What group from the US has a unique set of problems in Asia? The answer may surprise you

The women in my cross-cultural workshops always ask, “What kinds of problems will I have as an American woman working with Asians?”
It’s a fair question, since the role of women in Asian countries does seem to be restricted compared to the opportunities for women in the US.
My answer usually surprises people when I say that most US female managers I know have had very few problems working with Asian men. There are exceptions, but there are good reasons for the effectiveness of US women in those cultures.
There is, however, one group of managers from the US that tends to have a great deal of difficulty in Asia; that group is comprised of young males. An incident at a recent conference which dealt with business in India exemplifies that point.
During that conference, a young man in attendance asked, “How do you get projects started? It always seems that they’re waiting for the blue hair to show up to sign on the dotted line.”
At first I didn’t know what he was getting at. The young man went on to explain that he was involved in trying to source a number of parts in India. He explained that he was running the family-owned business for his father, and that he was having difficulty making any progress in his discussions with Indian companies.
I told him that what he was experiencing was not atypical for a young American manager trying to accomplish something in Asia. There were three things that he should do: he needed to have his father write a letter of authorization for him using British-style titles; he needed to stop using slang and show respect and deference to those older than he when meeting people in India; and he needed to be patient, because impatience is a sign of incompetence in most Asian countries. Since it would take longer for him to demonstrate to Indian managers that he was a reliable business partner, he needed to stay patient while he worked the process.
That was not the response he was looking for. He said he needed his projects to proceed and that there must be some other ways to speed the process.
I gave him additional tips on how to speed up the process, but I reinforced the importance of maintaining patience in all his business dealings. The other members of the class with more experience in India echoed what I had said.
The workshop continued to explore the numerous problems in dealing with India that the participants had experienced, but I could tell that my young friend was basically unhappy with the workshop since we hadn’t dealt with his problem in a way that he wanted.
Later in the afternoon, since this workshop was being done just before the World Affairs Conference, I was fortunate to have as my guests T. P. Sreenivasan, deputy chief of mission
from the Embassy of India in Washington, D.C., and Dr. Pankaj, the consul from the Consulate of India in Chicago. The questions and discussion that evolved were fascinating until the young manager again raised his hand.
“How do you get projects started? It always seems that they’re waiting for the blue hair to show up to sign on the dotted line.”
The young man had repeated his earlier question with a lot of impatience. Sreenivasan answered his question very well. Again he stressed the importance of patience. After the workshop was over, Pankaj made an interesting comment to the young manager:
“About the time you begin to realize that your father might be smarter than you thought, your own children are beginning to question your wisdom. That is why age is respected in India.”
I was embarrassed that one of my workshop participants exhibited behavior that would not lead to success anywhere in Asia. However, I relate this story because it illustrates two points.
Age is respected in Asia. Therefore, a young manager will need time to build the credibility that an older man would have simply due to his age.
Some of the very characteristics of style that make young men successful in the US can be counterproductive in an Asian setting. The impatience that connotes eagerness and commitment to accomplishing the task in our culture actually sends a message of incompetence in the cultures of Asia.
Why, then, do women managers have fewer problems when trying to work in what appears to be very male chauvinist societies?
A look at the basic business styles that American women tend to exhibit are more in line with the business styles of Asia. The way US women negotiate, communicate, come to decisions, deal with time, context, and a number of other areas tend to be more like the styles found in the business environments of a number of Asian countries.
Also, women tend to make a greater effort to follow the rules of etiquette that they observe in the countries that they visit.
Whenever business styles are discussed, it is important to realize that there are wide variations in how different people act, and there are exceptions to every rule. Some Asian business men and women will act more like US citizens than the average US citizen. Also, there are US women who have adopted the business styles that are similar to their male counterparts.
The ability to understand and operate within the expectations of your business partners is key in any culture but more important when in cross-cultural situations. The characteristics that allow young men to be successful in climbing the corporate ladder in our culture tend to be counter to the success strategies of business men in other parts of the world.
Joe Geck is president of Accelerated Solutions Consulting in Waukesha.
May 1998 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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