Asia offers huge potential to almost any Western Business. They are fast-growing economies with aspiring middle-classes that want to enjoy some of the benefits of economic development. They, so they are both markets that deserve some serious time and strategic consideration. However, one of the major obstacles to developing business partnerships in the region is cultural, the Eastern tradition of keeping face.
In many Asian cultures, there is a ‘Yes’ that means ‘Yes’ and a ‘Yes’ that means ‘No.’ It can often be almost impossible for a Westerner to tell the difference between the two, leading to much frustration and confusion. To say ‘No.’ in many Asian cultures is considered rude. It can also be considered humiliating, if they would like to oblige but cannot, either because they don’t understand exactly what you want or are not logistically capable, possibly through no fault of their own. They will often say ‘Yes’ and think they will sort out the details later.
I dealt with one firm in Bangalore where I was outsourcing some small software projects and after the first project, I decided to visit them and build the relationship. I was met with huge politeness and warmth by their Business Development Manager and Managing Director. I was guided into a boardroom room with about 15 staff in it. For two days, only myself and the MD spoke, whilst everyone else listened silently. Their silent participation was only broken when their MD addressed them and asked if they could do what I was asking. A quick reply of ‘Yes, certainly.’ combined with a smile and a nod was the sum total of their contribution. Only later on, as the next project progressed did it become clear that had little idea what I was trying to achieve. It was the last project we did together.
I tried for years to explain to various Indian partners that there is no shame in not understanding something. If anything, it means I did not explain it well enough. I often practically begged people to admit they were not sure of something I said. This rarely happened. Most typically with a smile and a nod they would go off and do something they thought I wanted or sometimes not do anything at all.
As a rough guideline, in Asia, smiling and nodding should get an alarm bell ringing and certainly not be taken as a sign of assent. It is important to understand that this is not a sign of bad faith but is just a very different cultural context. I wish I had a recipe for dealing with this but the best I can offer is just to be aware of subtle signs and comments and to make sure with frequent checks that you are all ‘on the same page’. Ideally you should do this on a 1-2-1 basis and never in a room with lots of others or a more senior person present.