Rules of Engagement: Business Culture in Southeast Asia

Doing business in Southeast Asia is an interesting and eye-opening experience. You’ll find that the business culture in this area is quite different from that of the West, and there are certain customs and expectations that businesspeople over here are expected to follow, in order to keep their clients/customers happy. Here are our top tips for doing business in Southeast Asia.


Business cards are incredibly important in Southeast Asia. It’s essential to always have at least 20-30 business cards with you, because if you meet a big group of people, or attend an event where you’re hoping to make contacts, the giving of the business card is the most important part of the encounter. Normally, you will meet someone, and conduct the appropriate greeting, and then straight away, business cards will be exchanged. Asians give their business card with both hands, so that the writing is facing towards the receiver, and bow their heads slightly. It’s a good idea to do the same back to them. Do not put the card away after receiving it. If you’re sitting down, place it on the table in front of you for the duration of the encounter, and pack it away when you get up to shake hands. If you’re standing, hold it in your hands.


Face is one of the most important aspects of Asian culture, and business is no different. Firstly, it’s incredibly important to never cause anyone to lose face. If you have a problem with something they’ve done, pull them aside and speak to them in private. Never, ever lose your temper – criticize gently and fairly, and begin and end with a compliment where possible. Secondly, if you’re looking to close a deal, it’s integral to meet your clients or customers face-to-face, and often the meeting will not be short. You may find yourself drinking with them far into the night. The next day, you may feel that perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea, but when you get that signed contract because of it, we expect you’ll change your mind!


In Asia, it’s not common to hear “no” to anything. Business culture in Southeast Asia is nowhere near as direct as it is in the West. It’s important to give the people you are (or are hoping to) doing business with, a way out. If you ask them for a yes or no answer, you will hardly ever get a no. But if you get silence, a hesitation, or sometimes even a yes, the answer can often be no. It can be frustrating, but remember that it’s just as difficult for them when you try to be direct with them. You’re in their country, their culture, and it’s necessary to conduct business in the manner that suits them.


Connections matter everywhere, but nowhere are they more important than in Southeast Asia. Many businesspeople find that it is not during the day, but during the evening, upon attending social events, that they make their most important business contacts, and sometimes even strike crucial deals. You may find that upon calling up a company without any contacts, you’ll never hear back from them again, but as soon as you say that you know so-and-so big boss, you’ll get that return phone call or e-mail and quite likely a meeting.


Asians aren’t particularly interested in speaking with low-ranking members of a company. If you’re not yet high up in your company, you may consider adjusting your title to include manager or CEO or something that sounds quite important (of course, clear this with your boss first). This will greatly aid your encounters and boost their willingness to do business with you.


In Southeast Asia, it’s usually the boss, the head of the table, the eldest (or perhaps someone who is all three) who pays the bill. It’s considered an honor for him/her to do so, so insisting on taking the check is actually considered quite rude. Allow them to pick up the tab, and thank them graciously for it.

Of course, these are very general rules, and many more detailed rules apply for each country. Be sure to read up on the cultural etiquette of the country before you go there on business. The more you respect their culture, the more they’ll respect you as a businessperson.