American travelers are familiar with “the ugly American” characterization of culturally inept tourists bungling their way through another country, leaving negative impressions in their wake. From wearing revealing clothing in countries where people fully cover themselves, to speaking loudly in a place of worship or contemplation, to aiming cameras at the faces of privacy-seeking elders, it’s no wonder some Americans have earned this moniker.
The international business world is fraught with situations in which Americans can unknowingly show disrespect – -but while a tourist has little to lose except some dignity, a cultural misstep in business can be enormously costly. That’s what makes Sharon Schweitzer’s book, Access to Asia, such an invaluable guide. For anyone thinking about or currently engaged in business with their Asian counterparts, Schweitzer provides essential tips for bridging the gap between cultures, presented in an clear, at-a-glance format.
The author profiles 10 Asian countries. Six of these account for 70 percent of U.S. business travel to Asia: China, Hong Kong (now undergoing transfer to China), Japan, India, South Korea and Taiwan. Three countries are now emerging as trade partners – -Singapore, the Philippines and Malaysia. One country, Myanmar, has just opened for trade. For each, Schweitzer provides a cultural overview, with helpful explanations of etiquette and protocols. She then addresses eight core questions that pertain to business-centric topics, such as how formal or informal business transactions tend to be, how strict a culture is about punctuality (many Asian cultures are more relaxed than Americans), or the status of women in business.
The book also includes nuggets of invaluable advice and compelling anecdotes from dozens of business professionals and regional gurus, adding another layer of perspective. For example, Michael DeCaro, a former Dell executive, has this to say on the fine art of decision-making: “Western leaders that arrive on the scene and simply announce decisions without getting everyone involved have a much greater likelihood of finding it difficult to achieve their objectives in Asia.”
Country-specific facts reveal the varied approaches one may encounter when conducting business in Asia, such as:
• Japan: Companies are hierarchical, yet decision-making, even within large corporations, is a bottom-up, consensus-building process conducted in steps.
• South Korea: Hierarchy is highly valued, and it is important to match the formality, rank and status of a Korean counterpart in business negotiations.
• The Phillipines: The Filipino culture may value machismo, but in business, women are considered as equals to men. On the Global Gender Gap Index, for instance, the Philippines ranks second only to Norway in women’s ability to rise to leadership positions in enterprise.
Schweitzer cleverly includes a chapter on conducting business in the U.S. as a way of both holding up a mirror to our own culture, and sharing advice with international business executives wishing to do business here. Her emphasis is not only on learning to interact with respect for differences, but also on developing a better self-awareness of our own values and beliefs. She shares how doing business in a new culture can be self-illuminating, making an insightful analogy to a fish in a fishbowl that “doesn’t realize [he’s] swimming in water until the glass bowl is overturned.”
Access to Asia is a unique, user-friendly guidebook for gaining the cultural awareness needed to build successful business relationships in economically powerful Asia. It also provides readers with clear insights and smart advice on interacting with Asian partners in a respectful, cultural sensitive way, and goes a long way into shedding light on our intercultural dynamics for the better.
For more information about Sharon Schweitzer and Access to Asia, visit the author’s website.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=1118919017]