Cultural differences when doing business in Asia

Updated: Sep 20, 2019

I reside in Melbourne (Australia) and worked with IBM Asia Pacific for a few years in my younger years. I really loved working with all the different countries, the people and the cultures!! It was the best time in my career.

Here is my advice based on my personal experience and a little bit of culture awareness training received during that time.

The first thing you need to be aware of is that there are indeed differences in culture! During the course I attended, this was demonstrated by the instructor having participants sitting at tables of say, 8 people per table. Each person was given a sheet of paper with the rules of a card game which we were to play. Nobody was allowed to talk during the game. We played the game and it went smoothly enough. However, the winner had to move to the next table on the right, and the loser moved to the next table on the left.

The game recommenced, only now this time there was a lot of noise, gesticulating, and frustration. People were madly pointing at the cards and frowning. There was chaos. Why?

Each table had been given different rules to the game!

This demonstrated really well that each table (or country) had different rules (or cultures). No one was more right or wrong than the other: just different!

Just understand that is a huge win in the first place. Then, once you fully grasp that concept, you need to understand the other culture(s). I strongly advise you take training if you are going to be working in another culture.

The different cultures are really interesting.

In Japan, I asked once for a "desktop procedure" to be sent to me. There was no response after a few requests so I realised I was asking the wrong question. I changed my question to "how do you train new employees?". The answer came back that they stand next to the new employee and demonstrate what to do - if they did have desktop procedures, they certainly didn't use them.

I was looking at outsourcing in South Korea. My recommendation was NOT to outsource in that country (or Japan) as jobs were for life there, and if somebody lost their job, it would bring intolerable pain and embarrassment to the whole family. People could actually ...well, you know. It just wasn't the right thing to do. So, IBM didn't undertake that project there at that time.

I asked a question of Malaysian management once, and it seemed to be taking much longer to get an answer than other countries. The learning was that the question had to go all the way up the management chain for a decision, and then all the way back down again. It took a few weeks. Actually, similar in Japan and South Korea.

Some countries thrive on "extraordinary financial encouragements" (EFE). I recall someone once was described as being "effective" - meaning they went around formalities and red tape and got the job done using EFEs.

Going through a back door and using EFEs is absolutely normal in some countries. It's part of their culture. As a manufacturer, I found that EFEs are an every day thing... nothing unexpected. Even having my products tested were open to EFEs. I was very happy when the company I hired turned down the EFE they were offered. Many "checking companies" accept EFEs. So my advice to westerners is not to be surprised, but to be prepared. It's kind of normal. I have experienced many situations where EFEs (or fake fees) have been requested.

More about Asia... especially with China and Japan, a decision is made ahead of a meeting (in the corridors, political lobbying etc), and the meeting is merely to confirm the decision, not to make it. The important people don't speak at meetings - only the underlings. The important people stay silent.

​ There's a different silence though. Silence can mean a few things... it can mean "I don't understand the question, so therefore you're a bad communicator"... it could also mean "I don't like the question because it forces me to lose face if I answer" and so on.

"Yes" can have a few meanings too. "Yes" can mean "I heard you, but I don't understand the question, but I don't want to point out what a bad communicator you are for not making the question clear"; "I heard you, and I understand the question but I don't want to answer"; "I think that's a good idea", and in some cases it means "yes". Sometimes, especially in South Korea, people answer "yes" because it causes considerable discomfort to say "no".

​You need to really consider the facial expressions, the pauses and always consider if you are putting a person in a position where they may lose face.

​It's a fascinating topic, and I have lots of great stories.

I actually prefer working with Asians than any other group. I really do love the different cultures and the people. The best memories of my career are of IBM Asia Pacific.

asian business culture awareness


Let's do this!

Maryanne Fraser



Virtual Business Support

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

ABN: 73 092 019 268

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