While there are still close to three whole terms left for my cohort, I can certainly appreciate why past MIM graduates all regarded the Asia Trip as one of the best experiences in the program. Our recent tour of Japan, South Korea, and China not only allowed me to see some of the concepts in action with real companies, but it was also a key cultural experience. The entire trip was filled with surprises and lessons that I think will be essential for continuing my career path towards working internationally. Following are three important lessons I observed in practice while learning about doing business in Asia.
Communication can be difficult (but not impossible)
Both in business and personal interactions, there were instances of communication difficulty. Misunderstandings can happen either because of language barriers (another good reason to have at least a basic understanding of local language if you want to do business in another country) or due to differences in communication style. In western culture we tend to be very direct, though in Asia communication can be somewhat indirect or have much more context. Certainly it’s not absolutely necessary to speak a given contextual language, but at the very least I realized that having the knowledge of how Asian cultures communicate better prepared me for interpreting and understanding certain actions. Also, realize that you can not always rely on interpreters to be the best intermediary. I would recommend that while having a translator can make communication easier, be aware that this adds another layer of potential confusion, especially if the translator feels the need to reinterpret the message between parties. Try to identify a neutral third party that can help you achieve better communication.
Decisions take time
Partly due to communication, but I think more so related to general life philosophy, don’t expect instantaneous results when conducting business in Asia. The level of expectation I think most western cultures put on making decisions and executing on them is much higher and faster than how things work in Asian cultures. Sure, you can have a suit made in 48 hours, but I wouldn’t expect action on an important decision to come right away. I gained a better understanding of this both in terms of the hierarchical nature that exists within businesses (it takes time to get buy-in the lower you are) and the level of individual consideration that seemed to be placed on large decisions. Overall, many of the companies we encountered were forward-thinking, but certainly not ready to run full speed into the unknown.
Eating and drinking is essential
Certainly this is true in many cultures, but I was still amazed by entrenched entertainment and socializing permeated business relations. Nearly every bar or restaurant you find (that isn’t filled with tourists) has people conducting business over food and drink … and typically the drinks are stiff. Before heading on the trip, I had learned about the intensity put on business related drinking—to the point that it would be considered a serious issue here in the U.S.—but until I actually saw people in suits falling asleep in their chairs (presumably not because they got too little sleep) it hadn’t fully registered. If anything, socializing in Asian cultures seems to be the in-road around that indirect communication I mentioned earlier. So be prepared to pace yourself in all instances of food and drink at a business dinner.
Bonus tip: pack light—have clothes tailored!
This isn’t necessarily something I learned about culture or doing business in Asia, but I had to resist the urge to throw away clothing as we traveled. I had packed appropriately, but wished I had realized what excellent tailoring services exist in parts of Asia. One member of our cohort had three suits tailored for a great price in Beijing, and I had three made for myself on our extension trip to Vietnam. The shop I visited (Dung Fashion in Ho Chi Minh City) was affordable and capable of making suitings as well as shirts and ties. For future trips, I’ll definitely pack lighter because there is a definite benefit to having clothing that is custom fitted for you.
Ryan is a part of the Master of International Management full-time 2012 cohort, and a MIM Student Ambassador. Currently he works within the Willamette Valley wine industry as a social media consultant, and wants to broaden his career in marketing to a global level through the MIM program. His favorite aspects of MIM are networking with other students from around the world and learning Mandarin Chinese. Ryan is passionate about food, wine, and travel and writes on these topics for other sites. Visit Ryan’s site here.