sensitive topics to avoid, thailand, Asia
Women wear hats with pictures of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Photo: Chumsak Kanoknan/Getty

Discretion is the better part of valor, or so Shakespeare wrote long before the first business traveler stumbled up against the Chinese preoccupation with “saving face.” In Asia, discretion is the better part of a way of life.

sensitive topics to avoid, Asia

The same blunt speaking that works in the West can lead to roadblocks in the East. Getting things “off one’s chest” may enhance team building in New York or Newcastle but upset harmony in Nanjing. “Free speech” as defined at Hyde Park corner can be construed as foul speech in a Beijing boardroom.

There are always sensitive topics – political, religious, cultural – best left unexplored when foreigners want to make the best impression. Yet defining those topics can be challenging. Most Asian nations are far less homogenous than they may appear, with a mix of competing ethnicities and religions.

But take heart, serial foot-in-mouthers and frequent “faux pas” flyers. Here are the top ten commandments, some country-specific, some general, for how to muffle and ultimately muzzle those no-nos of chitchat that can derail East-West deals.

1) Thou shalt not let things get critical.

sensitive topics to avoid, Asia

If you have something negative to say about the work of a new Asian colleague, always couch it in the positive. “In Japan, I saw an American’s key relationship with a government official deteriorate because he publically told the fellow, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’,” said Mark Michelson, chairman of the Asia CEO Forum in Hong Kong. “In any culture, you don’t want to embarrass anybody; it’s better to be constructive. But in Asia, raising your voice or pointing a finger can be especially disadvantageous.

2) Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain (especially when it is not your Lord).

In other words, do not criticise another’s god. “In India, there are three opinions about religion: strong, stronger and strongest,” said food critic Marryam Reshi.

In some Muslim regions, such as parts of Malaysia, some religious authorities say dogs are unclean and contact can be sinful. The sponsor of a recent initiative for Muslim Malays to “touch a dog” was greeted with death threats.

3) Thou shalt not press hot buttons.

No matter how youthful the translator, or how hip-looking the chief executive officer in China, “remarks about the three “t’s” – that’s Tibet, Taiwan and Tiananmen – will be construed as foreign interference,” said Mike Chinoy, a senior fellow at the US-China Institute.

tibetan temple, sensitive topics to avoid, Asia
Tibetan temple. Photo: Thinkstock

In addition, “don’t praise Japan in Korea or praise China in Japan,” wrote Micha Peled, the director of China Blue and other documentaries, in an email. “In the Philippines, don’t joke about the food or the Pope.” For South Korea, “mention of North Korea is not advised either,” e-mailed Nicholas Tse, general manager of the Seoul JW Marriott.

4) Thou shalt be politic about policies.

It’s probably best not to mention the laws about caning in Singapore,” said Mitchell Farkas, head of China-based production company FarFilms.

An American once remarked against the Bumiputra (Malay) allocations enshrined in the Malaysian Constitution, forgetting the Native American reservation system is similar,” recalled A Najib Ariffin, director of Kuala Lumpur’s Nusantara Academy of Development, Geocultures and Ethnolinguistics. “This upset the hosts, who responded by simply retreating from any business with him.

Another hint e-mailed by filmmaker Micha Peled, “In India, don’t tell people the caste system is backward or ask why they don’t make peace with Pakistan already.

5) Thou shalt not be irreverent.

sensitive topics to avoid, thailand, Asia
Women wear hats with pictures of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Photo: Chumsak Kanoknan/Getty

In Thailand, never make comments that could be construed as negative about the current king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, or former royalty. Show respect at all times. “If you are prompted, just say he is a great man,” said Peter Muennig, an associate professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at New York’s Columbia University. Even before a royalist military coup, laws banning lese majeste were seriously imposed.

Anything perceived as an insult may offend your hosts, and could put you in Thai prison.

6) Thou shalt not ‘appear’ insensitive.

Ideas of proper looks and colleagues’ best features may vary greatly. “Never remark about a Japanese businessman’s hair,” warned anthropologist Meyumi Ono. “No jokes about baldness, toupees or thinning hair combed forward – what the Japanese call a ‘barcode.’ Also, don’t bring up how people smell.”

7) Thou shalt not presume when making compliments.

The most annoying thing for Marriott’s Tse, who has Chinese heritage but was raised in the United Kingdom, is when people say, “‘You speak such good English!’.” After all, the Asian across the table may have been born in the US or UK, or extensively educated there.

Condescension is a big problem,” said Michelson of Asia CEO Forum. “People should try not to generalise about ’them’ when talking with Asians.”

8) Thou shalt mind your manners.

Flattering words in a toast can be undone because of poor form. “Make sure when clinking glasses, that you keep yours lower than your superior,” reminded anthropologist Ono. This is true in China, in particular. It is also important to “never refuse a delicacy offered,” Ono added. Yet show some restraint when it comes to certain food choices, said US-China Institute’s Chinoy, who has had much banqueting experience.

sensitive topics to avoid, Asia
Don’t take the last steamed dumpling. Photo: Thinkstock

Don’t be the one to take those last few dumplings off the plate — your hosts will curse you for having to order more.” Don’t leave chopsticks sticking upwards in rice. In Korea and elsewhere, that looks like incense burned for the dead. But loudly slurping soup, points out Michelson “is viewed as a compliment.”

9) Thou shalt not take “yes” for an answer.

In the end, the biggest problem may be less what you’ve said than what your Asian partners have left unclear. “I heard of an executive who ultimately lost his job because he thought a Korean company had said ‘yes’ to selling a 51% share – when the ‘yes’ only meant they understood the issue.” said Chinoy, “In China, a quick “no” usually means they want you to offer more, either officially or unofficially.

But in Japan, Thailand and most Asian lands ‘no’ is a word never uttered. Instead, delays and excuses are considered more polite. Sometimes the problem can be just getting an answer.

In Thailand, secretaries and assistants feel it’s their job to always ‘protect’ bosses,” said Briton Ian Semp, brand director of Bangkok’s Pacific Beer & Beverage Co. “I’ve been told – even when I can see them at their desk – that they aren’t in the office.”

10) Better yet, thou shalt hit the mute.

In Hong Kong, where loud mobile phone conversations are the norm, the main problem may be shouting your phone conversation over others. But in Japan, “any conversation on a mobile is considered a rude invasion of the public space,” said Ono. As in business conversations, silence is often preferable. “Westerners always think they have to fill that awkward pause,” Michelson said. “But ultimately, things left unsaid have more value than what’s said.

Read more Asia travel guide at here.

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