Avoiding cultural mistakes as an expat in Asia

Posted on 10 May at 6 PM in Working Abroad
Story link: Avoiding cultural mistakes as an expat in Asia
Avoiding cultural mistakes as an expat in Asia

Avoiding cultural mistakes as an expat in Asia

Western expats travelling to and working in Western countries can’t expect to get by without breaking locally cultural norms at least once, but travelling in Asia is an absolute nightmare as regards making a cultural faux pas.

One reason for the endless cultural errors made by expats in Asia is the strange fact that cultural norms in the Far East seem to be the exact opposites of those in, say, the USA and Europe. Also, the 40 or so Asian countries seem to have distinctly different cultures, especially in the workplace. One good example is direct eye contact, seen as a virtue representing honesty in the West and as confrontation in China and several other Asian states.

In the West, tipping is a sign of appreciation for good service, but in Japan it’s an insult to the recipient’s work ethic. Carrying business cards and giving them out to absolutely everyone you meet is a must in Korea, Japan and China, as exchanging cards is seen as the start of a relationship. After a week or so you’ll have received several hundred and you won’t remember who gave out which one and why! If you’re headed for a stint in Bali, ride-sharing apps aren’t the way to go, as the cash generated stays in drivers’ pockets rather than being shared out in the community to pay for needed services the government refuses to provide.

In China’s massive cities, cash is definitely no longer king, with many businesses actually refusing cash payments for goods or services. It’s necessary to have mobile payment apps such as WeChat Pay or AliPay, even if you’re buying from a street vendor, with the catch being that you need a Chinese bank account to access either of these payment services. The only option expats are left with is finding outlets who take card payments or actual folding money.

If you’re in Asia on business, especially in Korea or China, business relationships depend on social relationships built up over time between families, friends and business acquaintances using the essential concept of reciprocal favours. Expats arriving in China to start businesses need to pay serious attention to this, as ongoing personal relationships take time to forge and involve favours, nights out at bars and many dinners.

Another don’t do is to deny answers to questions on age, religion, marital status or education during a first meeting, as social hierarchy is all-important in the vast majority of Asian countries, especially where business is concerned. Of course, there are many more cultural errors made every day by Western business people and expats who’re living and working all over Asia, but carefully watching the behaviour patterns of the people you’re with can give enough in the way of clues to prevent you giving serious offence.

Whether you’re getting used to a new culture as an expat retiree, an employee or as a hopeful in the race to start a new tech business, cultural sensitivity is a must-have as it shows respect as well as helping with making new friends.

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