Peak Translations

Climbing to the top of the Southeast Asian business mountain

One of the key elements to achieving success in any global business venture is cultural awareness, researching the target country’s business formalities, customs and communication styles. And what cultures could be more varied and captivating than Southeast Asia’s?

Travel across many borders, embrace a wealth of stunning landscapes and meet a plethora of fascinating people from the likes of Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam and The Philippines, as well as the better known Japan and China and discover a few cultural gems that might help you climb to the top of the Southeast Asian business mountain: –


  • With such a huge ethnic and religious diversity, it is vital to get to grips with how these affect people in business. For instance, a large part of Indonesia is made up of Muslims and therefore it would be futile to think that business negotiations can be done and dusted during the month of Ramadan (changes every year).


  • Just as in Latin America, deadlines play second fiddle and therefore learning the art of flexibility and patience will help business deals run more smoothly.


  • Similar to Russia, it can be quite difficult to break into certain business networks and so getting yourself onto centre stage requires the right introduction. Relationships are also slow to grow, taking a few months if not years for the flower to bloom, but keep it nourished and it will remain intact for a very long time.


  • Addressing people in the correct way is of utmost importance and a sign of respect. For example, in Vietnam people have three names and it is essential to know which is which. A useful tip is that the family name comes first, so if their name were Mai Kieu Lien, it would be acceptable to call them Chairman Mai.


  • South East Asian companies are based around a hierarchical structure. Consequently it would be more than helpful to find out who the decision-maker is in the company, as talking to the wrong person could prolong negotiations.


  • Becoming an expert in how to present a business card could seal the relationship. It is considered respectful to receive the card in two hands and some instances, such as in Japan, to perform a small bow. The importance of translating a business card cannot be emphasised enough, but be sure to leave off your qualifications if doing business in China and Japan as a) they might not understand them and b) it could be seen as showing off.


  • Unlike in the UK where individual competitiveness is part of the norm in business, countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia are more ‘collectivist’, meaning they are more likely to do business with a group of people. Business is conducted with a company not an individual.


  • Business etiquette is of vital importance and the British self-deprecating humour would not go down well at all, likewise losing patience and getting angry. Cambodians, like many Southeast Asians, would see this as losing face and losing face is loss of honour.

Japanese businesswoman bowing slightly whilst offering her business card - the ritual of the ‘Meishi’

Watch this space for a lengthier and more detailed insight into the individual aromatic and colourful cultural feasts of China and Japan coming your way this year.


By Madeline Prusmann (Project Manager), July 2016





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