Do you make this mistake when working with different cultures – especially when you travel on a business trip to “their”country?
I’m in Singapore at the moment training organisations – including training on international communication. I mainly cover international differences in language, and even how different places express dates and different cultural attitudes towards authority and business hierarchy.
Anyway, a big difference I’ve noticed between Singaporean culture and “Western” business culture is the attitude towards food and family – yes food and taking time for socialising!
The mistake I originally made was not adjusting enough to what was important to my Singaporean audience.
If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me “Did you have a good lunch?” and “What are you having for lunch?” – I could buy my own plane. (well a slight exaggeration – maybe a plane ticket!) I asked a local exec about this and he said it was a common polite conversation starter because food and eating is so important to the Singaporean culture.
So is family and asking about your family. In a previous post from a previous trip, I wrote about how Westerners will often work through lunch and not want to “waste time” with small talk and not discuss private things like family.
So this trip, I’ve restructured my training by:
1. including in my presentation a slide of my family (I wouldn’t do this for a Western Presentation)
2. factoring in time for pleasant “small talk” – rather than rushing to the business stuff
3. making sure I take time to eat and enjoy lunch – so I can respond briefly to their lunch questions – complimenting Singaporean food of course(!) , and
4. asking others “Have you had your lunch yet?” and “Did you have a good lunch?”
Normally I wouldn’t care what people had for lunch! – but hey, When in Rome…
Here’s the original post:
I’m forever indebted to the Asian businessman who gave me some great advice when he heard I was regularly training organisations in Singapore.
I’ve been travelling to Singapore since 2005 on training trips to help Western and Asian audiences improve the way they work with, present to and write to each other.
The Asian businessman who gave me the good advice was experienced with both the Western Corporate culture and Singaporean ways. Even though Singapore is heavily Westernized, you will benefit from showing some cultural awareness and sensitivity.
- Don’t get between Singaporeans and their food – Don’t make Singaporeans late for lunch and definitely don’t make them work through lunch
- Share with your audience about your family – especially your children
I took this valuable advice and it really helped me:
1. create a greater connection with my audience and
2. avoid annoying them.
From my Western business background I would have seen working through lunch as a sign of my commitment to the task. Quick desk-dining was seen as a badge of honour and taking lunch could be seen as a “soft”.
Now when I work training Singaporeans, I make sure I structure my training around their lunch. In the past I would have a quick snack and then work through lunch (catching up on e-mails etc. during the lunch break) but now as I am often invited to join my Singaporean colleagues for lunch – I take the time to bond over food. It’s worth it.
Also, regarding family, Westerners usually keep their private lives out of business – especially business presentations. I took the advice and even inserted some photos of my family (especially my children) near the start my presentations and this created greater connection and rapport with my audience.
When working in another country and culture, it’s vital to understand that the “Western way” is not the only way.
In turn, I help my Singaporean audiences be aware of Western sensitivities.
I advise them to tread carefully about discussing how old Westerners are and how many children they have.
In Asia, people often ask about your age because age is often respected more than it is in Western business culture and they ask about age to ascertain your “status”. I also explain regarding children that not all Western business people choose to or are able to have children – so it’s a sensitive topic to ask (unless or until you know someone has children).
One of the funniest comments I found was when some Singaporean colleagues asked me about the cultural differences between Americans, Australians, Brits and Irish. They sincerely confided: “You all look the same to us!”
In a future post, I’ll share tips on how to present to Asian audiences.