This week's Road Warrior Tip of the Week comes from advice the Pan Pacific Hotels and Resorts chain passes on to guests at their properties in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and China. Some of these may seem obvious, but as a longtime resident in and then visitor to Asia, I found these tips valuable -- and hope you will, too.
-- Don George
The first impression
Asian cultures tend to honor formality as a sign of respect, so addressing your host correctly will enhance a first impression. It is traditionally acceptable to call the host by his/her surname, together with a title such as "Director Wang," or " Chairman Cheng." Avoid the Western tendency to become too friendly too soon.
Asians generally accept the Western custom of shaking hands, but business travelers should not necessarily mistake a weak handshake or lack of eye contact as a lack of assertiveness. The Chinese greet one another with a nod or slight bow.
Rank is important and highly valued. The first person to enter the room is the head of the group. Americans should follow this protocol to avoid confusion. Do not interrupt your Chinese host during a presentation. Wait until he/she is finished before posing questions.
Gift giving shows good manners and respect in many Asian cultures. Gifts indicate that you are interested in building a relationship. In Malaysia or Hong Kong, however, a business contact would not expect a gift, and in China gifts are exchanged once a relationship is established. Despite the transition from British to Chinese rule in July, Hong Kong's business customs are not expected to change.
The wrong gift or gift wrap can insult the recipient. A bottle of premium liquor would be appreciated in China and Thailand but disfavored by Muslim cultures/religions such as are found in some places in Malaysia or Indonesia, where liquor is not acceptable. A lovely clock wrapped in elegant white paper would be a thoughtful gift in America, but in Hong Kong or Malaysia, clocks symbolize the passing of time (i.e. death) and the colors black and white connote mourning. The gift of a designer pen, a scarf or a book of art might be appropriately wrapped in red paper. It is unwise to give knives, as they represent the severing of relationships; this is particularly true in Singapore. Always give and receive gifts with both hands and do not expect gifts to be opened in your presence.
While Americans often enjoy a lively political debate, discussing politics is a sign of poor taste at best in most Asian cultures. Small talk is a common way to launch successful business meetings and is customary in many Asian countries. Favorable topics include family, health and the local cuisine. Discussing television and sports is also a good way to break the ice.
In most of Asia, shoes and feet are considered "unclean. " In Malaysia, as in many Asian countries, it is offensive to sit cross-legged pointing the soles of your feet toward your hosts. To be safe, always sit with your feet on the floor. Avoid pointing with your index finger. Instead, gesture with your whole hand, palm down. Never touch your hosts head, or pass objects over it, particularly in Thailand, where gesture taboos abound.