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When in Rome….

Posted by Vivian Wong on September 9, 2008


“Half of the world is composed of people who have something to say and can’t, and the other half who have nothing to say but keep on saying it.” – Robert Frost

Photo taken in Oman

Food Court @ Oman

Since we all live and work in an increasingly global environment, I thought I should share some the interesting “facts” I have learned over the years – hopefully you will either find them amusing or helpful in managing your culturally diverse workforce:

Numbers:

  • 4 is a bad luck number for the Chinese (same pronunciation as death) – so you may want to think twice about giving your employee a pay raise of $4444.
  • 13 is a bad luck number for the Western culture but it is actually a good luck number for the Chinese.
  • 8 is a bad luck number for the Hindus – but it is a good luck number for the Chinese.
  • 9 is a good luck number for the Hindus.

Respect:

  • It is considered disrespectful and rude if you enter an Asian household (including Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Hindus etc) with your shoes on. You should always at least pretend to leave your shoes at the door and only put them back on if the hosts are wearing shoes inside their house and insist that you put them back on. The same with “entering” someone else’s house – don’t go into the house unless they invite you to.
  • In Asia, it’s disrespectful to disagree with your boss – especially in public. Subordinates are typically fearful of management. This is one of the many reasons why it can be very difficult to get your asia-born team members to speak up or share THEIR ideas especially in a group setting. They are either afraid of you or they are afraid of being “wrong” or “look stupid”. (“Face” i.e. looking good is very important.) I remember as a kid, I was taught to “Listen before your speak” and I was also warned to “speak carefully and accurately”. Another tip – no matter how much your employees may dislike you or your ideas, they may never tell that to your face; instead they may simply smile at you – out of courtesy. (The secret to having them open up to you is to earn their trust.)
  • Elders in Asian countries are highly respected. If they are significantly older than you, you should address them as grandma or grandpa (even if you are not related to them) or address them as uncle and auntie if they are about your parents age.
  • In Australia, it’s fine to make fun of our prime minister; while in the US and the rest of the world, it’s fine to laugh at endless Bush jokes. Laugh at a Chinese official and you could be behind bars before you even know it. (As a kid in China, we were taught to dob in anyone (including our own parents) should they make disrespectful gestures or comments (accidentally or not) about officials. My father once accidentally used Chinese newspaper to wrap a cabbage and later discovered  there was a photo of Chairman Mao on the other side of the paper – he broke out in cold sweat even though no one else was around.)
  • At the risk of stating the obvious, job titles are extremely important in the Asian culture. If you HAVE to choose between a pay raise and a promotion, promotion may be more impactful than pay raises if you are working with Asians in their native countries. (Of course in the Western culture, money sometimes speaks louder than job titles.) 
  • Middle Eastern people consider it an insult to show the soles of your feet while seated facing your host – so do not place your feet on a chair or cross your legs in such a way that you are showing the bottom of your feet!

Tradition:

  • A Hindu father should touch his newborn baby with gold – because gold is the noblest of all metals. (I wonder what the locals in Hyderabad thought of me when I visited my team there 6 months ago since I don’t wear much gold.)
  • In China, it’s regarded poor etiquette to pile up your own plate or bowl with lots of food at the beginning of a meal (when dining with a Chinese family or your colleagues) – they may not say anything but they may think you are being rude and selfish. It’s OK if THEY pile it on your plate (out of courtesy) but you should refrain from grabbing more than your next few bites.
  • Don’t buy white flowers for your Chinese date or her family – unless they are dead. (In China, white flowers are primarily used for paying respect to those who have passed away.)

Language barriers:

  • Same word may have different meanings for different English speaking countries. I learned this the hard way 9 years ago. I was asked to visit one of our clients in New Jersey and when I asked about the dress code, my VP said “smart business attire”. I jokingly said: “No thongs then?” With a big smirk on his face, he said:’You could. The client would be very happy if you do.” (OK – so I grew up in Australia, and when we say “thongs”, we mean “sandals” or “flip flops”. It is not a little piece of sexy under garment.)
  • In Australia, if someone says:
  1. “like a pickpocket at a nudist camp” – it means they are out of place.
  2. “they are in the cactus”, it means they are in trouble. (Quite a visual)
  3. “couldn’t last a round in a revolving door” – it means someone is incompetent.
  4. “they are happy as a boxing kangaroo in a fog” – it means they are depressed.
  5. “flat-out like lizard drinking” – it means they are too busy and “buggered”.
  6. if someone calls you or your employee a “singsong”, “Wally”, “dingbat”, “dingdong” – they are calling you “an idiot”. (Pick your battle!)
  7. “tired and emotional” – it means they are drunk
  8. “like a possum up a gum tree” – it means they are supremely happy. (Hopefully that’s how your employees describe their job satisfaction!)

11 Responses to “When in Rome….”

  1. Louise Barnfield said

    Thanks for some reminders and some new info too, Vivian. As globalisation took off some years back there was a flurry of cultural training for globe-trotting employees, but it seems not so much in the limelight these days. Yet it’s still very important, if not more so, as we become more used to living in a cultural mix and more easily forget that these kinds of differences really matter and deserve respect.
    12 years ago, I was in Tokyo with 2 others, rolling out a new product suite to a group of 20, all male, all Japanese. Ironically we three were all female, which was another potential cultural hurdle at the time. Luckily, I was also forewarned of the “Face” issue you mentioned.
    It was important for us that the sessions were interesting, informative and HIGHLY interactive, so, when we couldn’t encourage individuals to speak out or ask questions, I worked a plan my 2 female colleagues, and we planted questions among ourselves…eventually the team warmed to what we were doing and felt more comfortable joining in. It was an enormously successful trip, but only because we’d been made aware of those all important cultural differences and figured out a style of learning that worked for that specific group.
    I still treasure the set of exquisitely painted chopsticks that I was given at the end of that class. Guess that’s another cultural difference – I can’t remember getting too many chopsticks (or equivalents) from the many British training classes I’ve run!🙂

  2. Vivian Wong said

    @ Louise – Thanks for sharing your experience Louise! Culture awareness is key to success when you are working with a different culture and you guys clearly did a brilliant job at Tokyo! Congrats – what a rewarding experience!

    @ All – Someone just asked me what “dob in” means and it made me realize it may not be commonly used here in the US. So if you are curious – “Dob-in” means “turning someone in”.

  3. Meg Bear said

    I had an interesting experience on my first business trip to Mexico City. It was my first experience of feeling like a minority (not a lot of blue eyes/blond hair/fair skin) and I found that I was one of the only females in the business setting. As such, everyone wanted to let me go first, which was more then a little awkward as I NEVER know where I’m going. Essentially, I’d take two steps, stop and wait for some clue how to continue, always hoping that they would just take the lead. After awhile I realized they were trying to be polite!

    My trip to India had me uncomfortable with the level of service I was given. I couldn’t understand why people would not let me clear my own plate, get my own drinks, etc.

    I have been very fortunate in my life to have worked with people who have given me credit for my intentions if not always my actual behavior (and not only for cultural mistakes but foot-in-mouth ones as well).

    FWIW in the US “flip flops” were also called thongs up until the 80’s….

  4. J said

    Curious about how come you referred to everyone else by their nationalities – Chinese1, Japanese, Korean or ethnicities like Middle Eastern, but only mentioned Hindus from India?

  5. Vivian Wong said

    @ J: thanks for asking! No logical reason🙂 – because it is by no means a complete list but more of a random list of things I have learned. I think Indian culture deserves a separate blog on its own – stay tuned!

  6. Sal said

    I recognize the Arabic letters. They spelled and pronounced “kat-shoub wa sou-sah al-mal-you-niz” — Ketchup and sauces of mayonnaise.

  7. Vivian Wong said

    @ Sal – Wow! Thank you so much for the translation!

  8. Dave Dresselhouse said

    Great article Vivian!
    Since living in Asia on and off the past few years, I have a few to add specific to Thai and/or Buddhist culture:

    The head is the most respected part of the body. Never touch another person’s head. The Western gesture of rubbing a child’s head to show affection is frowned upon here. When walking in front of an elder, try to duck down so that your head is lower than theirs – this is a gesture of respect. Conversely, the feet are the lowest part of the body (literally and figuratively). When sitting, never point your feet at another person, and never use your feet to gesture or point at something. Never, ever have your feet higher than another person’s head.

    When seeing a new baby for the first time, never comment on how beautiful it is. On the contrary, you should make note that it’s an ugly baby. If the spirits hear you say that it’s a beautiful baby, they may snatch it away for their own.

    In Thailand, the King is almost a deity (and the longest reigning monarch in the world). Anything said about the royal family that could in any way be interpreted as negative can land you in jail on a violation of the “lese majeste” laws. Currently, a newspaper is in big trouble for printing a picture of the King lower on the page than a local politician.

    Many women will refer to their female friends or co-workers as their sister. Sometimes it’s difficult to know who’s really in the same family!

    Thais hate to say “I don’t know” when asked a question. Many times, if they don’t know the answer, they’ll just make something up. This is about saving face, and is perfectly acceptable. If they end their answer with a Thai world that sounds like “sure” (which loosely translates to “believe me”), then it’s probably a good answer. Generally, it’s always a good idea to ask several different people for directions when you’re lost!

    In Thailand, the typical local greeting is “have you eaten yet?”. The proper response for family is to answer honestly, while non-family members should generally answer “yes” whether or not they’re hungry. A “no” response will usually be met with a meal.

  9. Meg Bear said

    great list Dave, good to “hear” from you, we think of you often here in TalentedApps. I don’t know how you can survive without kissing the heads of babies and calling them beautiful, guess I’ll just have to avoid seeing any babies when I visit Thailand😉

  10. Mo said

    So when I came to the US for graduate studies I did not know that US English was very different from British English…grad students are really stretched for cash and I did not have an alarm clock then and I still remember the look my roommate gave me when I asked him to knock me up in a couple of hours….(Just to make it clear, I wanted to be woken up in a couple of hours🙂 )

    And then there was this incident when I asked for a rubber (Indian English: Rubber == eraser) to erase something I had written with a pencil in the International Students Office …That took some xplaining !

    And of course when a ‘Randy’ introduced himself to me saying ‘I am Randy…’ I didn’t say it out loud but did wonder why he was (Look it up in the dictionary please!)🙂

  11. Santhi Kiran said

    I would like to share a funny incident that happened with my first employer. I still remember it was my first day in the office where all the new joiners need to meet the Project Manager. On the scheduled time all the team members went to meet him at his office (All the new joiners knew each other from the past 1 month as we are all in the training). My PM was searching and rechecking with the list and the new joiners. After some time He raised a doubt that he is expecting 6 men and 4 women to report but we were 7 men and 3 women present there. He was confused on this.

    I gave a quick guess that he would have confused by my name (I was experiencing this from my childhood). My name is ‘Santhi Kiran’ but looking at my name most of them think that ‘I’m a female…’ As usual my PM also confused that day… Then he rechecked the list and the resources and it was my name where he got confused. So it made all of us to laugh🙂.

    I strongly believe that one should be very clear before addressing the person whom we don’t know.

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