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No Contract, Please… We Only Discuss

Cultural ramifications of prominent Asian economies can be surprisingly different from their Western counterparts

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Business travel of management graduates is primarily focused around the Western economies along with Singapore in South East Asia. The work and societal cultures of these places are largely similar and can appear homogeneous to travelling professionals. However, over the last few years, due to increasing trade, travel to other prominent Asian economies has leapfrogged. Some of these nations are vastly different in cultural and societal norms and can be very tricky for first time professionals. Minor harmless gestures can leave a devastating impact on the fate of business dealings.

One of the erstwhile great economies in Asia, Japan is a unique cultural establishment altogether. Their work culture is often characterized by brutally long work hours with a strong emphasis on loyalty and social order. A friend of mine once described his business trip to Japan. He was sitting with his colleague across the table with his trade partners. The trade partners were a team of 12 people seated neatly conforming to hierarchy with the lady sitting at the extreme end. Nobody spoke out of turn. Only the boss did. Nobody dared to speak when their boss was present. Everyone addressed each other as 'San'. The interesting part in the discussion unfolded when my friend asked the partners to sign a contract on the agreed upon terms. Everybody shuddered at his suggestion with a near explosive situation manifesting itself at the discussion table. As he realized, the word 'contract' was seen with deep contempt in their business circles. My friend was advised, "we don't have contracts, we only discuss"!

The terms were never really agreed upon and were closed with another round of discussion once the invoice was raised. Professors of business law will be clearly unemployed in Japanese business schools!

Not far from the land of 'contracts are evil' is another economy very similar. The culture of South Korea is a derivative of Japan as the heads and inheritors of Korean chaebols (e.g. Hyundai, Samsung) were educated in Japan and imbibed their business principles. However, in terms of working culture, South Korea is a step ahead of Japan. It has the most punishing work culture with anything less than 14 to 16 hours of work considered as slack. People are always furiously typing at their workstations with someone leaving at 7 pm often getting derisive glances.

Being busy is often worn with a badge of honor. There are clear boundaries at work and those outside. Nobody leaves office before the boss does. Senior management has a separate lift and often a separate canteen. However, outside work, managers and their juniors are forced to bond and are even encouraged to 'bitch' about their bosses in front of them. It is seen as a massive stress buster. Next morning though, the boundaries at work re-emerge.

Indonesia, the fourth most populous nation in the world, is considered a poorer cousin to its sister 'tiger' economies in South East Asia. Blessed with abundant natural resources, the country has started witnessing an increasing inflow of foreigners for business transactions. Primarily Islamic and staunchly anti-American; discussions raising a toast to anything American are heavily looked down upon. Handshakes are expected to be double handed with visiting cards being exchanged with both hands and a slouching shoulder as a mark of respect. Loud voice is perceived as 'American' and 'rude'; everybody talks in a low voice with discontent shown with extreme diplomacy. Similar to Japan, every person is addressed as 'Pa'.

In summary, every country is unique with respect to its working and societal culture. While most western economies exhibit similar cultural aspects, some prominent Asian economies can be surprisingly different. A bit of preparation and consciousness goes a long way in overcoming awkward moments at the workplace. After all, one man's meat is another man's poison!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Tags assigned to this article:
management work culture japan south korea

Sandeep Das

The author, Sandeep Das, is an MBA from IIM Bangalore, a management consultant, the author of “Yours Sarcastically” and a columnist.

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