Doing business in Asia: How to Avoid Being a Bull in a China Shop

These helpful tips will help you to understand business culture in Asia and seal the deal that no money can

Associate Director, Premium and Institutional Clients
Invast Global

“The true test of your good manners is your patience with bad ones.”

It’s an ancient Chinese proverb, to which many Asian businesspeople adhere. Having said that, you cannot take it for granted that the people you intend to do business with in Asia will suffer your bad manners, or lack of cultural respect, for long.

A bit of extra polish to your etiquette may very well seal a deal that no money could have brought home

Cultural respect and tolerance is invaluable in the corporate world. A bit of extra polish to your etiquette may very well seal a deal that no money in the world could have brought home.

I was born in China, but have studied and worked in Australia for many years. I love Australia, but it doesn’t stop me teasing my Australian colleagues at Invast that the book of Australian manners is a very thin volume indeed! However, under the right circumstances, the ‘Aussie way’ is just as much appreciated in Asia as it is sometimes frowned upon. Timing is key.

In light of the fact that the Asia-Pacific region is the fastest growing region for our industry, underestimating the importance of cultural multilingualism to business success unarguably becomes our (very considerable) loss.

China’s traditions are different to Japan’s and each South East Asian culture practices distinct variations again. Whilst the diligently industrious business person is of course encouraged to become well versed in all the refinements, the following general pointers ought to suffice as a starting point for amicable and prosperous Western-Asian relationships.


Much like Nicholas Cage learned the hard way in the 90’s movie classic that a face is not just a face, so too will well-intentioned Western business folk if they do not accustom themselves with the Asian concept of ‘losing face’. Honor and dignity reside at the very top the Asian cultural value pyramid.

Honour the Hierarchy!

Whereas Westerners are always looking for ways to shift and adapt things, Asian business depends on many unspoken rules that are slow to change.

in Asia, management initiates change and always makes the final call.

When it comes to business decisions, Western managers are happy to delegate full responsibility to their employees. Often, employees will bring their suggestions to management and if they are able to make a strong case, management will keenly take them up on their initiative.

However, in Asia, management initiates change and always makes the final call. In fact, it is common for ideas to be circulated only among the highest level of management for weeks, in order to arrive at a consensus, before any decisions are revealed to lower levels.

So, when it comes to business meetings and general dealings with Asian partners, always adhere to corporate hierarchy and never publicly take any action that could question a partner’s authority.

Let’s get personal!

In Australia business is 9-5 and then the holy chime of happy hour rings out across the land! In Asia, the clock is reversed, as it were! Upon meeting your new partners, you can expect to be wined and dined long before any shop talk will be conducted.

If they take a particular shine to you, you may well find yourself invited into a private home or challenged to a karaoke battle before you get down to the business of business! Be gracious. You won’t be sorry.

The hidden rules

At the table or bar, always wait to be served and if it is up to you, follow the business hierarchy from top to bottom. Management always toasts first and when you clink glasses with a senior, always hold yours lower than theirs.


Business cards are the same size around the globe. However, in Asia, these bits of cardboard have a whole lot more weight that they do in the hands of Western corporates.

In order not to put your foot squarely in it, think of an offered business card as a fragile gift. Accept it slowly and with both hands, carefully consider it, then place it on the table and only tuck it safely away into your bag (not pocket!) upon leaving.

What’s on your mind?

Generally speaking, when it comes to sales techniques, Westerners are frequently unorthodox.

In Asia, however, protocol is of great importance. Westerners pride themselves on their frank honesty and directness. In Asia, communication is indirect. So be patient, don’t take a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ as a final answer – there’s always deliberation. Wait for your partners to complete the transaction their way. If you do, you’ll win their trust and respect – and probably also close the deal.

Time to leave cultural faux-pas at the boardroom door and enter the international business arena with supreme confidence and an etiquette as crisp as an Origami swan!


Wendy Tao is Associate Director, Premium and Institutional Clients at Invast Global, a multi-asset, global brokerage firm providing a comprehensive choice of platforms and connectivity options. Contact her at

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