A Guide to Understanding Etiquette & the Working Culture in Asia13 Nov 2022
Asia is home to over 4.7 billion people. To put this into perspective, approximately two-thirds of the world’s population lives in Asia, which makes Asia one of the most populous continents in the world. In the last few decades, Asia has shown accelerated economic growth, which has led it to become one of the most fast-moving, creative, innovative, and competitive places in the world to work.
Due to its fast-paced nature, there are huge opportunities for various businesses in all shapes and sizes to grow successfully. Aside from its significant economic potential, Asia is the number one destination for people worldwide for its beautiful environment, rich cultures, and more. With so much to offer, it’s no surprise that many people fall in love with Asia and want to build a life here.
Although you may love the cultural differences you’ve come across in terms of food, fashion, and lifestyle in Asia, navigating through the different cultural differences in the workplace can be difficult, confusing, and even shocking at times.
In this article, we’ll highlight some of the differences between Asian and Western working cultures and environments, as well as how you can make your assimilation easier and smoother for yourself and your colleagues.
The Differences between Asian Work Culture & Western Work Culture
When moving to a different country, especially a different country on a completely different continent, you’re going to run into differences, whether it’s differences in your ideology, beliefs, or simple things like habits and personalities.
Here are a few differences you can expect if you’re moving to Asia for work:
1. The Concept of Saving “Face”
If you’ve never been to Asia before or worked around Asian people, you may not have heard of the concept of “face.” Of all the concepts of differences between Asian work cultures and social norms, knowing and understanding the concept of “face” will greatly help you reduce friction and potential conflict between you and your work colleagues or even your boss.
The concept of “face” refers to one’s personal sense of esteem, honor, dignity, and prestige. It directly impacts how you are seen by others in Asia. When someone feels like they have lost “face” in Asia, they are often referring to how they have been made to feel embarrassed, humiliated, or disrespected, which can happen due to several reasons.
Let’s look at a few different ways you can gain “face” and avoid losing “face” in Asia:
2. The Hierarchy System
In most cultures, you would tend to give more respect to those who are senior or older than you. For example, in families, you would generally respect your elder siblings more. However, that value is even stronger in Asian culture.
In Asia, it is not normal to disrespect the elder generation, this disrespect can come in the form of defying commands, talking back, or arguing with someone more senior, and it can even be considered impolite to address them by their first name – something that is very common in the West.
For those entering a new company for the first time, especially if you are young, you will be considered a junior regardless of how much experience you may think you have. Asians tend to respect those who are older or more senior than them. So, you must be careful about your office culture when joining a new company.
If you need to contradict your bosses or colleagues older than you, we recommend that you do it discreetly and politely so that they avoid losing “face,” which can create tension in the office.
3. The Communication Style
In the West, people tend to be more direct, straightforward, or even blunt in their communication, which can be seen as aggressive in the Asian work culture. Although there are benefits to this straightforward way of communication, in Asia, it can be detrimental and can make people shut down and withdraw from the conversation entirely.
In the Asia work culture, people prefer more indirect paths in communication and negotiation, with a high level of politeness and respect coupled with it. Knowing and understanding these differences in communication styles will ensure you find a good middle ground in negotiations or any problem-solving process.
Tips for Navigating Through The Differences
Now that you have a better understanding of the importance of saving “face”, respecting seniority, and the differences in communication styles in Asia, it’s time to learn how to navigate specific scenarios you’ll encounter in the workplace.
1. Punctuality in the workplace
In the Asian working culture, if you’re on time, it means you’re already late. Punctuality is a sign of respect in many different cultures around the world, but it is especially important when you work in Asia.
Avoid showing up to work or meetings late and leaving early, as it can be seen as disrespectful, unprofessional, and rude. Whether you’re a manager, an employee, or the CEO, being late makes people waste their precious time and other resources that could be used elsewhere. It also shows people that you don’t care about accountability.
In every type of scenario, not just in the workplace, punctuality makes you look good. It shows that you have the responsibility and professionalism to plan for contingencies. It also shows that you value other people’s time and effort. Thus, being punctual increases your credibility and reputation at work.
2. Building trust and relationships
Making small talk is a crucial part of developing trust and maintaining relationships when you work in Asia. You can easily start up a conversation with your new work colleagues by breaking the ice with simple phrases in their native language, choose lighthearted topics to discuss, or just simply asking them about their hobbies. Avoid talking about religion and politics though.
3. Showing respect during conversations
As we previously mentioned, communication styles will be completely different in the East compared to the West. When meeting or talking to somebody for the first time in Asia, it is a good idea to watch what your counterpart does first, either shake hands, or bow to show your respect. Anything more than shaking hands is generally too intimate and uncomfortable for many people in Asia, so don’t initiate unnecessary physical contact unless the other person does first.
4. Decision-making processes
As you will soon learn, the decision-making process in Asia flows from the top and downwards. In this hierarchical management style, the power and decision-making generally remain with those at the top, such as your boss or manager. Power gradually decreases the further you are down in the hierarchy.
Top-down management has its ups and downs. For example, the advantage of top-down management during the implementation of a new system is that it can be smoother and less contentious since there is only one clear vision and path that leaves no room for ambiguity. However, top-down management can discourage innovation and proactivity in the workplace as people may feel like there is “no point” in doing more than what is asked of them.
The Importance of Understanding & Respecting Different Cultures
Cultures vary from country to country, if we could all learn and understand more about other cultures, and respect their values and beliefs, we would be able to build a closer relationship and have a better understanding of one another. The most important thing is to treat everyone with respect, and accept that others may define “respect” differently.
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