Nobody does coffee in Asia: Tips for successful business meetings

By Jacqueline Gillespie

Key points in this article

  • Meeting Asian business norms
  • Networking in Asia

The coffee catch up is an integral - indeed inescapable - medium for business networking in Australia.  A stroll through the central business district of any major Australian city confirms the switch from the long lunch to the short break with a short black. Or a latte at least. 

With more than half Australia’s adult population visiting cafés several times a week it is unsurprising the café has become an extension of the office – a kind of offsite meeting room where conversations are boosted by a shot of caffeine and air of conviviality. 

Wherever I travel in Australia the coffee catch up is my mainstay.  I don’t hesitate to suggest a first meeting over coffee - for what better, more relaxed and time efficient way is there to get to know a client or business contact quickly?

And while sipping coffee with my new acquaintance, I am often asked for advice on how to network in Asia. The first thing I say is don’t expect coffee catch ups. As although the practice is growing in some regions, for the most part in Asia people stop for lunch. They just don’t do coffee for networking.

Australians networking in Asia, who usually worship at the altar of coffee, need to embrace the art of lunch.  And by lunch I mean real food, in real restaurants with people you have been introduced to by a respected third party.

So here are some do’s and don’ts, distilled, if not brewed, from experience.

  • The restaurant: Do aim for good Asian food, eaten with chopsticks when offered. And if you don’t like Asian food or haven’t learned chopsticks, then take some lessons before you leave home.
  • Food ordering: Don’t be difficult about food choices. If you are gluten free, dairy free, allergic to nightshades, can’t eat carbs after midday, only eat free-range chicken or hand selected, grass-fed, free-range beef, keep it to yourself.  Unless you have a medical reason for outlier food choices, you need to respect the food culture of the country you are doing business in.  Vegetarianism is fine – just.
  • Conversation: Don’t start the conversation with personal questions such as how was your weekend, or how many children do you have.  Do talk broadly about the industry before talking about their business or yours. Do your research and find common ground. Personal stories can be shared once trust is established.

  • Timing: Don’t rush through lunch, which is usually the biggest meal of the day in many countries in Asia and an occasion where people deepen friendships and relationships.
  • Relationships: Don’t rush things. Australians are very good at building ‘light touch’ relationships but in many Asian cultures, business relationships will take longer and require deeper engagement.
  • Culture: Do take the time to learn about the culture in which you are seeking business networks.  Show genuine interest and curiosity in the culture of your dining companions.
  • Results: Don’t ask for anything at the first lunch. It is your opportunity to show credibility and demonstrate respectfulness of your guests. Focus on building trust over the long term.

Finally, once lunch is done, prepare yourself for networking in the evening where in some countries, particularly Japan and Korea, much business is done outside the boardroom.

If you don’t drink, you should perhaps consider taking someone along who does, for many deals are done over a drink, or two, or more.

Overall, for Australians looking to network in Asia, it’s important to remember it’s not exactly one-size-fits all and what is standard here may not stack up elsewhere. Asia is a big place with many different cultural norms.

Do you do coffee in Asia? What’s your experience for appropriate social business settings? Have you ever unintentionally committed a faux pas when trying to do business in the region? Let us know at the Small Business Hub LinkedIn group.

This article first appeared at BlueNotes

About the author: Jacqueline Gillespie is a senior client partner and head of Asia Desk, Korn Ferry Australasia.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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