Cultural Differences – Southeast Asia

In Asian cultures, once you have lost face, it’s not easily undone. One usually avoids publicly exposing people, i.e. causing their loss of face by emphasizing their mistakes and misfortunes and openly criticizing them. By the same principle, you yourself could lose face and thus damage the image of your team or even the entire company. Socially unacceptable behavior, such as showing signs of affection or a hug between a man and a woman in public, can also cause you to lose face.

Soft and implicit phrasing

Fear of loss of face and a great need for harmony, especially whilst establishing important personal relationships, is one reason why Southeast Asians tend to communicate rather indirectly. This style is characterized by soft and implicit phrasing which does not compromise oneself or your counterpart and preserves the harmony.

However, depending on the context, a direct style of communication also exists in Southeast Asia, for example, when it comes to technical topics or issues that have already been resolved. More direct communication tends to be used in international companies or teams.

In a very open, heated, confrontational and solely fact-based debate, Southeast Asians often quickly feel cornered. They feel a loss of face and thus sometimes terminate talks and negotiations. At worst, business contacts in their initial phase or collaborations which already exist are revoked completely.

Circular course of conversation

Southeast Asians are inclined to have a circular course of conversation: topics are raised, dropped and picked up again at a later stage. This is primarily exercised when it comes to important and difficult subjects which can quickly lead to disagreement and a disruption of the harmony. As soon as the dust has settled, the sensitive issues are brought up again.

Repetition emphasizes importance

Repetitions are typical for an indirect style of communication. If a topic is of high importance, it is repeated several times throughout the conversation. The same goes for arrangements, invitations and appointments which are agreed on.

To ascertain whether a statement is to be treated as agreement or refusal, you should enquire several times, but vary the wording each time, otherwise you could be interpreted as being a know-it-all or pressure could build up. The more precisely statements, arrangements, appointments or invitations are phrased, the more likely it is that you can rely on them.

The Asian No

You will rarely hear a direct “no” in Southeast Asia; instead, Asians use numerous alternative ways of communicating this in a polite manner and without loss of face.

Often “no” is expressed in the following ways:

“Maybe …”

“Possibly …”

“It is good but …”

“It would be better …’

“Later …”

“That may be …”

“Tomorrow …”

Even “yes” does not always mean complete approval, but can be meant as goodwill so as not to offend the negotiating partner. In Southeast Asian countries “yes” has diverse meanings.

Small Talk is worth it

For successful business in Southeast Asia, you should adopt the following statement: Small talk is big talk! Small Talk is not a waste of time, but helps to establish a personal relationship. Small talk creates harmony. By showing an interest in your counterpart using small talk, you also demonstrate your respect and allow them to keep face. Taking the time for small talk means being interested in a trusting relationship with one another. In this way you can expand and maintain your informal network of connections.

The purpose of small talk is to build up a harmonious environment so that a dialogue between partners can be established at a business level.

Appropriate small talk topics symbolize agreement:

  • Offer compliments on the country, culture, tourist attractions, culinary specialities and people’s hospitality.
  • Show interest in popular sports (football, badminton, table tennis etc.).
  • Read up on well-known athletes, artists and performers.
  • Try to learn and speak a few words of the language.

Awkward topics include:

  • Religion
  • State ideologies, politics and history
  • Corruption
  • Criticism of country and head of state (Caution in Thailand: criticism of the royal family leads to imprisonment!)
  • Internal conflicts with ethnic or religious groups
  • Human rights
  • Child labour
  • Sexuality (especially homosexuality and prostitution)
  • Environmental sins
  • Ill-treatment of pets and animals in general

Nevertheless, you may encounter one of these topics in a conversation. In this case it is better to just drop the subject rather than presenting your opinion in a full-blown discussion. If necessary, ask to let the matter rest. It is perfectly normal simply to change the subject. Your Southeast Asian negotiating partners will see that a difficult issue has been alluded to and that there is a danger that both sides could lose face.

Humor depends on cultural aspects

Humor can relax a situation and create a bond between negotiating partners. However, humor means different things in different contexts. Humor always depends on cultural aspects. Vietnamese and people from Singapore do not necessarily laugh at the same things as people from other countries. You need a high degree of linguistic and cultural competence to be able to tell and understand a joke properly in another language.

Of course, amusing moments will arise spontaneously. Then the Southeast Asians will chuckle extensively and enjoy a good laugh. Your Southeast Asian partners and colleagues will welcome you being able to laugh at yourself!

Criticism is taken personally

People in Southeast Asia find it difficult to differentiate between factual and personal aspects. Direct criticism, even if it only refers to the facts, is taken personally. Criticism is demotivating, upsets harmony and can lead to loss of face on both sides.

You should, therefore, never criticize a person or their performance in front of others. You should also avoid open or subtle insinuations. Furthermore, you never criticize just one person but the whole group.

If criticism cannot be avoided, you should apply the sandwich strategy. Start by praising everything that was done well. Suggest possible improvements instead of criticizing directly. Conclude the conversation with further praise. Use positive phrases which really mean the opposite. Southeast Asians will know exactly what you mean.

Look after personal relationship to solve a conflict

Even an existing conflict is only referred to indirectly in Southeast Asia, i.e., the problem is played down in negotiations. No one looks for the culprit and no accusations are made. Instead, everyone tries to find a solution to the problem together. The basis is the personal relationship between members of a team, which must be able to withstand such a conflict.

Formulate your sentences using “we” and not with “I’ and “you’. The aim is to find a common agreement. As far as Southeast Asians are concerned a common agreement is a success and not a compromise.

When conflicts arise, concentrate on the personal relationships between business partners or colleagues; visiting a restaurant together, outings, sightseeing tours and attending evening events are all part of the program. In Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines you could visit a karaoke show where no one should be afraid of showing off their singing ability.

Don’t speak with your hands

Generally in Southeast Asia you are considered to be “well brought-up” if you do not make sweeping gestures and movements. You do not “speak with your hands”. Instead, Southeast Asians often clasp their hands together behind their backs on important occasions or put their hands together in front of them, so that their arms do not “hang down” at their sides. They do not usually make hurried movements or walk quickly.

Always use both hands when handing over or receiving something. The exception to this rule is in Muslim cultures like Indonesia and Malaysia where you should only use your right hand. The left hand is considered to be “haram” – unclean. As already mentioned, this also applies to handing over business cards!

In addition, you do not use your finger to point to someone. You always use your whole hand to indicate a person or to beckon to someone. Ideally, when seated, your toes or the bare soles of your feet should not point towards anyone.

Direct eye contact is provocative

In Asia it is not usual to look into your counterpart’s eyes or to return their look with an open gaze, especially not between the sexes or across different levels of hierarchy. Direct eye contact is felt to be unpleasant, ill-behaved and provocative and therefore elicits an entirely different reaction from that in other cultures where direct eye contact is seen as a sign of openness, honesty, sincerity and an interest in the other person.

Consider difference in height

People from other cultures are often taller than many Southeast Asians. Very tall people are visible from quite a distance. This can be very amusing for the locals but at a business level it can be difficult to negotiate on equal terms if the difference in height is obvious. In this case you should refrain from expansive gestures as this just emphasizes the tall person’s apparent superiority. Without realizing it, this could cause your Southeast Asian counterpart to feel intimidated.

In Southeast Asia, do not show your affection for a member of the opposite sex in public. On the other hand, it is not unusual for members of the same sex to walk down the road hand in hand or arm in arm, publicly showing that they are good friends.

Susann Sumadirana

+49 (0)711 722 468 44
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