One thing is certain: stereotypes don’t work. Everybody is different, even in homogeneous, collectivist societies like Japan and South Korea. People within a family or an organization are different. Organizations are different from one another. Nations are different. However, before a relationship is established, a communicator needs to make some assumptions about the person to whom a communication is addressed.
A basic assumption involves the Formality Factor. Before embarking on communications to a person or organization you do not know, assess the probable Formality Factor. That is, take a guess at what is the probable degree of formality the person or organization will expect from you. Bear the following in mind as you make your assessment:
- Asians are more formal than Westerners
- Older people are more formal than younger people
- People in larger organizations are more formal than people in smaller organizations
- People in older, established organizations are more formal than people in younger, entrepreneurial organizations
- People in older industries (for example, mining) are more formal than people in newer industries (for example, computer technology).
–Excerpted from The Executive Guide to Asia-Pacific Communications by David James.
When it comes to specific countries, here is a general formality ranking for the countries discussed in this book:
Let assessment of the Formality Factor be your first communications guideline.
Arrange An Introduction. Unless you are a famous person, or represent a well known company that almost anyone would love to do business with, it will help immensely if you are first introduced to the person with whom you intend to communicate. Introductions are especially important if a high Formality Factor is involved. To give a clear example, it is especially important if you want to communicate with an older, senior executive at a large Japanese organization.
An introduction need not be a big deal. Government trade, banks, accounting firms, law firms and consultants often provide this service at little or no cost. An introduction also need not be made by someone known individually by the person to whom you are introduced, although that is the best circumstance. It is enough that there is a relationship between the introducer and the person to whom you are introduced, or between their organizations. Even if there is no relationship between the introducer and the person or organization to whom you are introduced, it is sometimes enough if the introducer is a person of high status, such as an official of your own government or an executive of a well known corporation.
The introduction can be for purposes of arranging a personal meeting or for commencing a written correspondence.
If the Formality Factor for your initial communication is low, you might choose to forgo an introduction and try to communicate directly from the start. The risks are that you might fail and might also spoil chances of arranging an introduction later. But these risks will be reduced if you follow the guidelines I’ve listed.
Arrange A Personal Meeting, If Possible. Time and time again, Asia-Pacific executives who were interviewed for this book or answered the book’s survey questionnaire emphasized the importance of beginning a business relationship with a personal, face-to-face meeting. They said that this is especially important for Westerners seeking relationships with Asians. It is helpful, but not as important, for Asians seeking relationships with Westerners or for Westerners seeking relationships with Westerners. The difference is that Asians, being from collectivist cultures, place a high value on the personal side of a relationship and tend to discount people who are not members of their family, clan, organization, or nation.
Westerners, being individualists, are more focused on the potential material outcome of a relationship and tend to overlook its societal aspects. The advantages of a personal visit are that it enables both parties to gain a better understanding of the other, to communicate their messages better, and to garner information from the other that will assist in building a continuing relationship.
After a relationship is established, communications often become informal and very efficient. Some years ago, a senior executive of Cleveland Cliffs Iron Ore Co. negotiated substantial long-term “take or pay” contracts with Japan’s Mitsui & Co. to take iron ore from Cleveland Cliffs’ Robe River mine in Western Australia to Japanese steel mills. The relationship began with a formal introduction of the Cleveland Cliffs executive to Mitsui through Mitsui’s bank, followed by several social visits. Detailed contracts were eventually concluded, and Cleveland Cliffs began supplying the ore on a regular basis. Production and contract problems sometimes occurred, and the Cleveland Cliffs executive would visit Mitsui in Tokyo to discuss them.
“The formal introduction and those early personal visits were crucial,” says the Cleveland Cliffs executive. “And after a few years our relationship was so good that all I had to do was pick up the telephone or send a telex to Mitsui to resolve a production or contract problem.”