Culture shock can happen to anyone if they’re underprepared

Author: Kate Whitehead | Date: 27 Apr 2016

Regus study shows western executives still get confused by Asian customs

For business professionals on the road, knowing how to respond correctly to the local culture is far from easy. From crooning away at the karaoke during a business meeting to bowing and dress codes, the latest Regus study has identified a wide range of customs that catch business travellers off guard - and it’s western executives coming to Asia that find the adjustment most difficult.
“Asian executives going to Europe and the US are more proactive in learning about business etiquette overseas. It’s more challenging for western professionals coming to Asia to adapt and fit in with Asian culture,” said Natina Wong, country manager of Regus Hong Kong.
According to the study, British executives doing business in Asia are confused by a wide range of customs, from gift giving and the exchange of business cards to the wearing of sandals with a suit in Japan.
Those in the US reported being thrown by various aspects of Japanese culture, from bowing and politeness to the lack of eye contact at senior business level.
“Although business travel has certainly contributed to broadening people’s horizons and lessening the impact of culture clashes, there are still some elements of business etiquette that can surprise travellers and leave them looking sheepish,” says Wong.
Dr Jamie Cheung, programme director of the Masters of Human Resources Management course at Hong Kong Baptist University, advised senior executives that being courteous and showing respect for other cultures is essential – and in most cases, this means doing some homework. Reading books and going online is a good starting point, but she says nothing beats finding someone from that culture and learning directly from them.
“If you know why people do something a certain way then it’s much easier to adapt and demonstrate sincerity,” said Dr Cheung, who teaches a class in cross-cultural and comparative management.
Wong said the survey results suggest that more people get caught off-guard by Asian customs and practices than western ones. She said Asian business executives operating in the west learn the basics of etiquette which are considered international standards: “Never ask personal questions, such as age or marriage status, be punctual and dress and act formally, be open to express opinions without concern for hierarchy”.
“Professionals are more likely to be caught off guard in Asia where every country has distinctive culture heritage and traditions that have a heavy influence on business rituals,” said Wong.