Origami

Tetraphobia and Doing Business in Asia

Category: Culture, International Business

Next week is the advent of yet another Friday the 13th. While we’re preparing the Freddy Krueger re-runs, clutching rabbit feet and dodging ladders, residents in East and Southeast Asian countries this week are dealing with a fearsome, single-digit menace: the dreadful number four.

Fear of four, or “tetraphobia”, is a superstition that is fairly common throughout China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. Today is especially unlucky for tetraphobics who follow the Western calendar: April 4th, or 04/04.

Four. Cuatro. Quatre. Vier. ארבע. The number that comes after three and before five is harmless in most languages. In Mandarin, however, its pronunciation and tone () is a little too close to that of the word for death (). And in Japanese, Cantonese and Korean, the two words are perfectly homophonous. Can you imagine teaching your children how to count: “one, two, three, DEATH, five, six…”?

Tetraphobic superstition has permeated all aspects of society in these cultures, from architecture and purchasing habits to wedding celebrations, holidays and communication norms. Here are a few examples of four’s impact:

  • Offices, hospitals, hotels, apartments and skyscrapers are typically built without a fourth or fourteenth floor (The Vision City in Hong Kong is missing floors 40 through 49).
  • The number four was banned from license plates and can only be used once in ID numbers in Taiwan.
  • The Chinese avoid phone numbers and addresses with fours, especially when they’re combined with another number that changes the meaning. Example: “94” could be interpreted as being dead for a long time.
  • Japanese has an alternate pronunciation for four when used in phone numbers and dates. Its “other” sound, yon, is about as far away from its official sound, shi, as you can get.
  • Military aircraft and vehicles often start with the number five in China and the South Korean and Taiwanese navies avoid four when naming their ships.
  • Tetraphobia can dictate property prices. Neighborhoods have removed four from their street names and become more profitable as a result. In the same way, buildings with multiple fours can suffer price cuts of up to $30,000.
  • “Table 4” is often eliminated at weddings and other celebrations.
  • People avoid using four in verbal speech during holidays and when a loved one is sick or dying.

Tetraphobia far surpasses triskaidekophobia (Western superstitions around the number 13). It even permeates the business world in these regions of Asia. So if you’re directly or indirectly doing business with these cultures, you’ll want to be sensitive to this aversion. Poking fun at or disregarding it will earn you disfavor (and possibly bad luck!).

Here are a few examples of how you can cater to your tetrophobic clients or business partners:

  • Localize your business card for this market, removing all fours (when feasible) and including local-friendly information in your clients’ language.
  • Choose other numbers for your Asian product, model and serial numbers as Nokia and Canon did. Consider auspicious numbers such as six, eight and nine in China.
  • Similarly, avoid using four in your updates, new versions and all other company codes.
  • Tip and offer gifts of money carefully. Make sure to avoid all offensive combinations of bills (i.e. multiples of four, etc.).
  • Skirt around four in your company communications, marketing and ad campaigns and strategically choose the numbers that you use.
  • Select corporate phone numbers, addresses and all other customer-facing data carefully and pay a premium if necessary to secure the numbers that you want.

But wait — what do you do if you own a company like The Four Seasons or Foursquare? That’s a tough one. Some would say that the Western word for “four” (spelled out) is less loathsome to tetraphobics, but many will still find it offensive. Your best bet is to work with a translation agency to pick a culturally-appropriate brand name for Asian countries. Market research, test groups and expert translation will ensure you avoid culturally-sensitive mistakes in your international branding.

Photo Credit: Jorge Jaramillo