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Not Getting Asia

Patronizing stereotypes can subvert entire business strategies.


Not Getting Asia

Patronizing stereotypes can subvert entire business strategies.

A newly published book, The Asian Mystique, argues that Westerners bring a whole set of illusions and expectations€¦quot;and therefore subconscious assumptions€¦quot;to their interactions with Asia, based on the West’s historical contacts with the region and Hollywood’s portrayal of it. Chief Executive spoke with the author, Sheridan Prasso, about the implications for business. Here are excerpts from the conversation:

What are the biggest misconceptions that American CEOs bring to doing business in Asia?
As far back as Marco Polo and even the Ancient Greeks, the West has considered “The Orient” to be a place of danger, exoticism, sensuality and intrigue. Those perceptions remain today. Even tame and safe Japan, which has among the lowest crime rates in the developed world, was called “The Wild, Wild East” in just one example of a recent headline in BusinessWeek. And China, in a recent Fortune Small Business headline, became “China: Dangerous Business.” Casting Asia through this filter of “Asian Mystique,” as a “dangerous” place that must be “conquered,” sets up an us-vs.-them divide that keeps us in the West from fully understanding the subtleties of those markets.

What kind of mistakes does that lead to, exactly?
Asians often are irked by our attitudes in business negotiations. They frequently feel that they have to sort of “stand up” to us to be regarded as equals. They feel that Westerners mistake Confucian reserve as weakness, or height difference as inadequacy. I know a Chinese lawyer who, when he has faced a taller, white male opponent in a deposition, says he can sense an attitude of macho superiority. In other words, the lawyer told me, “He’ll think I’m a wuss.” But the lawyer uses that to his advantage: He bides his time, appears reserved, letting his opponent feel he is gaining the upper hand. Then, when the opponent lets his guard drop a bit, thinking he has a weak adversary, the Chinese lawyer delivers a crippling blow.

Where do we get these ideas?
The West historically has viewed Asia as a place to be dominated€¦quot;through missionaries, colonial conquerors and later through trade and market access. For example, in 19th century Shanghai, British colonial traders dealt with Chinese men primarily as servants and compradors. The men were slight by comparison, wore silk gowns, grew their fingernails and wore their hair in long, braided queues. To the Brits, they looked effeminate. Later, in Hollywood, those European colonial perceptions, combined with Chinese immigrants to the U.S. who took up what was considered “women’s work” in San Francisco after the Gold Rush€¦quot;as nannies, cooks and launderers€¦quot;solidified these images of Asian males as less than masculine or macho in the Western sense. This happened just at the advent of Hollywood, and those images have dominated the screen since. Think of the inept phalanxes of karate-chopping men getting whacked by Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill.” Asian males don’t pose a masculine threat, or play masculine heroes who get the girl, in Hollywood movies.

Oh, come on. Everybody knows that the samurai were tough guys.
But considered quaint, antiquated, conquerable€¦quot;noble warriors who ceded to Western superiority. We often use samurai imagery to discuss modern Japan; remember, we kicked the samurai’s butts, and we did it again to Japan in World War II. So in Hollywood, Western firepower always trumps Asian martial arts and swordplay.

But that’s the movies. Aren’t CEOs who have been doing business in Asia sophisticated enough to know better?
No. Images affect the subconscious. We don’t realize it. They result in prejudices, both good and bad, that affect how we think about the region and its people, and how we approach its markets and opportunities. Think of how often you hear Westerners say that their Asian partners were “tough” negotiators€¦quot;as if they were supposed to roll over easily. Asians find those attitudes patronizing. Do you ever hear that about, say, German negotiators? It is because we view Asia through lenses of either “weakness” or “threat” we can conquer. That a lot of Westerners have had their shirts handed to them trying to “conquer” the China market is a case in point.

So what should CEOs take from this?
My challenge to CEOs is to ask them to stop seeing Asia as “conquerable” and “dangerous,” and to start seeing Asia and its people as they really are. It is quite impossible to sum up in a sentence what, exactly, Asia is or Asians are. Every single country in Asia is different, with its own local tastes and complexities. It takes time to learn about the region’s differences, where the inhabitants of one Chinese city can speak an entirely different dialect from those in another Chinese city just 50 miles away. Understanding this nuance, and getting rid of broad-brush generalities in order to see more clearly, is critical.

The Asian Mystique (Public Affairs Press, 2005) by Sheridan Prasso

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