Part 2: Differences in the Asian and American business culture

03 June 2020


Written by Peter-Jan van Doorn

This is the second part of Peter-Jan van Doorn‘s blog about the cultural differences in business culture. In the first part, he wrote about Europe. In this second part, Peter-Jan writes about the cultural differences between Asia and USA.

What is your experience with respect to differences in culture?

I remember that most of the Japanese clients did their homework thoroughly before a face-to-face visit and asked many questions, in any case during the visit, but even before, mostly by email. It is well known that it takes quite some time to establish business relationships in Asian countries and indeed more visits and many answers to questions are needed before a business decision will be made. However, when a business relationship has finally been established, the Japanese prove to be very loyal and the business relationship may last for many years. It is common to bring presents for Asian clients and especially in Japan one should also pay attention to the wrapping paper; the total appearance counts, not just the present itself. Business cards need to be exchanged using both hands and should be examined carefully. Also in Japan I witnessed that scientists in pharmaceutical companies wore white lab coats, even in the meeting room. And do not be surprised if you are asked to take off your shoes in (some) buildings. In that case, special laboratory ‘slippers’ will be given to you.

If you give a presentation to a Japanese audience, do not be surprised if many may fall asleep. Do not worry, however, that your presentation really is that dull. The country of politeness is also a country of drowsiness: Japanese staff tend to make long days, also because staff will not leave the workplace before their boss does. Moreover, there are often (obligatory) dinners and drinks with colleagues in the evening and even at night which also increases the fatigue. If your presentation is in a room with seats in a row, the odds are that almost all individuals sitting behind the boss(es) – who will sit in the front row – have their eyes closed.

I also had the opportunity to gather some insight into business culture in India. As with the Japanese, establishing business relationships with people in India takes more time. When doing business with Indians one should bear in mind that they tend to be guided by their respective religions. Respect for elders and hierarchy are core values in Indian society as well. Companies may have an in-house little temple and Indian businesses are often strictly hierarchically structured. Decisions are generally made at the highest of levels and roles are well defined. Tasks will only be carried out by a specific person and an Indian manager is typically not expected to carry out tasks that could otherwise be undertaken by someone at a lower level in the organisation.

Indians also place huge importance on family and community. Before business talks start Indian business people often ask their business counterparts about family and it is common to ask them the same in return. Understanding Indians may sometimes be a challenge, because their in principle good English often sounds different because of the Indian accent. As in many Asian cultures,  one should avoid the slightest form of blame or any type of shameful situation (‘saving face’), because this can influence decision-making processes and may thus affect doing business as such.

As far as colleagues are concerned, I have noticed that quite a few Americans (and to a lesser extend Canadians) keep some distance and remain rather formal, whereas European colleagues tend to want to get to know you better. I assume this is because the Europeans somehow feel that they share a similar culture. Although USA and Europe are both called ‘Western Societies’, the difference in culture  – and also in business culture – is nevertheless substantial. It is often said that American society suffers from a permanent state of fear and it is indeed true that I noticed that my previous US-colleagues seemed to experience quite a lot of stress. Another difference worth mentioning is the number of holidays per year. Therefore, as a European, do not tell about your four-week vacation abroad because this is not possible for Americans. With some European colleagues I have visited clients all over Europe and, obviously, you get to know each other quite well during these joint client visits. It is not only more fun to travel together but also – by applying a joint client strategy – one plus one rather becomes three.

I am not sure whether this really was a cultural aspect, but especially US Business Development (BD) management was in my experience not fully aware of the fact that ‘The United States of Europe’ did not exist. Although US-icons such as McDonald’s indeed can be found in pretty much all European countries,  cultural diversity is still present in Europe(fortunately). I witnessed that for US BD-management it was rather ‘one size fits them all’ when it came to a European Business BD strategy. Since the lifespan of a Global BD-manager was very short – when working for one particular US-CRO, I had 12 consecutive superiors in only 10 years!  – they never had the time to get a taste of the wonderful cultural diversity of Europe.

Thank you Peter-Jan for sharing your insights and experience about the cultural differences in business culture related to the pharmaceutical industry!

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