By Kevin Hong, co-founder of Dealflicks.
As someone who grew up in Seoul, South Korea, my fluency in the Korean language and understanding of the culture keeps me accountable for proper Korean and often East Asian etiquette. For example, when I do business with Koreans and frequently with East Asians, I will bow, shake hands with both hands and turn to the side when drinking.
When it comes to East Asian culture, there is still quite a bit of a mystique to the untrained western eye. For example, writing someone's name in red in Korea means wishing death upon them. Wearing a green hat in China means your spouse may be cheating on you. I've always felt it was my responsibility to enlighten my western colleagues by sharing some of these practices.
Many of them are simple gestures that will go a long way in establishing meaningful and memorable relationships with East Asian clients. When done incorrectly, not only do you run the risk of looking clumsy, but a heartfelt gesture may come off condescending and disrespectful.
One might ask, what is the proper way to show etiquette when doing business in the far east? What is myth and what is fact?
Today in Asia's business culture, cultural nuances are rarely, if ever, enforced for foreigners. While westerners have been trying to assimilate and understand more and more of eastern culture, the east has also been adopting a lot of western cultures, particularly in a business environment over the years.
If you are unsure of the etiquette, then err on the side of being humble and respectful. Be mindful of the way in which you communicate particularly in your speech. Often idioms or American expressions may be confusing for a foreigner. Slow down your speech and enunciate your words clearly.
One of the best pieces of advice I received earlier in my career when doing international business was about focusing on understanding the actual market you are trying to work in opposed to showing off your knowledge about the culture. It's really the effort respect that counts. This couldn't have been truer during my last international business trip to Spain a few years ago.
A few years back, I was sent to Spain for my first international business trip in Europe. Thrilled, I immediately decided to commit to learning Spanish. While most of my colleagues were questioning my unusual commitment when the universal business language is English, I, as an immigrant who moved back to the states in the middle of high school from Korea, couldn't envision a business trusting me if I didn't speak their language.
So, for a four-day trade show, I spent six months learning Spanish. On weekdays, I would listen to my Pimsleur audio lessons wherever I went. And on weekends, I would drive down to Baja California to mingle with the locals. After six dedicated months, I was able to present my company's pitch in broken Spanish. Fascinated by an Asian-American doing business in Spanish, my company's product and I became the star of the show. That said, it wasn't my Spanish that won us their business. My Spanish was broken. The effort and the commitment that I made to understand their culture impressed the local business professionals the most.
People respond to personalities. This isn't simply an American or East Asian phenomenon -- it's part of the human experience. Character hasn't gone out of style, nor do I suspect it to anytime soon. Simple gestures that you can incorporate into your spiel don't have to be overwhelming. All you have to do is show genuine interest and a dash of humility.
I hope you get the opportunity to do business in East Asia, as it can be a wholly unique yet a rewarding experience. Don't let it be tempered with anxiety over how to behave. A few simple tactics and practices will give you the edge you're looking for. Just don't forget to leave your ego (and possibly your shoes) at the door. You're still a visitor after all.
Kevin Hong is author of The Outlier Approach, Chief Sales Officer of Cinema Intelligence (A Vista Group Company, ticker - VGL) and co-founder of Dealflicks.