How to make a good first impression in Asia

How to make a good first impression in Asia

Do make a mess at the table. Don't pour your own sake. From India to Japan, here's how the locals greet, chat, dine and imbibe
American comedian Tommy Davidson demonstrates how not to behave when dining out with Japanese colleagues.

Any traveler who believes that good behavior is a universal language has never given the “OK” sign in Turkey, patted a child’s head in Bhutan or noticed just how widely etiquette codes can vary around the world. 

So how do you greet, chat, dine and imbibe with new business contacts in Asia, where one guest’s polite belch is another’s tableside blasphemy? 

Making a good first impression in the following seven places may require some grueling firsthand experience, but here’s what to know before you bow. 

China 

As German Chancellor Angela Merkel knows, a simple handshake will suffice when meeting someone in China. “The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials.” -- Chinese Proverb 

It’s doubtful this adage refers to the trials foreigners in China with poor name recognition and limited drinking skills face when becoming a polished practitioner of keqi (good “guest behavior”). But it might.

Among other arcane rules, keqi discourages use of the word “no” at all costs, yet invites a complete stranger to ask about your income without blinking.

The intricacies of Chinese etiquette defy perfection for most foreigners. But heeding the following will help ease the friction.

Greet: A light handshake combined with eye contact and a deferential nod is acceptable in polite, formal company. A hug or kiss is not.

Address acquaintances by their surname and title -- keep in mind their first name comes last (e.g., Hancock John) -- while paying attention to hierarchies of seniority.

Pointing, even in a friendly manner, is rude. Touching someone’s head, including a child’s, is egregious. Business cards are like gold, and should be treated as such when both giving and receiving them. 

Talk: Contrary to some travelers' over-caution, not every conversation has to revolve around the weather, Jeremy Lin's basketball triumphs and the latest Harvard admissions news. 

That said, don’t test this out with discussions about Tiananmen Square, Sino-Japanese relations or any overtly socio-political “icebreakers” that will often create extreme discomfort. 

More on CNN: 5 Chinese eating habits explained

Don’t: Lose your cool, force a direct confrontation or press someone to openly refuse or say “no.” These are all potential face-losing scenarios.

Do: Expect less personal space than you may be used to when chatting. And be prepared for certain intimate topics (e.g., your age, income) being fair game. 

Eat, drink and be wary: Be Swiss-train punctual. If you’re running late for a meal, even by a few minutes, call ahead. And abide by a noon (lunch), six o’clock (dinner) schedule.

Toasts can be plentiful during meals so knocking back your first glass will invite a pace you may regret. Stick to small sips.

More on CNN: How to survive a Chinese drinking frenzy

Hong Kong

Before traveling to Hong Kong, master the tricky art of glancing thoughtfully at someone's business card as you receive it. Hong Kong’s feverish sophistication and cosmopolitan vibe has been called equal parts Asia and Europe.

When it comes to social conduct, however, Confucian and Cantonese influences reign supreme.

“While so many aspects of it may feel international to many travelers, Hong Kong still follows that general rule about etiquette being governed by where you are,” says Gwen DeWalt, owner of U.S.-based Four Seasons Travel.

“When it comes to proper social conduct, you’re still very much in East Asia here.” 

Greet: A handshake (firm, but not vice-like) and slight head bow (optional) is the standard greeting.

Customary business card swapping can get even more intense in Hong Kong than in mainland China. Even during casual social situations the same basic card trading etiquette applies: give and accept cards with both hands, read the card and show some acknowledgement before putting it away. 

And make sure you have a plentiful supply. Being on the receiving end of a business card trade you can’t reciprocate can send the wrong message. 

Talk: When it comes to the inevitable bout of compliment trading, both parties should humbly deny instead of confirming with a “thank you,” advises eDiplomat, an informational website targeted at the global diplomatic community.

Eat, drink and be wary: Unless you're in a very upscale restaurant, leaving bones, prawn shells and the odd soy sauce stain on the table is a good mess, indicating you’ve enjoyed your meal. 

As for those less appetizing moments when your hosts have clearly gone all out -- and you’ve got the fish head floating in the soup right in front of you to prove it -- what do you do?

“Well, my best advice is -- if you don’t know what you’re eating, don’t ask until it’s over,” says Lydia Ramsey, international etiquette specialist and author of "Manners That Sell."

“Whatever the ‘delicacy’ may turn out to be, you may just have to eat a little bit of it to assure them that you appreciate their hospitality.” 

More on CNN: How to tip in Asia

India

Forget waving. When in India, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton folds her hands into the traditional Indian greeting, namaste. How do you attach a neat, all-purpose set of social graces to a country of 1.2 billion people with nearly as many subcultures? You don’t.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be practicing how to rip chapattis with one hand (your right) or following the basic tenets of good breeding in the world’s most diverse country.

Greet: Punctuality is always appreciated in India, but so is good humor when it isn’t reciprocated. And chances are your party will indeed be late. 

Light handshakes are the common greeting between members of the same sex, though an initial, hands-together “namaste” may suffice.

Caveat: Western-style hand waves can be misinterpreted as a “no” or “go away.”

Talk: Indirect communication is often the rule in a land where good manners means telling guests what they want to hear rather than risking their immediate disappointment.

Travelers may need to look for oblique, non-verbal clues to determine whether “yes, of course” or “I will try” flat out means “no.”

“After working in India for several months, I eventually realized that when a local colleague said to me, ‘Don’t worry -- we’ll take care of that,’ it meant that it probably wasn’t going to happen,” says Ramsey.

“And while this may be confusing or frustrating to visitors, what’s endearing about it is that it’s rooted in a culture that wants to please, or at least not disappoint, at all costs.” 

A common polite indication that you’ve just breached local etiquette yourself? Laughter.

Eat, drink and be wary: Roughly a third of southern India is vegetarian, and a significant portion of the public adheres to a strict diet that prohibits beef, pork or alcohol. Know where you are and whom you’re with before blurting out any cravings for a beer and some chops.

Two cardinal rules wherever you are: wash before every meal, and always use the right hand for eating or receiving food.

More on CNN: Pairing wine with Asian food? Yes, it can be done

Japan

Even if your sake glass is teeny weeny, avoid refilling it yourself. Few countries inspire as much dread of breaching etiquette as Japan, which is steeped in more tricky rules than a game of American football.

Fortunately the Japanese will almost universally forgive foreigners who break the rules. Just proceed with humility and try not to stomp all over them.

Or, better, ask for advice. Japanese society is a favorite topic of conversation even among Japanese.

Greet: The traditional Japanese bow is tough to master. Intricacies such as "who bows first?" and "how low should you go?" need to be taken into consideration.

Shaking hands is typical (sometimes in combination with a bow), but when in doubt let your acquaintance initiate, while addressing new friends by their family name followed with an honorific. The all-purpose Japanese suffix "san" -- as in "Thank you, Fuji-san." -- will usually suffice.

Talk: “Non-verbal communication is so vital that there is a book for gaijin (foreigners) on how to interpret the signs,” says Kwintessential, which suggests keeping all those innocuous head tilts, crossed arms and eyebrow scratches in check. 

In a country where the guiding philosophy is maintaining harmony, choose your conversational subjects accordingly. Baseball and food -- yes. Personal strife and utter frustration in Tokyo -- no.

Eat, drink and be wary: Slurping noodles is ok. Removing shoes inside is the norm.

Don't pour your own drink or refill your own glass. Wait for someone else to do it, even if you're thirsty.

Additional smart sake etiquette: hold the cup with both hands and leave it full unless you want it refilled -- again. 

More on CNN: Tokyo's corporate samurai reveal the secrets of their penny-pinching ways to hit the town

Singapore

Singapore has a reputation for being an overly regulated squeaky clean location, but in reality it is more liberal than you might think.

Keep the following in mind and you'll do just fine. 

Greet: Singapore’s varied mix of Chinese, Malaysian and Indian roots will often dictate the protocol. 

A handshake is the most common greeting, but “Singaporean Malays and Indians might not shake hands with members of the opposite sex,” notes website Business Insider. If you’re really unsure, go with a slight head bow or let your host initiate. 

“While in Western cultures, a pat on the back or a hand on the shoulder is a friendly gesture, in Singapore it may be seen as aggression or flirtation,” says WorldRoom.

Talk: Singaporeans are gregarious conversationalists, but play it safe by steering clear of the usual red-button issues (politics, religion) as well any seemingly innocent jesting.

Eat, drink and be wary: Depending upon your host in Singapore, the meal may follow Islamic dietary laws (e.g., no pork or alcohol), be strictly vegetarian, involve forks or chopsticks.

More on CNN: 10 ways to fake being a local in Singapore

South Korea

When chatting with South Koreans, avoid bringing up sensitive geopolitical issues. Especially this guy. It may be hard to get your head (or liver) around the full spectrum of decorum in a place like Seoul. In a single evening the vibe can run from stately greetings and dignified dining to soju-and-karaoke-soaked boozefests with your new best friends.

Greet: Bowing is traditional protocol when greeting and departing, usually accompanied by a handshake.

Address Koreans with surnames and professional titles. No given names until invited by your host or acquaintance to use them.

Refrain from shoulder pats, backslaps and hugs. You’re not in Houston.

Talk: Discussing Korean culture, customs or politics is a minefield of potential faux pas that’s best avoided, as is any mention of the Sea of Japan (it’s the “East Sea” in these parts).

Expect some personal questions thrown your way -- a sign that your host is politely showing interest in your life.

Questions about marital status, why you got divorced, why you have kids or how much your watch costs “are not intended to embarrass you,” emphasize the writers of "Culture Shock Korea."

Eat, drink and be wary: Feel free to ask what something is (they know you’re wondering) and be prepared to try a bit of everything.

Indicate you are done by placing your chopsticks on the chopstick rest or table (not across your rice bowl) and know that any invitation to go drinking afterward is nothing less than a national bonding ritual. 

More on CNN: Business traveler's guide to surviving a Korean drinking session

Thailand

The Thai "wai." So ubiquitous even Ronald's doing it. A peaceful, easy feeling (plus respect for the nation’s royal family and care not to point your feet at anyone) goes a long way in the “Land of Smiles,” where disarming phrases such as "mai pen rai" (“never mind”) and "jai yen" (“take it easy”) are the governing philosophies.

“In Thailand especially, foreigners can be at risk of offending without ever knowing it because your placid hosts will barely show any sign of it -- even if they’re seething inside,” says Four Seasons Travel’s Gwen DeWalt.

“One of the worst things you can do here is lose your own temper.” 

Greet: The traditional form of greeting is the "wai," a prayer-like gesture with hands placed together and lifted toward the face, accompanied with a slight bow.

Locals won’t expect travelers to initiate or reciprocate the wai to “subordinates” (waiters, hotel clerks, children).

Generally, Thais address with first names along with the all-purpose honorific "khun" (used for both men and women) before the name. 

Talk: Most topics are open for discussion (exceptions are the monarchy and national security), and direct questions about age or marital status aren’t uncommon.

Part of this is simply your hosts’ efforts to identify your position in the group (or society), says ExecutivePlanet, adding that you may even encounter well-meaning bunker busters like, “You look fatter than the last time I saw you.”

The appropriate response: “All the delicious Thai food I’ve been enjoying.” Mai pen rai. 

Eat, drink and be wary: Don’t split the check. Either your host pays (offering to contribute may, in fact, be insulting) or you do if the check comes to you.

“In Thai society, the person who is perceived to be the richest pays,” says Phuket.com. “Nine times out of 10 this will be you.” 

Food is usually eaten with a fork (left hand, used for pushing food) and spoon (right, used for putting food in your mouth). Leaving a last bite of food on your plate indicates you’ve been fed enough. 

More on CNN: Where to party like a local in Asia

Have you ever made a major cultural blunder during a trip abroad? Tell us about it in the comments box below.   

Jordan Rane writes regularly for CNN Travel and The Los Angeles Times. A Lowell Thomas Award recipient from the Society of American Travel Writers, his work on travel and the outdoors has spanned six continents and appeared in over 50 publications. He lives in Los Angeles.

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