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Business Protocol in Asia

First impressions heavily influence the establishment of credibility and business relationships in Asia. These are a few tips to prepare you for your first business meeting in Asia.

Meeting People

Asian business meetings tend to be more conservative than those in the West, so take care to dress formally and try to observe local customs.

Address Asians formally, by proper title and last name, unless otherwise requested. You might opt to have a third person of significant status introduce you to your Asian contacts. If not, try your best to pronounce their names correctly; practice beforehand if necessary. You might want an interpreter at the meeting, who can arrange the meeting, introduce the participants, and list your achievements. Be aware that many interpreters may not be neutral, so keep your statements clear and simple to avoid miscommunication. An interpreter is hired as a tool of conversation, so your attention should be focused on your Asian contact.

Assuming you are the host, when the visitors enter the room, rise to your feet and move to greet them with a gentle handshake. Direct the most senior person to sit facing the door. If you meet outside the meeting room, allow the senior contacts to enter first.

Many Asian countries observe a hierarchy where the younger defer to the older, and women to men. Thus, you should not be surprised if your host welcomes the business gathering as “Gentlemen and Ladies.”

Exchanging Business Cards

This is a very important activity for Asians. Consider investing in a business card holder to keep your cards in good condition; avoid using bent or marked cards. It is customary for the visitors to present their cards first. In presenting cards, use both hands with the right hand forward. Your card should be facing upwards for the receiver to read. If possible, have the cards translated into the local language. It is taboo to take a card from or return one to your back pocket. Do not write on another’s card. It is expected that you will study the card briefly, take a seat, and place the cards where you can see them clearly.

The Meeting

Business meetings oftentimes begin with small talk. Keep the conversation simple and positive. If you are hosting, this is the time to offer refreshments. Serve the most senior person first. If you are the guest and served a beverage, do not feel that you must drink it.

Giving Gifts

While this is common, it is not expected at the initial meeting, especially for the visitor. If a gift is presented at this meeting, it should be simple or else the receiver may be put in a position of “losing face” if (s)he cannot immediately reciprocate. However, it is customary to present gifts at subsequent meetings as your relationship grows.

Following Up

If you know the local language, you might telephone your Asian contact after the meeting as a “thank you.” About a week after the meeting, you should also send a thank you letter that highlights the topics discussed during the meeting and gently wishes for an on-going business relationship.


This is an important activity in building business relationships as it gives Asian contacts the chance to get to know you and feel comfortable doing business with you. This is a good time to give gifts, giving the best one to the most senior Asian contact. This is not a time to talk about business. If you are hosting, choose your venue carefully as you might be expected to pay the entire bill. Japanese sometimes like to entertain at home. This is considered a big honor, and you should give a corresponding gift in appreciation.

More Tips by Country

South Korea: Voicing a greeting (Ahn nyong ha se yo) and giving thanks (Gahm sah hahm ni da) with a slight bow are important to Koreans; just give it your best, it’s okay if your pronunciation is off. Direct your welcome to the eldest male.

If you are invited to lunch, know that it is commonplace for Koreans to smoke at mealtimes. It is also common to experience last-minute changes to the schedule.

Japan: Outward appearances and harmony are highly valued, so it is best to avoid expressing direct discord or putting someone in the position of having to say “no” such as with a Yes/No question (this translates into “losing face”). To express a differing opinion, it is polite to phrase your comments gently; you might want to use words such as “perhaps” or “Yes, but…” to soften your speech. Be aware that if a Japanese replies to such a question with a vague answer, it is likely due to a reluctance to say “no.”

India: Consider giving the traditional namaste greeting – it is a very slight bow made with the palms of the hands pressed together just under the chin. You might also give a gentle handshake. Shaking hands with professional or educated women is acceptable but in general, physical contact with women should be avoided. Use only the right hand to give a business card or accept something. To call out to someone, flick the hand, palm down; pointing is done with the chin not the fingers. Shaking the head from side to side is a sign of agreement, not disagreement.
In meeting, punctuality is considered a sign of respect. It is your choice to give a gift but it should be simple. If you are receiving gift, avoid opening it in front of the gift giver.

If you meet for lunch, it is customary for the host to pay the entire bill. Do not offer beef to those who eat meat, as cows are sacred to Hindus. Muslims do not eat pork or consume alcohol.

China: In general, Chinese do not like being touched. Point with the entire hand, not fingers.

Accept anything with two hands. If you give a gift, remember that colors have meaning to the Chinese. Black and white are to be avoided; opt instead for bright colors like red and pink.

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