Expectations are that Asia will overtake the US as the largest global consumer market in the next couple of decades.
The Asian Development Bank reported in 2020, that growth prospects for Asia are continuing to strengthen with expected increases of 7.2% for 2021.
By 2050, it is widely believed that Asia will account for over 50% of the world’s GDP.
For businesses driving long term strategies, these forecasts position Asia as a valuable trade target and, as a result, businesses are increasingly relocating staff to the region to scope, shape and drive expansion projects.
Cultural Challenges of Living & Working in Asia
Relocating to Asia, however, is not necessarily straightforward however, as expats are typically presented with a number of challenges - the most prominent of which is the need for cross-cultural training and understanding.
Expats who travel to Asia in the absence of any kind of cross-cultural training are more likely to find their assignment is less productive and impacted by poor relationships and misunderstandings.
A recent relocation study conducted by Commisceo Global from a pool of clients found ‘Cultural and language differences’ as one of the key concerns for expats relocating to Asia.
The study also found that expats relocating to Asia are more likely to request cross-cultural training prior to transitioning into their new role.
Companies operating globally recognise that cultural understanding is critical to ensuring that their staff adapt effectively to their new environment and that they get the best out of the opportunities with which they are presented.
Let’s look at some of the key factors which are essential elements of the cross-cultural training agenda for expats relocating to Asia:
The Concept of Face:
Although the concept of ‘face’ is odd to western cultures, it plays a key role in many other cultures, particularly within Asia and the Middle East. The concept of ‘face’ can by understood as honour or reputation and it is something that individuals (and those within their respective group) will make great efforts to protect.
Face extends not only to the individual themselves but also to those within their close family or friendship group. If one individual loses face, then this loss extends to those within their group also. Criticising somebody openly or challenging them in front of others, for example, are behaviours that may cause someone to lose face. Equally, singling out a single member of a group and praising them can also cause an individual to lose face as it erodes the contributions of their teammates. In a collective and team-driven environment, this would not be perceived well.
This example is illustrated well by a manufacturing company that commissioned Commisceo Global to provide training during a negotiation process that wasn’t progressing to plan. When dissecting the history and events of the negotiation, it became clear that those negotiating on behalf of the manufacturing company had used western tactics within the negotiation and had made efforts to play hardball.
During the negotiation, the western team had overtly and directly stated that they weren’t happy with the negotiation position of their Japanese counterparts. These behaviours (and related behaviours) distanced the Japanese team who subsequently deemed the western team untrustworthy.
Although cultural training is a fantastic investment for any international project, it is less effective when applied during a crisis situation and, unfortunately, so much trust was lost that the Japanese called off the negotiations.
The Culture of Communication:
Face also extends to Asian communication styles. In an effort to protect the face of others and, out of respect for their counterparts, individuals are typically incredibly polite and refrain from criticising or saying anything that may cause offence. Although Asian counterparts understand these behaviours and are adept at ‘reading between the lines’, it can be a source of considerable confusion for Westerners.
Take for example a Westerner engaged in a meeting with an Asian counterpart. The Asian counterpart may overtly say ‘yes’ to something and their Western counterpart may interpret this as a ‘yes’. However, individuals in Asia may use the word to denote ‘maybe’ or ‘I’m not sure’. The word ‘yes’ in this situation has been applied purely to ensure that the Western counterpart is not offended.
The role of communication, therefore, plays a significant role in cross-cultural training and individuals are guided towards reading between the lines and interpreting the context and body language of their Asian counterparts.
The Role of Hierarchy:
Many Asian societies, such as the Chinese, subscribe to the Confucian philosophy and, as such, hierarchy is typically an overt part of Asian business structures. Confucianism places great emphasis on the obligations due to others based on the status of the individual with whom one is interacting.
To give an example, those who are older deserve unquestioned respect and obedience, deference is due to employees who may be older and within families, filial piety is essential. These sentiments are also incredibly important in Japanese, Thai and Indian cultures.
It is essential, therefore, that Westerners are able to interact effectively within such a hierarchy and that they pay due respect where needed. If entering a business meeting, then efforts to greet the eldest attendee should be made, followed by those of higher professional work status. Expats from the West should also be aware that employees in Asia are more likely to expect direction and defer decision making to those in more senior positions.
The Mix Between Business and Personal Life:
Asian societies are unquestionably relationship-based and the distinction between personal and business life that exists in the West is typically an alien concept in Asia.
When doing business, Asian counterparts like to build up a personal relationship with those with whom they will be working. Expats moving to Asia must therefore be prepared to share personal information.
The more information they share with an individual, the closer the Asian counterpart deems the relationship to be. It is essential that expats moving to Asia don’t bat personal questions away as their counterparts will deduce from this that the individual doesn’t want to build their relationship. As a consequence, this may impact trust.
For those relocating to Asia, the need for cultural training cannot be overemphasised. Whether the training is formally delivered via a qualified cross-cultural trainer or, time is spent dissecting the experiences of returning expats or reading relevant literature, ensure that you give yourself the best possible foundations to make the assignment a success. The investment of time spent prior to the assignment will pay huge dividends!