Cross-cultural tête-à-tête over noodles

Noodle

I recently had lunch with a Hong Kong Chinese friend, a seasoned executive who’s worked in MNC’s for a number of years, we caught up on a new job he’d recently taken. He’s settled into the role well enough, and I asked how he and his new [Western] boss get along.

He said it was a pretty good rapport, he liked him quite a bit. They both travel extensively, and while he wished there was more one-on-one time, he knows it will happen over time. So all in all, so far so good.

He then added: “But I have to tell you, I don’t think he has a lot of patience. That’s my observation so far.”

“Could be”, I said. (I know his boss well enough, and have always considered him fairly even keeled–although we all have our moments).

I asked him why, and his answer was cross-culturally revealing

“I saw how truly short tempered he can be when we had a lunch a couple of months ago, a few weeks after I started.”

“What did he do?”

“One of the overseas bosses was in town, so the three of us went to lunch. I hadn’t met this boss face to face, so it was a good opportunity for me.”

“And?”

“We went to a Chinese restaurant, probably not the best choice. It was at the end of the Chinese New Year, and people were still having their lunch banquets, so it was still pretty busy and chaotic.”

“What happened?”

“Well, nothing really. We had to wait over 30 minutes to get served, and I could see his face blackening. I have to tell you, it made me very uncomfortable to watch him and just be with him. And then he was demanding better service from the manager. It was pretty awkward and I got very uncomfortable. He’s lived in Asia long enough, and during Chinese New Year time everything is hectic at the restaurants. Not much patience. You know what I mean?”

I told him I understood, but then just laughed. But caught myself and gave him a quick reply:

“I know exactly what you mean. But if it had been me, I would have turned five different colours, guaranteed. If I’d had my boss with me, scheduled a business lunch and ended up with slow service, regardless of the time of year, that would have made me crazy. I’m not excusing him, but I would have been worse than he was. The big boss probably wanted to eat somewhere local, and it didn’t quite work out. But everyone wants the visiting boss to have a hassle free time.”

He looked at me and nodded, although not sure I convinced him. It was actually an innocuously small part of the conversation, and got me thinking..

Having lived in Asia for a good stretch of time, I sometimes forget the cross- cultural beginning steps, how West and East view each other in the office, and that important distinction between one’s personality and one’s culture.

It is easy to hide behind either culture or personality when things are amiss, the “That’s who I am” to the “That’s how we (culture) are.” None of us are radically different. We all aspire to similar professional and personal goals, regardless of language or culture. Life–and drama–are in the details.

Here are my ‘details’, a few notes to colour in some of those cross-culturally twisted wires, and am using my own profile from early days off the boat..

Westerner:

  • Someone who can often be overly confident, quick to decide, impatient for answers and solutions, a can-do attitude of ‘nothing is impossible’, it just takes a bit longer’. Often the focus is on the job to be done, the task, rather than the relationships necessary to succeed.
  • Can often work collaboratively, but can also chafe against teams, prefering individual accountability. Indeed, a visibly personal relationship in some US MNC’s today may be monitored more closely to ensure no biases or favoritisms.
  • Outside their home country viewed as ‘let’s get the job done’ whereas in other cultures, (besides Asia) the ‘let’s get the relationships right’ may be the first task. Depends..

West and East can–and do–often look past each other, the biases we all have, of ethnicity, culture, appearance and personality.

Also, Westerners can often be notoriously fast talkers outside their home country. If a native English speaker does nothing else in Asia other than articulate more clearly, it would be a huge step forward. I recently spoke to an American who moved to Singapore a year ago to take up an Asia Pacific role. We touched upon that very topic, coincidentally.

“When I first moved out here, someone else besides you told me the importance of articulating. At the time, I didn’t give it a thought; most of the people in our company globally speak English well enough. So, I was on a regional road show earlier this year and remembered that comment.

When I spoke to the regional offices, I really tried to slow it down, which was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. It didn’t come naturally and quite honestly, it didn’t sound like me at all. But afterwards I had a number of people thank me for being so clear and concise to them!

I was shocked, honestly. It worked, and I thought I was really just ‘dumbing-down’ everything. But I wasn’t, and the messages got through much clearer than had I gone at my normal pace and barrelled along.”

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