superstitious about certain numbers. The number 4 is considered unlucky in Japan, China and Korea. The number 6 is unlucky in Thailand, whereas 10 and 13 are unlucky in Vietnam. Thus, a business person would want to be careful not to use prominent combinations of numbers that add up to 10 or 13 when trying to communicate in Vietnam, or inadvertently give four of anything to a Japanese counterpart.

In James' opinion, Japan is the toughest country for Americans trying to establish new business relationships.

"The culture is so demanding and the business infrastructure is rather difficult to navigate," he said. "The Japanese market is the hardest to crack."

Companies that succeed in doing business there have an advantage when it comes to expanding into other Asian countries because they have a heightened sensitivity to such cultural differences, James said. On the other hand, a common mistake people make is to assume that every country works the same way.

Formality levels, for example, range from Japan--the highest--to Australia--the lowest. And even formal cultures differ in character.

For example, both Japanese and Korean business cultures are highly formal, James said. "But Koreans by nature are more upfront and tend to be more emotional. They are referred to by some as the 'Irish of Asia.' "

And because the Korean culture emphasizes the individual more than Japanese culture does, an American would want to pay more attention to getting to know a Korean counterpart, asking about his family and education, before moving on to the business at hand.

When in doubt, it is better to be too formal than not formal enough, James said. He recalled an American colleague who had done business in Asia for many years and who was being introduced by a longtime Asian acquaintance to a potential business partner. The Asian man introduced the American by extolling his integrity, but qualified his remarks by saying he had known him "only seven years," said James, who uses the example to indicate how seriously Asian business people take their business contacts.

Having personal introductions is extremely important to doing business in the region, he said. Americans interested in getting started should canvass their friends and colleagues here to find any who have business acquaintances in the Asian country who could write a letter of introduction. Cold calling, or failing to address an Asian executive by proper name and title, is a guaranteed way to screw up, James said.

The next best approach to having a personal acquaintance in an Asian company is to contact the trade representatives of the country in which you're interested in doing business, he said. They can help you with introductions.

Another problem area is negotiating. "A deal that could take a week to put together in the United States could take as much as a month to finalize in Asia," James said.

Language is still the biggest culprit in communications disorders, even when the language is English. Americans can't assume that just because their Asian business partners speak English that communication will go smoothly, James said. It's still important to write clearly, use short, clear sentences and avoid jargon. When speaking, go slowly and enunciate. Also, resist the temptation to throw in humor, a practice that is second nature to many Americans but can get them into trouble overseas.

And be sensitive to cultural identity issues. When in Australia, avoid making references to how "British" their tastes are. When in Japan, don't make references to World War II.

Sometimes it pays to use an interpreter, even if everyone speaks English, just to make sure there are no misunderstandings, James said. But even this is not foolproof. In his book, for example, he cites a case in which an American sent a telex to a Japanese colleague, saying, "We wonder if you would prepare an agenda for our meeting." At the other end, the word wonder was translated into the Japanese for "doubt." The recipient was insulted and the meeting canceled.

Communications disorders are preventable, James said. But it requires diligence, preparation and patience. All the high-tech communications tools in the world can't replace the need for clear messages.

"International communications disorder is a serious business problem in a world that is now a global marketplace," James writes in his book, adding that it "amounts to lost business."


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