A guide to business culture in Asia

As Asia remains at the forefront of global economic growth, it is strategic for multinational corporations to expand operations in this region and capitalize on its strengths and long-term potential. To thrive in these diverse, emerging markets, a deeper understanding of cultural differences and familiarity with unique business cultures and systems are essential for success. Here’s a useful guide to business etiquette and practices in Asia:


A basic sign of respect, punctuality is highly valued in Asian countries and arriving ahead of time is deemed professional. A gentle handshake accompanied by good eye contact are appropriate formal greetings, except in Thailand, where the “wai” gesture with palms pressed together, is still standard protocol. Asian professionals also value their personal space and dislike unnecessary physical contact, so avoid patting someone’s back and putting your arm around someone’s shoulder. When exchanging business cards, it’s customary to give and receive using both hands. Be sure to read the cards before putting them in your card case or on the table.


Small talk

Businessmen in Asia spend a great deal of time (and money) building trust and developing strong relationships with their associates and clients. Making small talk is a must to establish rapport and make a good first impression during first meetings. Start by learning the right pronunciation of their names and break the ice with greetings and simple phrases in their native language. For instance, when meeting someone for the first time in Japan, say, “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu”, which roughly translates to “Please treat me kindly”. For small talk, choose safe, lighthearted topics of discussion, such as traveling, hobbies, sports, technology, and the weather. As in other countries, talking about politics and religion is a no-no.


Networking takes time and effort, but “who” you know matters a lot in Asian business cultures, where several corporations are owned by prominent families and controlled by the government, except in Japan. When growing your professional network, always have long-term goals in mind and know how to take advantage of introductions or referrals by peers and other business contacts. However, refrain from name-dropping and over-mentioning your contacts in corporate scenarios. It’s better to emphasize your competence rather than influence.



In terms of verbal communication, Westerners generally tend to be more straightforward compared to those in the East, where facial expressions and body language are vital in social interactions. Most Asian professionals come from non-confrontational societies so pay closer attention to nonverbal cues. Most importantly, understand the Chinese concept of “face”, especially in countries like China, Singapore, and Hong Kong, and avoid putting anyone on the spot by asking yes or no questions or making them take sides. Giving credit to the group is also more acceptable than complimenting individual employees.


Unlike in individualist cultures, where employees are individually responsible for their decisions, decision-making in Asian firms is highly centralized and usually flows from the top downwards, so those with a large stake in the company hold the reigns. This top-down management is practiced by most Asian economies, except for Japan, where companies make collective decisions. In general, teams tend to delay making decisions until they get their superiors’ approval and reach a consensus.

Showing cultural sensitivity goes a long way, especially in today’s globalized business scene. What are the do’s and don’ts when doing business in your country? Share them with us below!   

Jenie Gabriel

The author

Jenie Gabriel

Jenie creates and coordinates content for Gengo's marketing team. Originally from the Philippines, she was an advertising creative in Singapore before moving to Tokyo. In her spare time, you’ll find her wandering around the city or planning her next escapade.

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