Understanding Asian Business Culture – Chapter 2

Cross-Cultural Communication

You might remember the eight dimensions of behavior gaps between countries we introduced in the first installment on Asian business culture. We’re going to be building on the foundational knowledge from this article by taking a closer look at the first four key differential elements of cross-cultural communication.

1.Communicating

Germany is a low-context culture, which means:

  • Good communication is precise, simple, explicit, and clear.
  • Messages are understood at face value.

Southeast Asia generally has high-context cultures, which are characterized by the following aspects:

  • Communication is sophisticated, nuanced, and layered.
  • Messages are often implied, but not plainly stated.

As we know, Germans are direct when expressing their opinions while Asians tend to beat around the bush when sharing theirs. In Asian culture, if someone is too direct, he is viewed as being not mature enough, or simply too rude. “Giving face”, or showing respect, is certainly a part of most Asian cultures.

Complexity of Self-Expression

Source: picture taken from QUARTZ, based on Armbrecht, A. (2015), German vs Chinese: What are the cultural differences?

For example, in a business meeting, a German would have no problem saying how they feel about your product or service, and they might say, “I think you guys have a great solution, but I don’t really like this or that feature”. On the other hand, Asians may often smile and nod during the entire meeting, but in their head they might actually be thinking, “There is no way this would fly in our company!”. This aspect is very much related to the next key element, Evaluating.

2. Evaluating

Germans give direct negative feedback:

  • Negative feedback is provided honestly and frankly.
  • Criticism may be given individually or in front of a group.

Southeast Asians give indirect negative feedback:

  • Negative feedback is provided gently, subtly, diplomatically.
  • Criticism is only given in private.

While all cultures value constructive criticism, where and how it is given can vary significantly. As we mentioned, “giving face” is a real thing in Asia. Although no one would blink an eye in Germany when your boss tells you that your pitch deck needs improvement, making open criticisms in front of a room of colleagues would be a definite “no no” in Asia.

3. Persuading

Principles-first

  • Discussions begin with a theoretical argument before moving on to a conclusion.
  • Develop the theory or complex concept before presenting a fact, statement, or opinion.

Applications-first

  • Discussions are approached in a practical, concrete manner.
  • Theoretical or philosophical discussions are avoided in a business environment.

Germans skew towards the principles-first end of the spectrum, and Asia has a totally unique perspective to persuading – hence we do not see it reflected in Erin Meyer’s culture map diagram. Asians apply holistic thinking – considering the full context of a conversation and its interdependencies – compared to the more Western approach of deciding based on an isolated, single factor.

Source: based on Meyer E. (2014), The Cultural Map, Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, p. 17

For example, a German founder trying to sell their product or solution would normally focus on addressing a specific problem that they can solve or make better through their product. However, when selling to an Asian customer, they would especially need to demonstrate how this works in a broader organizational context.

As such, the art of persuading in an Asian context is to take time to explain the big picture in detail. Applied to startup founders who may find themselves with Asians in their team, it means that in addition to outlining their specific roles/tasks, explaining what the other team members are working on and how each role/task fits together will help greatly in persuading them to move towards acting on it.

4. Disagreeing

This scale measures tolerance for open disagreement and views on whether it is likely to improve or destroy collegial relationships in the process.

Germans tend to be more confrontational, meaning:

  • Open conflict is acceptable.

Asians tend to avoid conflict, meaning:

  • They focus on harmony and avoid public and open arguments.

In Germany, it is common to tell your boss what you think about his/her new business strategy because (a) it’s fine to agree to disagree, (b) Germans are culturally more egalitarian (we will get to the section ‘Leading’ in the third part of our series), and (c) Germans say what they mean, as mentioned in the earlier section on Communicating (see 1)). You could say that in Germany, what you see is what you get.

The Boss

Source: picture taken from QUARTZ, based on Armbrecht, A. (2015), German vs Chinese: What are the cultural differences?

In Erin Meyer’s book, she mentions Sachlichkeit, closely translated as “objectivity” to illustrate how Germans “separate someone’s opinions or ideas from the person expressing that idea”. On the other side of the world, in Asia, open disagreement can be perceived as rude and inappropriate, coming across as a disrespect to authority in an otherwise hierarchical culture. This is especially frowned upon if someone down the hierarchy chain has a view that is contrary to upper management or even someone who is older than they are.

Germans working in an Asian culture may find themselves with a team that is unwilling to express disagreement, for fear of breaking group harmony. It would help to first depersonalize disagreements by separating ideas from the person – such as anonymous channels for feedback – and also review the choice of words based on the cultural context you are in.

“Asia is much more relationship-based. Although the rules of engagement with investors in Europe and Asia are similar, the difference is how long it takes for them to be comfortable and trust you.”


Chris Aw, Mentor, German Accelerator Southeast Asia

Find out how cultural awareness impacts behavior in our final chapter on Asian Business Culture.

 

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