Meetings and Behaviour in Business Context in South Asia
by: Erika Visser, Associate partner of Hofstede Insights
The goal of this document is to give some specific details on how to behave in business context and in meetings in South Asia, what to do and what not to do.
Why should I read this document?
Meetings and appropriate behaviour are essential to establishing long-lasting relationships with South Asian counterparts resulting in successful business dealings. Thus understanding how hierarchical collectivist cultures communicate and use meetings platforms is key.
5 Most important things to know about doing business in South Asia:
- Establishing long-term relationships and building trust is the only way to ensure long-term business success in South Asia, and this takes time and patience!
- All cultures in South Asia are hierarchical and collectivist cultures and thus management is top-down and centralised. The boss is expected to be more directive, acting as a father or mother rather than a coach.
- In South Asia, displaying appropriate behaviour when doing business is important. South Asian cultures are all high-context, indirect communicators and disrupting this harmony can damage or end business relationships.
- Using intermediaries with a greater understanding of the local culture, customs, and regulations is important to help understand your business counterpart.
- Check whether the countries in South Asia that you are dealing with are more Masculine or Feminine, as this will affect the way to motivate employees.
"Meetings are a key aspect of business dealings in all countries, and the way we behave can either build relationships or erode trust in South Asia. It is important to understand that South Asian countries are all collectivist and hierarchical, and thus relationship-orientated, implicit communicators that do not favour conflict or the disruption of harmony. It is important to understand that meetings will have a different purpose in South Asia compared to other countries with lower Power Distance and higher Individualism scores. It is not unusual for business parties to meet multiple times before discussing business. Even formal business meetings will usually start with small talk as a way to establish whether the other party is trustworthy and thus a good business partner to have in the long-run. Establishing strong, trusting, long-lasting relationships is the preferred way to conduct successful business in South Asia, and this takes time and patience."
In South Asia the main purpose of formal meetings:
- To give the manager a platform to show the way
- To give the manager a platform to inform subordinates
- To boost morale and to create in-group harmony
In South Asia the main purpose of informal meetings:
- Relationship building
- To check out in private if people agree
- To collect information and ideas; bottom-up
- To negotiate
- To check out opinions of the different groups of stakeholders
- Realise consensus “informally” among stakeholders
Business appointments should always be made in advance. Always arrive on time for a meeting but be prepared to wait. Initial meetings are usually more formal and used for building rapport as business relationships are based on familiarity and trust, thus when having a first meeting do not expect business decisions to be made. Meetings are always started with small talk and you might be asked multiple personal questions, this will be followed by business discussions from the most senior counterpart - follow his/her lead and wait for their cue. Try to avoid topics about religion and politics, rather talk about topics like hobbies, food, personal interests, and family.
Older people and people with the highest rank are usually introduced first and they are shown great respect. Follow the seating arrangement as suggested by your South Asian counterpart, and always address the most senior person in the meeting even if they are not the one that chairs the meeting (you will need to have adequate status to do this). Also, ensure that team members do not have conflicting statements. South Asians also require a list of people who will attend the meeting as this will allow them to involve the correct department and give face to the most senior person, in return your company should request a list of your South Asian counterparts that will attend the meeting to allow you to do the same. Always respect titles as South Asia is hierarchical and respect should be shown by honouring titles and addressing your counterparts in the correct way.
In South Asia the meeting platform is not for subordinates to brainstorm or a platform to express their ideas, it is mainly for the boss to boost morale, give direction or confirm decisions that have already been made. When dealing with Muslim counterparts, avoid scheduling meetings on Fridays or during prayer times.
South Asian people mainly rely on nonverbal communication including facial expressions, tone of voice and body language. Nonverbal communication tends to be subtle and indirect, and South Asians may hint at a point rather than making a direct statement as this may cause the other person to lose face. Rather than say "no", they might say, "I will try", or "I’ll see what I can do". This allows the person making the request and the person turning it down to save face and maintain harmony in their relationship. If you are unsure about the response that you received you could continue the discussion, re-phrasing the question in several different ways so that you may compare responses. Silence is important and pausing before responding to a question indicates that they have given the question appropriate thought and considered their response carefully. Responding to a question hastily can be considered as being rude. As body language is deemed more important than what you say, avoid using rude gestures like putting your hands in your pockets. Self-control is important in public thus avoid emotional outbursts or using a lot of hand gestures when talking. South Asians may also laugh, at what may appear to outsiders as inappropriate moments, to conceal uneasiness.
The Concept of Face
South Asians strive to maintain face and avoid shame both in public and private. Face is a personal concept that embraces qualities such as a good name, good character, and being held in esteem by one's peers. Face also extends to the family, school, company, and even the nation itself. The desire to maintain face makes South Asian people strive for harmonious relationships and it can be lost by openly criticizing, insulting or by singling out an individual from the group, bringing shame to the group. Other ways to lose face is by challenging authority, showing anger, refusing a request or disagreeing with someone in public. On the other hand face can also be saved by remaining calm and respectful, discussing offenses in private, avoiding placing blame on anyone, by using non-verbal communication to say "no" and through allowing the other person to get out of the situation with their pride intact.
Titles are very important due to the hierarchical nature of all countries in South Asia and some South Asians will have a western nickname that can be used as traditional names might be too difficult to pronounce. Business correspondence should always include formal titles and full names, however, in conversations a nickname may be used if it has been offered by your South Asian counterpart. The most senior person is always introduced first and shown great respect. It is recommended to be introduced via a third-party mutual connection as South Asians do not like to do business with people they do now know. Introductions include sharing business cards and shaking hands is mostly acceptable in South Asia. Males should not shake a female’s hand if it is not offered - slightly bow your head as a sign of respect instead.
The Social Aspect of Meetings
It is important to understand that social activities are needed to help build relationships and establish trust. These informal gatherings can sometimes include family members or lots of drinking (in non-muslim countries) and even karaoke. Business is rarely discussed as part of these social events, however, it is a crucial element not to be ignored if a company wants to be successful in dealing with South Asians.
Short case study (by Jan Vincent Meertens)
I once went to China to have a lunch meeting in Nianjin with a local government official. The agent from Beijing insisted that I come to Nianjin the day before, but my schedule did not really allow for this and I preferred being in Shanghai. I thought that it would only be a two-hour train ride and that lunch would start at 12.30pm so that I could take the train in the morning and spend the day in Shanghai. What happened was what the agent already feared would happen, the train ride was more complex than just the two hours and thus I arrived late. I was able to inform them that I was going to be late; I was only 30-40min late. When I arrived, we had a great buffet lunch and my Chinese counterpart did not show any offense, but after the lunch, I never heard from him again.
This example can also be translated to South Asian countries. It illustrates the importance of giving and saving face in South Asia. If face is lost for any reason, this can erode trust or end business relationships.
References & Links