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10 Terrific Cultural Tips on Doing Business in ASEAN Countries


Working in the ASEAN region? Looking for some quick tips on how to do business? Need to know some of the main cultural differences you may come across?

Then this blog is for you!

When you work in foreign cultures it's crucial to understand a bit about the locals, their expectations and their norms.

Walking into a new country with a "well, we all do business the same way" mentality is going to get you nowhere, very fast.

This is especially true in the ASEAN region where understanding the culture is perhaps even more important due to the sheer diversity of cultures within this relatively small area of the world.

Firstly, where is the ASEAN Region?

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) consists of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos and Burma.

So 10 countries in all.

As an organisation, it has been set up to promote cooperation and to facilitate economic, political, security, military, educational, and sociocultural integration.

asean countries map

Is there such a thing as ASEAN Culture?

You would be right in questioning whether you can really talk about an "ASEAN culture".

Across the 10 countries, there is massive diversity - ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious.

Even within some countries, such as Malaysia for example, you'll find Malays, Chinese, Indians and many other ethnicities making it almost impossible to identify what is 'Malaysian'.

However, this does not mean you can not identify certain common traits across the region. There definitely are.

buddhas head in a tree

The roots of many of the cultural traits of the ASEAN region lie in Buddhism.

Harmony, consensus, the collective, etc. are all stressed in SE Asian society and all come from Buddhist teachings.

Photo by Justin Vidamo on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


These common cultural traits shared across the member states have been acknowledged in what has become called the 'ASEAN Way'.

The 'ASEAN Way' refers to an agreed common approach to communication, working together and solving problems based on a humanistic way of doing things.

Very much tying in with Buddhist teachings, it captures many of the cultural norms of Southeast Asia, being based on the core concepts of compromise, consensus and consultation.

It focuses on personalised channels of communication, prioritizing conflict avoidance, informal decision making and discreet diplomacy.

photo merlion singapore

One of the most advanced cities in the world and also one of the easiest places to do business in the ASEAN region - Singapore. The Merlion, a half-fish, half-lion beast, is a symbol of Singapore.

Photo by Nan Cheng Tsai on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Doing Business in ASEAN Cultures

Before working or doing business in any ASEAN country it's always best to do some research on the country you may be visiting.

However, to give you a basic overview of some of the common cultural differences faced by (mainly Western) foreigners here's our top ten cultural tips!

1. Honour and acknowledge hierarchy – these are, on the whole, hierarchical cultures. Status, position and rank mean something. Make sure you always respect the boss and if you are a boss, make sure your people are showing you the appropriate levels of respect in front of others!

2. Learn to give face – giving face is all about elevating a person's sense of honour and status in their peer group or community. This is done in a number of ways, some subtle, others not. Paying people compliments, giving people gifts, buying people a meal or some nice food, etc. are simple ways of giving face.

3. Understand how consensus works - building consensus is really important in ASEAN cultures. Making sure all parties are happy ensures that the "whole" is happy. Understand that organisations see themselves as families and are collaborative in how they approach tasks.

4. Use locals – as and when possible, hire locals or use locals to help you get whatever business you need doing. They understand the language, culture and will know who is who and how to get around red tape.

5. Understand the religions of the region – Buddhism & Islam dominate this region. It's vital you understand the differences and what this may entail for you in terms of how you may or may not be able to behave.

6. Pay attention to body language – ASEAN culture is indirect in how it communicates. People will hide the truth if they think it may make someone feel bad or cause embarrassment. You need to pay attention to body language and tone to try and pick up whether people really mean what they are telling you, or not.

7. Keep your English simple - many people in business and commerce speak English however this does not mean they are used to how you may speak. Many English speaking foreigners cause themselves many problems by talking too quickly and confusing people. Slow it down

8. A gentle approach will get you most places – this is not a region where high-pressure sales tactics and aggression will get you places. It will backfire. The ASEAN culture likes calm and collected.

9. Avoid using emails for anything important – emails can cause too many problems so when communicating anything important do it face to face, over the phone or via a teleconference. Seeing people's faces makes a huge difference to how they take information in.

10. Be patient and flexible – things work at a very different pace in the region. Don't judge people according to your standards or expectations. Be adaptable and willing to go with the flow a little.

Main image: thanks to William Warby for sharing on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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