Cultural Primer

Trust, respect and lasting relationships epitomize Asian business culture, customs.

According to the Louisiana Economic Development department, Louisiana is home to more than 150 Japanese facilities. China has invested billions in the state. India is touted on the department’s website as the state’s “second-largest investor,” and billions in exported and imported goods are in play with South Korea.

With international business going in and out of the Port of New Orleans and this level of commerce and exchange throughout the state, it’s likely you or someone you know does business with people in or from Asia.

As such, I turned to Sharon Schweitzer, intercultural and international etiquette expert and author of “Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Guide to Building Trust, Inspiring Respect and Creating Long-Lasting Business Relationships” — published this past spring — to provide some guidance.  

“Recovering from a cultural faux pas is almost impossible,” says Schweitzer in an email interview. “So, the best way to proceed is to be prepared in advance and not blow the deal.”

Schweitzer says, for example, Chinese and Japanese delegations would find it an unforgiveable offense if top executives were to fail to greet them in the lobby during a visit to the United States. Schweitzer says she once observed Korean executives greeted informally by their American counterparts at their U.S. headquarters. The Americans used the Asian colleagues’ first names, which is an irreversible fault in the latter’s culture. In Japan, it’s important to know silence is a negotiation tactic.

“[It’s] used for contemplation and as a way of showing politeness,” says Schweitzer. “It is not a snub. Filling the silence by speaking out of nervousness shows lack of research.”

The following are a few hard-and-fast rules from Schweitzer, first for email etiquette, then for in-person meetings.   

Email etiquette:  

• Use excellent-quality writing skills.

• Do not default to first names — do your due diligence.

• Personalize and address the recipient by name in the first sentence (Mr. Tang, Ms. He).

• Be concise and brief.

• Respond within 24 hours.

• Use an electronic signature, because email has no letterhead.

• If English is a second language, use words that will be understood.

• Use “please” and “kindly.”

• Spell the name of the month because date order is written differently worldwide. April 1, 2020 may be 01/04/2020.

• Indicate the specific time zone when setting up a conference call (GMT/UTC).

Schweitzer says when dining with clients, customers or colleagues from Asian countries, you should eat first and talk later.
“Socializing and dining are the opportunity to build trust, inspire respect and create long-lasting business relationships,” she says. “Sharing meals is a vital component of the rapport-building process in business relationships.”

Dining do’s and dont’s:

• Don’t decline a dinner or socializing invitation (extend your trip, rearrange your schedule).

• Don’t pour your own beverage (pour for your neighbor).  

• Don’t try to talk during the meal — silence is a time of politeness and contemplation and for dining.

• Don’t forget to reciprocate hospitality.

• Don’t eat or pass food with the left hand (use right hand or both hands depending on the host’s culture).

• Do wait for your host to seat you.

• Do try a little bit of each dish.

• Do remember there may be 10-12 courses, so pace yourself.

• Do research whether it is a “clean plate” or “leave the last morsel” culture.  

Be sure to practice patience in cultivating a business relationship, she advises, and don’t focus on the bottom line. Essentially, do your homework and learn about the culture, customs, traditions and history of the other person’s country.

In business — as in life — respect goes a long way.  

Melanie Warner Spencer is editor of New Orleans Bride Magazine. Her writing has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Houston Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune and Reuters. Spencer’s ever-expanding library of etiquette books is rivaled only by her ever-ready stash of blank thank-you notes. Submit business etiquette questions to



Categories: Biz Etiquette, Education, Hospitality, The Magazine