Etiquette in Asia: How to Navigate Business Meetings

Wondering when to bow, when to avoid eye contact and when to clink glasses in Asia? The geography of doing business has centered in Asia for decades, but travelers still struggle with etiquette in many business hotspots where traditions run deep. For the Westerner road warrior, there are some key cultural differences to bear in mind when seeking camaraderie, respect, or simply a signed contract.

Handshakes are out – just bring your card.


It may sound simple, but knowing how to greet business associates in places like Tokyo, Hong Kong or Singapore is a delicate process that varies in style, but never in importance.

Across the seaboard, use both hands in giving and receiving business cards – using only one is considered flagrantly casual. Almost a step away from throwing. Take the time to acknowledge your associate by being thoughtful with the card – examine it for a full moment.


Hierarchy reigns.


Intently reading a business card is an excellent time to determine what you should call your new colleague. Asian businesspeople are keenly aware of position. Since titles are important, don’t guess – ask. Start with, “How should I address you?” Never use a client’s given name unless you’ve been invited to do so.

Also remember to keep the business card on the table, or place it in a cardholder. Either way, the card should remain “public” for the duration of your meeting. Stuffing it in your back pocket – near your rear end – is horribly rude.

The never-ending happy hour.

Socializing with Asian clients presents two grave risks to novice international travelers: karaoke and indigenous liquor. Both are common features of the business entertainment landscape.

If you are taken to a karaoke bar and asked to sing, don't refuse – it's poor form. If you’re tone deaf, odds are your turn on the microphone will end with your melody-free version of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Be a sport and get through it. Your associates will compliment you to no end.

They will cheer you on in other ways, too – usually with a glass in hand. Strong rice liquor is often used to toast visitors, particularly in China and Taiwan. In a group, it’s common for each member to share a toast with you and you alone.

Be warned, one drink can turn into five. Be careful. Never refuse a toast; instead, take measured sips and keep plenty of water near. For those who don’t drink, be aware you may be misunderstood. But toe the line for your personal preferences – just drink water. Your associates will be too polite to complain, but to save face, be sure to rock the karaoke mike.


Beware of temptation.

Businessmen should exercise caution in karaoke parlors where unattached young women in miniskirts wander. Be forewarned: some Asian clients will propose you seal a deal with more than a toast.

If you find yourself unwillingly in such a situation, plead an upset stomach. This saves face while providing another opportunity to praise the uncommon richness and abundance of the food – comments that are universally appreciated. Bruce Grenfell is Vice President of Security and Compliance Support Services at Concur and is an expert in Asian business travel.

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