In Sun Tzu’s book, Art of War he says:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

In today’s global business environment, these words are interpreted as such: “If you know your adversary, you'll win half of the time. If you know yourself, you'll win half of the time. If you know yourself and your adversary, you'll win most of the time. If you know neither your adversary nor yourself, you'll lose every time.”

Conducting business in Asia can be an exciting and rewarding venture, while it can also be both very fulfilling and a source of deep frustration to the uninitiated. For this discussion, I’ll use Asian and Western countries as general points of comparison. And, I've identified three very basic business interactions:

First is the business interaction where you are the “customer - client”. Simply put, when you have money coming out of your pockets and a sign that says, “I’m here to spend money in your country,” business in a foreign country can seem overly simple. You may not get the best price or the best quality but suppliers will wine and dine you into thinking that business is easier to accomplish abroad than at home. A case in point: in the 1960’s large US mass merchandisers like Woolworth and Montgomery Wards stationed merchandise buyers in Hong Kong to buy products. Many will tell you that buying was easier than doing business in the US. There are still companies that operate this way.

The second business interaction makes you the “vendor – seller”. It wasn’t until the mid-1970’s when Western companies realized the potential consumer markets in Asia. Instead of “importing” products from Asia, they had to learn how to “export” products to Asia. For many, even large Fortune 500 manufacturing companies, there was no organized international sales or export department. European companies were slightly ahead of the curve compared to their North American counterparts given their historic colonial presence. After the normalization of relations with China in 1972, consumer manufacturers saw a huge market. It took years of trial and error for some companies to establish their market presence in China.

The third business interaction makes you a “peer” to your Asian counterpart, working for the same company, and on the assumption that you both have the same basic goals. As Asian companies grow with offices in Western countries or as Western companies establish manufacturing and sales offices in Asia, this scenario will become more common and more essential to business success.

Sun Tzu’s words can be applied to all business interactions regardless of where you are, but it becomes critically important in the second and third scenarios. To understand “them”, you’ll need to answer these questions:

1. How do they communicate?

  • Do they say exactly what’s on their minds?
  • Can they say ‘no’ directly and without reservation, without the ‘yes, but’?
  • Do they provide you with non-verbal signals you don’t understand?
  • Do they provide lots of detailed information or very little information?
  • 2. How formal or informal are they?

  • Are they more comfortable in formal or informal gatherings?
  • Do they have a distinct protocol for where you should sit during meetings and meals?
  • How do they like to be addressed? Mr., Miss, Madam, or as in Japan, using the suffix “-san”.
  • When you say the dress code is “casual,” do they understand?
  • Is there an etiquette and protocol for exchanging business cards?
  • Are there any protocols for drinking and entertaining?
  • 3. How comfortable are they with hierarchy?

  • Are organizational structure and hierarchy important?
  • How important are titles and positions?
  • Do they refer to their superiors by first, last name or title? How can you tell if they are referring to their superiors by title?
  • How do you handle bureaucracy in the organization?
  • How do you handle the decision making process?
  • 4. How important is it to develop relationships?

  • What constitutes a good relationship for your Asian counterpart?
  • What role does trust play in building relationships? What should you do to gain trust?
  • When can you establish trust and build relationships?
  • What role do social activities play in the relationship building process?
  • 5. How does group orientation affect the way you conduct business?

  • Are they looking for individual recognition?
  • Do they work better in a group environment or do they prefer to work individually?
  • What groups do they identify with?
  • How does maintaining harmony affect their group affiliation?
  • 6. How do your colleagues view time?

  • How can you be sure that timelines and deadlines are met?
  • How do they view schedules?
  • What can you expect in terms of punctuality?
  • 7. How open are your colleagues to change and innovation?

  • Are they more comfortable with rules and structure?
  • How willing are they to taking personal risks?
  • 8. What motivates your Asian counterparts?

  • How do they define success and status?
  • How do they balance personal and professional time?

    The second part of Sun Tzu’s quote is to know thy self. You’ll need to ask yourself these same questions. Then, analysis. For example, you’ve determined your Japanese customer has a hard time saying ‘no’, responses are vague and your communication style is direct and to the point. What should you do to be most effective?

    Analyzing cultural nuance can be painstaking, but the Culture Calculator on CultureWizard is an assessment that facilitates this analysis easily and effectively through a graphic representation of cultural gaps. TeamPlace is another CultureWizard tool that provides a team cultural profile that you and your global counterparts can use to interact as a group most effectively.

    Like the sports coach developing a game strategy, he understands the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses as much as he understands his own team’s. He doesn’t study the opponent so that he can emulate their game plan, but, he studies them to develop an effective strategy to win. Some coaches do it better than others.


    RW3 CultureWizard is a leading provider of cross cultural training and information, primarily through the CultureWizard and intercultural learning platforms.