As any student of languages can tell you, there are a variety of ways that the cultures of the Far East and the West differ. These differences manifest themselves in various ways including how one greets another person, how business is conducted and how much physical contact is allowed. While the nuances of every Asian culture would take an entire book to explain, here are some of the basics for seven of the most popular Asian destinations:
China – Social relationships are highly formalized and involve a very ritualized sense of reciprocal obligation. For the unwary, gift-giving can be quite confusing so obtain the services of a local before presenting anyone with a gift. Direct confrontation is also considered poor etiquette and negotiations will usually last far longer than a Westerner expects.
Taiwan – Although rooted in Chinese culture, Taiwan is far more westernized. Still, there are some distinct cultural differences from the West. In particular, handshakes are rare except among friends. Instead a slight nod of the head when introduced by a third party – yes, that’s the etiquette – is all that is required. Finger pointing is a no-no as is touching anyone’s head. Lastly, be restrained in your actions and you will offend no one – loud and boisterous behavior is considered uncommonly rude.
Japan – The simple act of handing or receiving a business card in the Land of the Rising Sun is fraught with the possibility of insult. If handed a card, you must study it for at least two minutes and remark upon its qualities or you will be guilty of rudeness. On the other hand, once the business day – usually a very long one – is concluded, you will be expected to be entertained by your hosts for many more hours of drinking and singing.
Thailand – Bhumibol Adulyadej, king of Thailand, is very respected. Concerning this subject, it is probably best to bypass this topic so a harmless statement is not mistakenly taken out of context. The people of Thailand are otherwise generally friendly, outgoing people. It is custom to enter a home only after removing your shoes, to return a friendly gesture, such as smiling, and also never to touch someone’s head.
Philippines – While Filipinos can be fairly obtuse when speaking, they are much more physically oriented in person – at least for members of the same sex. Do not be alarmed if a Filipino man whom you have just met puts his arm around you and guides you to your seat. Also, refrain from pointing at a person as it is considered rude. Filipinos are far more cognizant of eye contact and a simple nod will get their attention.
South Korea- Like many Asian cultures, bowing is a common way to show respect. Being introduced to a group of people, meeting someone for the first time, and leaving a room or gathering should all be accompanied with a bow. It is also important to remember that in South Korea, eye contact is seen as a threat and/or challenge and should be avoided.
Indonesia – Propriety is considered sacred in the Muslim country. Always be on time, never use your left hand to receive a gift or touch another person and always greet people with the word “Selamat.” The country is also quite crowded so physical contact is to be expected and one’s personal space will be far smaller and may make the unprepared Westerner uncomfortable.