HansemEUG CEO, Ms. Yangsook Kim recently penned an article about building professional relationships in Asia, in the influential magazine MultiLingual: The international publication is a leading voice for the language industry and businesses with global communication needs. The article offers insights into some of the unique aspects of cultures in Korea, China, and Japan, and shares tips for building strong, professional relationships within these countries. The article has been positively received by readers; you can read it here at: multilingual
It is true that the Northeast Asian countries, mainly Korea, China, and Japan, share quite a lot in common. In fact, Asian cultures in general have higher degree of similarity between one another than countries in the West. As a business person in Korea who has dealt with numerous partners and clients from these three countries over the past 30 years, I have come to a conclusion that they also have quite distinctive traits. One thing I ask for your understanding on is that these observations are based on my personal experiences, and I would simply like to share my thoughts in a casual manner.
If you visit Korea, you will be often asked about your age. Such a question is not considered rude at all in Korea. The reason behind this is Korea’s strong group-oriented and seniority-based culture. This culture has motivated Koreans to develop a strong sense of belonging and define hierarchy within a given group. Usually, the fundamental standard that defines hierarchy is age. One must show a certain level of respect to those who are older and that respect is usually defined as social norms. So we ask about age on most occasions to determine the level of respect we need to show toward the other person. Even in the corporate environment, age is often considered more important than position. So in order to build a close relationship with the Koreans, try to belong to a group with them and show them an adequate amount of respect based on their age. The easiest way to form a group with your Korean partners would be playing golf or going out for an extensive dinner with drinks. Golf has been a must-play sport for most business people for the last few decades, so much so that there is even the term “golf sales”, which reflects the link between popularity of golf and business in Korea. A round of golf lets you stay with the other players for almost a half a day, which means quite a lot of information can be shared and business talks can occur naturally.
Anyone interested in doing business in China would have heard about “Guanxi” at least once, but many may not be sure of what it is exactly or if it is necessary. “Guanxi” does not have word-for-word translation in English, but perhaps the most adequate equivalents would be “connection,” “relationship,” and “network.” Guanxi represents the idea of establishing a strong human relationship in personal, business, and governmental environments. One may say that it’s a sentiment represented with the phrase, “You scratch my back, and I will scratch yours.”
You might think this is nothing new and indeed it is something that applies universally to most countries. But in China, trust me, it means much more than what it appears to mean to most Western businessmen, because it might be the ultimate contributor to the success of your business. Building “guanxi” is a two-way arrangement, meaning that both parties can expect such favors, and naturally it takes time to build it. How do you start then? My tip is that you invite your Chinese business partners to a casual meal. Traditionally, having meals together has been central to building bonds between people in China.
Another point to remember is that small gifts are often exchanged. For the Chinese, the meaning of a gift is more important than the monetary value. They attach great importance to gifts that symbolize fortune, long life, health, and family happiness. So a proper gift that has special meaning can be very useful. Chinese business people act slowly by foreign standards. The Chinese generally believe that foreigners are always in a hurry and want quick results. Patience is a virtue in China. If you want to do business with the Chinese, being patient is very important.
Another unique characteristic of Chinese relationships to consider is “Mianzi.” Mianzi literally means “face,” and can be defined as “status” or “self-esteem” in Chinese social relations. One of the worst things for a Chinese is to lose face – i.e., Mianzi. Chinese people regard face as very important, and making mistakes in public is one of the most humiliating experiences for them. At the heart of Mianzi is the fear of losing acceptance from their colleagues. So, when building a relationship with Chinese people, you must be careful not to cause them to lose face in public. You should avoid confronting or correcting your Chinese partners in public, because they might regard it as very offensive.
To communicate effectively and avoid the “losing face” situation, any criticism should be made in a private setting. In addition, you should avoid refusing hospitality from your business acquaintances, because it is a public act of generosity. Direct refusal in front of others might cause them to lose face.
When you meet Japanese people, the first impression is their politeness and a strong regard for the others. If you visit Japan, you will notice how humble and polite they are. They say that the “Wa” culture is behind such politeness and humbleness. “Wa” stands for “peace or harmonization” and has great significance to the Japanese.
“Meiwaku” is a term that conveys the core value of the “Wa” culture. “Meiwaku” means “trouble for others. “ The Japanese learn from young age not to cause any kind of “Meiwaku.” They try to avoid trouble or do not annoy others, so they exercise a high degree of self-control especially in public.
Sometimes, I hear that some Western business people feel confused by their Japanese counterpart’s responses because they cannot read between lines or catch the subtle intentions behind their Japanese associate’s words. This is caused by Japanese “Honne” and “Tatemae. “ “Honne” means one’s true intention or feelings, and “Tatemae” stands for the opinions one displays in front of others. There might be a huge gap between Japan and other countries due to these unique concepts. The Japanese tend to avoid direct refusal or straightforward comments. This can confuse foreign business people who fail to understand the true meaning behind their Japanese partner’s words.
So, how can you form a trusting relationship with the Japanese? Although the Japanese people are highly polite and kind, they hardly ever show what’s really on their minds. Such a unique culture build a high barrier between Japanese and non-Japanese people. To establish a relationship of trust, you will have to understand the culture and nature of the Japanese people. Among the three Asian countries, Japan requires the most fluency of the local language for smooth business. In Korea, English will be good enough (and sometime even better for business if you are a foreigner). This is more or less the same for China. But, it is not so in Japan. They will hardly open the doors to their heart without communicating in their language or understanding their culture.