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
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:
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.)
- 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:
- “like a pickpocket at a nudist camp” – it means they are out of place.
- “they are in the cactus”, it means they are in trouble. (Quite a visual)
- “couldn’t last a round in a revolving door” – it means someone is incompetent.
- “they are happy as a boxing kangaroo in a fog” – it means they are depressed.
- “flat-out like lizard drinking” – it means they are too busy and “buggered”.
- if someone calls you or your employee a “singsong”, “Wally”, “dingbat”, “dingdong” – they are calling you “an idiot”. (Pick your battle!)
- “tired and emotional” – it means they are drunk
- “like a possum up a gum tree” – it means they are supremely happy. (Hopefully that’s how your employees describe their job satisfaction!)