Six Things to Know When Going on an International Business Trip to China and Southeast Asia

iStock_000018538581XSmallBy Mai Browne

If you’re doing business in China and an associate asks you how much money you earn, don’t be offended; he or she is probably just seeking a way to find common ground. Marie Seton O’Brien, a forensic due diligence consultant, learned this lesson while working in Beijing a few years ago for New York Global Group, a global strategic advisory, venture capital and private equity firm.

“In addition to salary, lots of people asked about my age and marital status,” said O’Brien. “At first I was taken aback, but then I realized that these questions were just a jumping-off point for building a relationship.”

When working in a foreign country, gaining an understanding of cross-cultural differences – and how they impact communication, teamwork, management and business development – is critical to your success.

Here are 5 things to think about when you travel to Asia for business:

1) Don’t expect everyone to brainstorm in the meeting.

When conducting meetings between Westerners and the Chinese (or other cultures concerned with “losing face”), make sure to invite those who are quiet to speak, and let them know in advance what topics on which you will ask for their input.

One example came to light this year in a HBR Blog Network article written by cross cultural change expert Erin Meyer, Professor at INSEAD Business School in France. Meyer describes a big lesson she learned around expecting people from other cultures to automatically follow her modus operandi. Meyer conducted the session with a colleague named Bo Chen, a journalist and the Chinese country expert in attendance at a French car manufacturers meeting.

Chen’s role was to present two concrete business examples to illustrate each cultural issue Meyer would be covering, but he stayed silent throughout until finally invited to speak. Chen explained his reluctance to jump in,

“We Chinese often feel Americans are not good listeners because they are always jumping in on top of one another to make their points. I would have liked to make one of my points if an appropriate length of pause had arisen. But Erin was always talking, so I just kept waiting patiently. My mother left it deeply engrained in me: You have two eyes, two ears, but only one mouth. You should use them accordingly.”

In the US, speaking up when you have an idea is culturally expected and extroverts are often promoted into leadership positions in part because of that trait. Furthermore, it is traditionally believed that the loudest person with the most executive presence is the authority on the topic at hand. Laura Liswood’s book, The Loudest Duck, is a fabulous resource to take along with you on these trips as she explains cultural nuances around how we are programmed to believe such expressions as “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” in the West. Liswood refers to these idioms as what our Grandma taught us and, as demonstrated in the example above, Mr. Chen’s Grandma and Ms. Meyer’s Grandma weren’t on the same page.

2) Understand the hierarchy and power and authority dynamics at play.

In the above example, when Meyer asked Chen why he hadn’t spoken earlier, he turned to their clients and said:

“In this room, Erin is the chairman of the meeting. As she is the senior person in the room, I wait for her to call on me. And, while I am waiting, I should show I am a good listener by keeping both my voice and my body quiet.”

In the Asian business culture, there are expectations around who is supposed to talk and who is supposed to listen that Westerners tend not to share.

3) Get cross-cultural training.

Meyer’s example is a powerful illustration of the critical need to develop multicultural competency in our increasingly global economy. Many large global companies provide some training, but if your company doesn’t, see if it will reimburse you if you take an outside course on the subject.

“Almost everyone in business these days is working in some type of multi-cultural environment – at the office or with customers and colleagues around the world,” writes Joyce Millet, Founder and President of Cultural Savvy, a cultural training consultancy. She continues, “The cost to a company when communications breakdown is difficult to calculate, but one thing is clear – the cost of preparative training is minor by comparison.”

4) Maintain a sense of humor and grace when asked about your personal life.

“In some non-western countries, women professionals are often questioned about their family,” said O’Brien, who worked in Beijing for eight years. “If people ask if you if you miss your husband, you might say ‘He’s very supportive but he does worry about me, so I call every day. Here’s his picture.’ These cultures are more comfortable with you, especially if you are a woman, if you let them know that family is important.”

Of course, if you are single or LGBT, it can be get trickier to show grace under fire of other people’s expectations in any country, including the US. Nicki Gilmour, Publisher of The Glass Hammer and diversity workplace expert on LGBT and gender issues, commented,

“Remember, they aren’t really asking about personal details and are more likely to be looking for a comfortable ‘just like me’ cultural cue. It is your choice how far you want to go in revealing major life details, and this is a choice based on personality in part, but also be aware of the environment so that you can achieve your goals as well as perhaps expanding horizons on individuality, where appropriate, since individuality is not a globally understood concept.”

5) Avoid value judgments.

“There is no right or wrong approach when it comes to cultural norms,” said O’Brien. “Consider the perspective of your counterparts to understand how their world has shaped the way they approach business in order to start bridging differences.”

6) Expand your own horizons.

“After your business is concluded, try to take advantage of your trip by allowing some extra time to do some sightseeing,” said Andy Teach, author of From Graduation to Corporation, in an interview for Forbes on business travel abroad. “Many business travelers are on tight schedules and really don’t get enough time to soak up the local atmosphere. This is unfortunate because they may never be in this situation again, so try to fit an extra day or two into your schedule in that foreign city as long as it doesn’t cost your company any additional money.”

This way you get to break some of your assumptions and you can take in experiences, people and places that you can learn from and cherish.