It is true that the Northeast Asian countries, particularly Korea, China and Japan, share a lot in common. In fact, it could be argued that when it comes to business culture, Asian cultures in general have higher degree of similarity between one another than countries in the West. However, 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 the conclusion that they also have quite distinctive business traits.
Korea: Group-oriented and hierarchical culture
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 Koreans, try to show them an adequate amount of respect based on their age, and get to know them in a group setting.
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 the term “golf sales” exists in Korea, 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 that quite a lot of information can be shared and business talks can occur naturally.
China: Guanxi and mianzi
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.
Japan: Wa and local language
If you visit Japan, you will notice how important it is to be humble and polite. 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 and not annoy others, so they exercise a high degree of self-control especially in public.
So, how can you form a trusting relationship with the Japanese? Although the Japanese are highly polite and kind, they hardly ever show what’s really on their minds. Such a unique culture builds 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.