Travelling to East Asia on a business trip for the first time? Here are 10 things we think would be useful for you to know:

1. Basic greetings

Although you may converse with your business partners in English, knowing how to say “Hello” in the local language allows you to make a good first impression and break the ice. Here are some basic greetings that might come in handy:

Thank you
Bye/See you again
(China, Taiwan)
你好 (“Ni Hao”)
谢谢 (“Syea-Syea”)
再见 (“Zai-Jian”)
(Hong Kong)
哈佬 (“Ha-Lo”)
多謝 (“Do-Jeh”) – for a gift
唔該 (“Mm-Goi”) – for a service
拜拜 (“Bye-bye”)
안녕 (“Ahn-Nyong”)

2. Face

One of China’s top networking experts, Jihong Hall, rightly says that “Face is everything to the Chinese”. The idea of “Face” is tied to one’s reputation, honour and prestige so to grant your hosts “face” is to dress well during your encounters with them, avoid direct confrontation and accept their invitations to dinner. A loss of “face” is experienced when one feels disrespected or disgraced in public, such as when being questioned in the presence of subordinates or being corrected. This article by Sean Upton-McLaughlin provides a sophisticated explanation of what the idea of “face” entails and implies.


3. Gifting

Mutual gift-giving is a popular practice in East Asia and it is an informal way of expressing desire for long-term, meaningful partnerships. Although business partners are expected to present valuable gifts, they should not be extravagant as the act could be construed as bribery. Following the passing of The Anti-Corruption and Bribery Prohibition Act in South Korea last year, South Korean companies have also revised their anti-graft regulations in line with the new law that applies primarily to civil servants.

4. Sealing the deal with a meal

Colleagues and business partners sometimes dine or drink together to unwind. Furthermore, rapport is often built over meals which are sometimes initiated by one’s business contact to celebrate a new partnership. Tipping is not a common practice among locals and in Korea, it might even be considered insulting to tip the waiter. However, you may observe patrons tipping in many restaurants frequented by foreigners or businessmen.

5. The Tab Tug-O-War

Since we are on the topic of dining in East Asia, let’s talk about what happens at the end of a wonderful meal. Remember the Fresh Off The Boat episode where Jessica and Gene fought over paying the bill? As stereotypical as it might be, you might indeed come across situations where your hosts or friends insist on picking up the tab instead of going Dutch. It is generally considered polite among East Asians to offer to pay for everyone and some see it as their duty as seniors. If someone insists on paying, offer to treat him or her to your next meal together to show your appreciation. Mabel Kwong, an Australian of Chinese descent, details this practice on her blog.


6. Closeness and distance

Concepts of social distance and intimacy in East Asia are rather different than in the West. To establish rapport, Chinese or Korean persons might ask questions sometimes deemed personal by Westerners, often about their family and job. On the other hand, they are not used to the common gestures that Westerners use to establish familiarity, such as having one’s arms around someone else’s shoulders or giving them a pat on the back.

7. Style of negotiation

In Japan, Korea and China, the first few meetings are meant for establishing trust and harmony. Expect several meetings as stakeholders often do not make decisions before assessing other opportunities and consulting their teams or superiors. During discussions, occasional uttering of “Yes” does not imply agreement but rather that the person understands your point. As such, do not assume the deal is sealed after one or two meetings.

8. Deal or no deal?

In Japan and Korea, businessmen avoid saying “no” directly as they do not wish for their business contacts to experience a loss of “face”, but you would be able to infer their intent from cues such as “I don’t think this will work out” or even from subsequent refusal to engage with you. Chinese businessmen who do not intend to pursue the deal may persistently oppose your terms until a stalemate is reached. Even if a contract is signed, Korean and Chinese businesses still expect room for adjustment. They take interpersonal relationships more seriously than they do paper, so expect to stay in touch with them for assurance or re-negotiation.

namdaemun-market-myeongdong-seoul-korea-south (1)9. Hanging Out

Let nobody tell you you can go on your first business trip without setting aside time for some recreation, drinks and shopping. In the main cities of East Asia, you will find dozens of hangout spots frequented by local and foreign youths. Caraisun shares with you her favourite places in Japan and Korea, while Sally Gao and Haberdasher Standard take you through popular places in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

10. Convenience Stores

You don’t have to resign to starvation in your hotel room at 3 am or lose sleep over a tummy ache when 24/7 convenience chains can be found on every other street. From 7-11 in Taiwan to Family Mart in Korea, these convenience-store chains operate all night to serve your emergency needs. Some of these one stop shops even offer dry-cleaning or postal services.

We hope you have found the above useful in preparing you for your first business encounter in East Asia and that through mindfulness and sensitivity, you enjoy the cultural immersion and build genuine relationships with your contacts.


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