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Culture

With the increasing interest in Asia and globalisation of the world economy, cracking the cultural code has become important.

Beyond handing namecards with both hands and bowing, what are some of the differences in East and West. Both Hofstede and Trompenaars are very insightful in outlining some challenges to watch out for.

I came across a very practical book on cracking the cultural code. However it involves observation. India is different from China from South Korea from Indonesia from Malaysia.

Where are some of your challenges?

1. Making small talk with colleagues
2. Asking a favour from a colleague
3. Promoting myself at networking events
4. Receiving compliment from colleagues
5. Telling a joke at lunch
6. Giving feedback to my boss
7. Giving a formal presentation at a meeting
8. Pitching my idea to investors
9. Interviewing for a job

In the section on “You can be a Cultural Detective”, Prof Molinsky suggests to use a series of diagnostic questions, using the 6 dimensions of the cultural code he coined.

1. Brevity and en pointe:
Do people tend to be succinct in what they say and get right to the point – often with as few words as possible?

Or do they use words more general, or ambiguous poetic language, hinting at what they mean without being too direct? Senior Chinese government officials tend to favour reference to Tang poems for instance.

There are regional differences in that regard.

2. Energy
When something positive has happened, do people express emotions openly through facial expressions, body language and tone of voice eg Mediterranean cultures. Or do they tend to hide or suppress the outward expression of positive emotions despite their feelings, example British stiff up lip.

3. Formality
Do people dress conservatively, make official appointments to speak with each other and use titles such as “Doctor” or “CEO” . Or do they dress casually, drop by casually for a chat or first name basis. Do not be deceived by outward appearances though. Sometimes people may want to be addressed by first name but they are very formal.

4. Assertiveness
Do people express views strongly and forcefully. Is conflict encouraged? Do people express different view points in meetings? Or do they express opinions in a cautious manner and public display of conflict or disagreement is frowned?

Here, there is a difference in hierarchy. Those at the top tend to be more forceful.

5. Self promotion
Do people tend to highlight or draw attention to their personal accomplishments or tend to minimise, underplay their achievements?

6. Personal disclosure
Do people keep conversations strictly about business or do they discuss details of their personal lives with colleagues at work? In Asian cultures, people do discuss details of family life.

How much to ask depends on the seniority. Do not be surprised if an older colleague were to ask how much you earn, and your age. Such invasion of privacy may be uncomfortable for an American, who although comfortable with small talk will consider such topics taboo. A German boss on the other extreme will unlikely ask questions about your family as this would be considered too personal.

Global Dexterity , how to adapt your behaviour across cultures without losing yourself in the process” by Andy Molinsky
395.52 MOL (NLB)

SMU Associate Professor Tan Hwee Hoon is investigating on how trust is influenced by culture. In a cross-culture longitudinal study, the research team is examining dimensions of trust depending on 1. Ability 2. Benevolence 3. Integrity.

In American culture, trust is highest when the imdividual is deemed to have high ability. Whereas in Asian culture, benevolence or whether a person has consistently shown that he/she watches your back is more important.

Stay tuned as she prepares to publish her report.

Hilarious look at cultural differences between East and West
https://www.boredpanda.com/comics-chinese-western-culture-comparison-tinyeyescomics/

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My favourite sayings from Prof Koh’s interview:

1. “I was always optimistic. Even when I faced great challenges, I retained my optimism and positive mindset, kept my sense of humour, and always thought – there must be a way of solving problems.”

2. When he negotiates, he starts on the basis that “at the end of the day, we are human beings, so let’s be friends first, try to develop a relationship, some trust in each other. Don’t see each other as an adversary, but if we have a difficult problem, let’s look at the problem”.

3. CQ, or cultural intelligence, is crucial.
“We live in different cultural boxes, so when we work with either one of our neighbours, we must understand their cultural box and where they’re coming from and how they think and, if possible, conduct ourselves in a manner that would be acceptable or indeed even admired by them.

4. On negotiations in the UN. “I show him friendship and warmth. I try not to embarrass him and put him down”.

5. Even if I win every point, it means that my counterpart lost every point. So how can he go back home and sell the package if he lost every point?

6. “we must protect our core interests. But on non-core issues, we must concede so that you have a balanced outcome, one that is durable.”

Source: http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/lunch-with-sumiko-professor-tommy-koh-on-winning-friends-and-influencing-people

I was introduced to a interesting company Isobar, which created  “an in-store activation device using neuroscience technology to create UMOOD. UNIQLO customers were fitted with a neuro-headset and shown a series of video stimuli. Their neurological responses to the stimuli were then analysed in real-time by a custom-built algorithm that identified their current mood and recommended the perfect T-shirt for them.”

Imagine, how difficult it is to choose a T-shirt that we now relegate decision making to a technology device. Kudos to the company for getting modern man out of his dilemma of too much choice.  Now I understand why Mark Zuckerberg wears the same colored T-shirt and why the Japanese used to insist on uniforms for every staff.

Are you in the same predicament? Afraid to make choices? Why?

Perhaps the best invention yet is to simplify. Or to make a choice, and stop blaming yourself. Take notes, observe your own reactions.

Perhaps we don’t take the time to understand ourselves.

https://www.isobar.com/sg/en/work/umood/

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Tales of the Malay World currently exhibiting at the NLB Bldg on 10th floor has provided me an insight into this world I am living but not submerged.

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Last night I was at the curator’s tour and some learnings caught me by surprise. Singapore was not a sleepy fishing village when Raffles arrived. While not sophisticated as major world cities like Nanjing, it boasted a history from 14th Century.

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Alexander the Great allegedly passed through. He was known as Zulkernain.

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Raffles was inspired to pick up Malay on his boat trip from UK.

Raffles chose Singapore as a port because of the Malay book “Genealogy of Kings” <em>Sukalat al-Salatin that the Forbidden Hill housed remains of the 16th century Melaka Kings or Malay Annals Sejarah Melayu.

Raffles was a collector of many things, among them Malay manuscripts which allowed the British and Dutch better idea of the locals so as to conquer them.

Singapore was not a sleepy fishing village when the British came. The Malay annals led Raffles to Singapore.

Singapore was not founded in 1819 when Raffles came with the East India Company. Its role as a port was as early as 14th century. A significant port and settlement, known as Temasek, later renamed Singapura, existed on the island of Singapore in the 14th century. Vietnamese records indicate possible diplomatic relationship between Temasek and Vietnam in the 13th century, and Chinese documents describe settlements there in the 14th century.

It lapsed into insignificance for 200 hundred years when abandoned until the British came to establish a port without antagonizing the Dutch.

Location, location, location
Point to note that despite Singapore’s strategic location, it fell out of action for 200 yrs. The Dutch did not choose Singapore for their spice trade. The late Mover, the British chose 2nd best, Singapore. Strategic advantage is highly dependent on economic relevance. 1st Mover advantage is not necessarily winner takes all. (Unfortunately for Raffles, he died in debt.)

Importance of learning lingua franca of the day, which may not be English.

Diversity and global trade have been around for a long time.

People were more open to learning from one another. Rev Keasbury obtained the help of Muslim cleric Munshi Abdullah to translate the first Malay bible. He introduced Abdullah to the printing press to produce bibles. Initially the missionaries were in Singapore enroute to China. But as that stop was closed, their attention turned to Singapore.

While the Bible was translated into Malay, the audience could have been wider, as the varied trading community spoke Malay, the lingua franca, including the Chinese. Today’s Muslim and Christian community, it appeared to me, are more sharply alienated. It didnt seem that Abdullah converted to Christianity. Yet there was a meaningful working relationship between Keasbury and Abdullah.

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A sculpture of Zhu Ge Liang诸葛亮 at the Gardens by the Bay, Singapore.

Zhuge Liang is iconised in the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, as a wise chief strategist of Liu Bei. The military strategy book “36 strategems”, contains many of his “cunning” military strategies in using minimal resources.

How Zhu GeLiang 诸葛亮 came to work for Liu Bei was dramatised in a story “3 visits to the humble straw abode” 三顾茅庐”. Zhu was a recluse who rose above petty politics. Legend goes that he could read weather conditions and wind direction, an important skill considering that wind direction can affect the flight of warships and arrows.

Liu Bei and his 2 sworn brothers Zhang Fei and Guan Yu decided to visit Zhu Ge Liang at his home in 卧龙岗 wolonggang or hidden dragan ridge。 When they travelled to his home, they saw a small boy sweeping the door who told them that Zhu was not at home.

On their second visit, they saw a youth studying and upon enquiring found that Zhu was away. Liu Bei left a letter for Zhu explaining the purpose of his visit.

On their third visit, the three men were told that Zhu was at home but sleeping. Zhang Fei, the general, wanted to wake Zhu up. But Liu Bei decided to wait. By nightfall, Zhu finally woke up.

Touched by their sincerity, Zhu agreed to work for Liu Bei.

In Chinese culture, there is no mention of the persuasive words or vision by Liu Bei that moved Zhu Ge Liang.

China, and Japan belonged to what is known as High Context Cultures (高背景文化). Here the setting, status and non verbal behaviour matter more than actual words spoken. Men of Liu Bei, Zhang Fei and Guan Yu’s stature could easily have sent Ambassadors to persuade Zhu. But Liu Bei himself came to visit Zhu. Relationship and trust are important factors.

In low context cultures, words convey facts and information and are more important in communication.

High and Low context cultures is a theory proposed by anthropologist Edward Hall.

However, is the distinction so clear between high and low context cultures? Story-tellers would imply that even in low context cultures, tone of voice and “pauses” convey meaning. Pauses – are important in conveying or emphasing a word. More is not necessarily better.

Sarcastic tone of voice vs appreciative tone.

声调变化 Change in tone can convey sincerity.

Punctuation can change the meaning of a word.

“A woman without her man is nothing”

(1) “A woman, without her man, is nothing.”

Or

(2) “A woman: without her, man is nothing.”

Indirect cultures
According to Managing across cultures by Charlene Solomon and Michael Schell, in indirect cultures, the background context is very important. It isn’t what people talk about that is important but how it is said.

People tend to be indirect. Listeners are expected to interpret statements to infer what the speaker is saying.

Speaking eloquently but indirectly is a prized art. In some societies, the idea of saving face is an essential part of information exchange. In indirect cultures, direct statements may be seen as rude.

In direct cultures or low context, people look for content not what surrounds the content. They expect all the information they need is contained in the words they use. People are direct and expect to be taken at their word.

Clarity of communicating in words is paramount. Simplicity is admired and language may be punctuated (with vulgarity) for effect.

Unlike indirect societies where saving face is essential, here saving face is not important. sometimes openly challenging someone you disagree is admired.

In a globalised world where cultures meet , our differences in perception in communication can cause misunderstandings. Lets give each other the benefit of the doubt.

Do you have similar instances in your culture where non verbal convey more than the verbal?

磨刀不误砍柴工 
mó dāo bú wù kǎn chái gōng

Grinding an axe will not hold up [delay] the work of cutting firewood. Spending time preparing your axe may quicken the speed of your work.

Story goes that two men were chopping wood. One started ahead. The second man just continued grinding his axe. The first man, very conceited, was anxious to find out who fell more trees ? It was the second man.

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Photo of Ainu carving by master wood carver Takeki Fujito in Tsuruga Wings Lake Akan, Hokkaido, Japan

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Desk of Japanese Carver Kengo at Lake Akan Ainu village

Half way through chopping, the first man’s axe had become dull and blunt and it took him more effort and time to fall one tree.

工 欲 善 其 事,必 先 利其器
gōng yù shàn qí shì,bì xiān lì qí qì

“工欲善其事,必先利其器”
孔子告诉子贡,工艺的人,要想把工作完成,应该先把工具准备好。

What then for someone who manages the state?

居是邦也
Jū shì bāng yě

事其大夫之贤者,友其士之仁者
Shì qí dàfū zhī xián zhě, yǒu qí shì zhī rénzhě

孔子说:“工匠要做好工作,必须先磨快工具。住在一个国家,要侍奉大夫中的贤人,与士人中的仁人交朋友。” 

那么为仁是用什么工具呢?住在这个国家,想对国家有所贡献,必须结交上流社会有道德的人才,乃至政坛上的大员,政府的中坚;和这个国家社会上各种贤达的人,都要交成朋友。有了良好的关系,然后才能得到有所贡献的机会,完成仁的目的。
Source: Baidu with words in italics added by me

(The Baidu translation gives the impression that Confucius advised one should network with the rich, influential and powerful. But Confuscius emphasised seeking out the benevolent ones because his disciple Zigong’s question was on benevolence (仁).

When asked by his disciple how one should prepare to manage his country benevolently, Confucius noted in the “Analects” that just as a workman has to prepare his tools, an official preparing to govern a country benevolently must prepare his tools too.

Confucius advised that (humans being social creatures), one should seek out and befriend good and respectable talent in all levels of society.

How does a knowledge worker polish his tools?

Today, Confucius would have advised us, knowledge worker, what is the tool of your trade? Have you been spending time polishing it before cutting your tree.

Translation and reinterpretation by me.