Costly Western assumptions

Do you think your Western business practices work in any culture? My ongoing research into Asian culture proves that we are dead wrong in this belief, meaning that many Western companies are dead wrong in their approach to Asian business. There are three main things I learned in 2,000 hours of interviews: I ask my customers: What are the chances your Western ways are holding you back from being...

10/01/2007


Do you think your Western business practices work in any culture? My ongoing research into Asian culture proves that we are dead wrong in this belief, meaning that many Western companies are dead wrong in their approach to Asian business.

There are three main things I learned in 2,000 hours of interviews:

  • The very qualities that make us successful in the West often detract from our success in the East and result in missed opportunities because we don’t take into account the way Asians think, feel and react. On the other hand, if you want to accelerate the speed of your results in Asia, simple changes in what you are doing will produce positive results out of proportion to what you might expect. As one Asian purchaser told me, “The main thing you [Westerners] have to do is understand the things that make it difficult for us to do business with you.”

  • Seemingly minor faux pas can have major repercussions. Your executives operate at a high level of competence in their respective fields, yet they unknowingly do many things that diminish trust, trigger passive resistance and cause loss of productivity. (If you are localized in China, what is your attrition rate?)

  • Asian culture doesn’t allow for them to tell you what you’re doing wrong. Asians avoid conflict at all cost and will not risk loss of face through telling you directly what is on their minds. You are expected to know how to act. And if you don’t, the thinking is, 'It is not my business to assist you or protect you.’ That is one reason why Asians on your staff won’t save you.

I ask my customers: What are the chances your Western ways are holding you back from being successful in the East? You’re an action person. Your sense of urgency got you where you are. You’re good at what you do. You move fast, get the job done. You love active debate. You’re a hard-nosed negotiator. You make decisions on your own. You love to brainstorm and come up with creative solutions. You feel alive when you wing it. Have you kept track of how well this works (or doesn’t work) with Asians?

Cultural changes

Small changes in three areas can increase your productivity and your company’s profits:

  1. Company face—seemingly minor behaviors are tipping points in Asia. By being our casual, Western selves, there is potential to cause loss of face at every turn. That erodes trust. Protocols are important, but beyond protocols, do the people on your team know the thousand ways that they can cause your company to lose face?

  2. Interpersonal value—Western business culture does not foster the personal side of the business. Yet, it’s through relationships that things get done with Asian customers and suppliers. How well you succeed with them will depend on the depth and quality of the relationships you succeed in establishing. In fact, that may well be your point of differentiation in the Asia-Pacific.

  3. Cross-cultural competence—According to Training magazine, American corporations spent almost $56 billion on training products and services in 2006. But what percentage, do you suppose, was cross-cultural? So minuscule, we have no statistics. I asked the executive vice president of a global software firm why, in his opinion, Western companies don’t invest in communication skills training for people who deal directly with their Asia-Pacific counterparts. Without a pause, he shot back: “I believe it’s Western arrogance.”

Quantifiable results

Companies that take notice and adapt their strategies to the way their Asian customers, suppliers and staff think, say and do things will see immediate results. But it’s in the second and third years of deepening trust that your company will see the real breakthroughs and true return on investment.

Address the cultural and communication issues that affect your productivity and profitability in China, Japan and South Korea. This will help bridge the geographical gap and promote long-term, profitable relationships to grow your business. All you have to do is add a layer of cross-cultural skill to the technical expertise of anyone who interacts with your Asian customer.

If we think we can go into Asia and do things our way, we will have some success, because there is a lot of business to be had. But we also stand to miss out on major opportunities. Relationship is the route to the big money in Asia.


Author Information

Mia Doucet is a trainer and the award-winning author of “China in Motion.” She can be reached by visiting




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