Our new American culture has ingrained in most of us that smoking is bad; if you smoke you can be labeled unfavorably. This is not the case in many cultures; and if you are doing business in Asia, the label may well apply to you, the non-smoker.
When doing business in Asia, it is not uncommon to be offered a cigarette. I remember my first experiences, telling these well-intentioned potential business partners, “No, thank you. I don’t smoke.” Although I sensed they felt I was rejecting their gracious gesture, I don’t smoke; and I wasn’t about to start.
It was a short time later that I learned a valuable lesson not only in leadership, but in respecting business diversity. We were negotiating a fairly large and complex manufacturing deal in China. The company that we were meeting with had never done business with Americans. It was quite evident that posturing and delaying tactics were the primary strategies employed by our eventual business partner. It felt as though there was little trust in the room and we ran into impasse after impasse.
At the point that I was about to concede (16 hour jetlag can wear you down), my business partner, who also doesn’t smoke, got up from his seat at the table, walked to the Chinese side and instructed the interpreter to tell our host that he would like to smoke with him. The gesture had an immediate effect. As they enjoyed their cigarettes, the energy and demeanor in the room changed. They spoke of America, Obama and family. Within three hours we were at a banquet celebrating our partnership.
To simplify, when you’re out of your culture, get out of your culture!