The important cultural pitfalls to avoid in Southeast Asia

Asians and Westerners approach business differently. In order to build a positive and lasting business relationship with countries in the Southeast Asia, you must understand that they are referred to as high context cultures. For the most part, culture explains a lot, and many things are often left unsaid.

Asians are more relational in their business. Of the values that are culturally linked, trust is among the most important. Asian countries will do business with you when they can already trust you. On the other hand, in America for example, business is done professionally and impersonally. They more direct communicators and get on with the agenda quickly.

If you plan to do business in Southeast Asian countries, you must learn some key information about their business culture. Respecting and appreciating their traditions and decorum will help you expand your business in those areas.


Greetings vary depending on the ethnicity, belief, and gender (for some countries). Since Southeast Asian countries are particular with age and seniority, you must greet the oldest or the one in the highest rank. Shaking hands is already an acceptable practice in most SEA countries. However, rules vary from country to country.

In Singapore for example, it is rude to look directly into the eyes of your business counterpart while shaking hands. Instead, catch his eye and glance down. Shaking of hands with the opposite sex is traditionally inappropriate among Bruneians, Malaysians, and Muslim Singaporeans.

Filipinos are less conservative in terms of touch. Handshakes are often accompanied by a pat on the back among men, and women may kiss each other on the cheek, depending on the degree of the relationship.

Gift giving

There are certain rules that about gift giving in SEA countries when it comes to gift giving. Since Indonesia and Brunei are predominantly Muslim, you should avoid giving alcoholic beverages and foods that are not “halal” certified.

Also, most ASEAN countries how the gift is wrapped matters. Sometimes, the presentation is more important than the gift itself. So wrap them attractively.

In Vietnam, small gifts may be given on anniversaries and holidays like Tet. On the other hand, large gifts may be perceived as a bribe, so avoid doing this. Giving anything sharp may mean a cutting of a relationship. For gifts for a group, give them after the meeting.

Certain colors and flowers have specific meaning, depending on the occasion.. Avoid ones that are associated with mourning, unless the person has lost a family member.

Face and honor

Most Asian countries give much importance on face, honor, and avoiding shame. “Face” reflects reputation, dignity, and prestige, and it must be protected at all cost. In view of these, they are very careful not to themselves and others publicly.

Provided here are general guidelines. Each culture has variations in their etiquette, so it would be wise to do a thorough research on the SEA country that you would like to do business on. Doing so will help you avoid offense that can harm a possible good business relationship in these countries.

Alliance Experts is present around the world with local people who know the culture and can introduce you in the right way and to the right person. This way your business plan will more easily be successful.

This entry in Asia was updated on 20 May 2021 by specialist.