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WE ARE DIFFERENT. NOT BETTER.

east meets west

Western or Eastern ?

I’ve written before on my reflections around the cultural diversity between the West and East .… this article continues the theme hopefully with some new understanding.

Many of you know that I find Singapore a challenging place to live. Whilst it is incredibly efficient and organized, and sheathed in glamorous designer brand names, I battle with Singapore’s distinct lack of emotion.

As an African, a South African, I wear my heart on my sleeve, I like to think that I am warm and welcoming and have an open heart. So imagine my difficulty living in a country where people do not greet each other warmly, avoid eye contact, don’t say thank you when you hold open a door to let them enter, and generally ‘keep face’.

My work puts me in touch with many senior leaders and I find it sad (yes, sad) that so many Asian leaders in this country don’t now how to create relationships. Even worse, they have never thought of it as important. Because they have been taught that what matters is task, outcome, output, and efficiency. Let’s not even get onto the subject of creativity …

Against this background, I was completely taken aback this morning as I arrived at a client (a government ministry) to be greeted by the doormen and security guards. Greeted – as in ‘good morning’. Wow !

Only problem is, the greeting didn’t feel real. No eye contact. No warmth. No smile. And certainly no response when I replied “thank you, you too”. It felt like a consultant (a Western one most likely) had suggested that  greeting people in the morning would create a warmer, more welcoming environment.

And I find that so interesting. Because the longer I live in Asia, the more I realise that we cannot just transpose what we (Westerners) believe is ‘best practice’ onto an Asian culture. How condescending and colonial in the first place. But Asians – and this is a huge generalisation- are mostly introverts. And whilst I know I live in Singapore (which, as I’m constantly told, is Asia for beginners), I am fortunate to work around the region, and without getting into specifics about ethnic groups, I think the generalisation is fair. If you are familiar with the Meyers Briggs Typology, the most prevalent Type in Singapore is ISTJ. Introverts, they make sense of the world through facts, figures and data. They plan, prefer detail, are logical, methodical, analytical and organised. In my world – that’s Singapore in a nutshell.

Me. I’m a bit different. I’m an extrovert (like properly extrovert). I love talking about ideas, concepts, I trust my gut, look at the big picture first, I feel deeply and talk openly about my emotions, and I’m passionate. At times  maybe too honest and when I am fully involved, committed and fulfilled, a definite pain in the ass with my energy.

We’re different right ?

Better ?

No. Just different.

I remember arriving in Singapore and was given feedback by so many well meaning people to ‘tone it down’, to tweak my bio to appeal more to the ISTJ profile. To dress more conservatively. To fit in. And I tried so hard. For over 2 years. Earlier this year, I couldn’t any more. I just had to be me again. I had to be all of me. I had to be real and true and honest.

And that’s what I realised this morning when I watched those poor doormen doing something that was so fake. So false. So not them. They were behaving in accordance with someone else’s set of values. They were so inauthentic that I actually laughed. Out loud.

I’ll say it again. We can’t just transpose western ideas, values and ‘best practice’ onto another culture.

Look at Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In”. As a woman working with female leaders in the corporate world I loved it. I‘ve quoted it, spoken about it, referenced it in programmes  – I completely get it. But, in Asia, her concepts are somewhat unworkable. This is a patriarchal society. One of the primary paradoxes Asian women face (and I’ll write more on this topic soon), is that they are so smart and incredibly well educated – and are expected to be subservient to men and people who are senior to them. “Lean in ?” I don’t think so. It’s about as unlikely as doormen creating a warm, open, connected environment just because they were told to say ‘good morning’.

I applaud the initiatives. I honour the intention. Not just the one I have written about here. But all the work that is being done by so many well meaning people to make a change. Yet, I think it would be so much more respectful and so much more impactful for us all to become familiar with the culture and to ensure that the work we do is relevant. Be yourself. And please, let other people be themselves. Let’s use our diversity to create more. Not less.

 

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PS – If you like the visual accompanying this post, it’s by Yang Liu, a Chinese artist born in Beijing who has lived in Germany since 1990. Her graphics depict with startling simplicity the difference between East & West – click here for a few more    

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HOWZIT!

Sometimes inspiration for this blog comes from the most unlikely of places. Last Friday night my husband and I were talking about the joy of understanding colloquial language. I had just finished a coaching session via Skype to a Client in South Africa, and the Client mentioned that if he didn’t do the self-awareness work that was staring him in the face, that the ‘tokoloshe’ would still be ‘under the bed’. OMG, how to explain that to non South-Africans … basically it means that the fear / danger would still be present. My insight when recounting the story was that if I had not understood the colloquialism, it would have taken quite a bit of explanation on my Client’s part to explain the concept. And our rapport and shared experience would have been lost. I would have been ‘different’ to him, having ‘not got’ what he was saying.

And so my husband proceeded to tell me a great story about his arrival in Singapore. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of meeting James, let me just say that he is not known for his introverted nature. The man is loud ! And as is his way, he greets people effusively with a big smile in the morning. But when he started work at Ogilvy Singapore, no-one greeted him back. He initially figured that people were a bit more conservative than his Saffa counterparts, until one day he said ‘good morning’ to someone – and was greeted with a big smile and a ‘good morning James’ in return. And then the penny dropped …. Our custom is to say ‘howzit’ when we greet someone, irrespective of the time of day. It means ‘hi, how are you, I hope you have / or have had a good day, what’s up?’. But if no-one understands your colloquialism, you’re not communicating.

And that is why multi-cultural awareness is so important. I’ve just read a report by Korn/Ferry stating that one way for leaders to broaden their skills base is to work overseas. Last year, The Journal of NeuroLeadership published research on how the culturally intelligent brain not only detects – but can bridge cultural differences. And with the world becoming smaller – and business challenges more complex, I think it is critical not only for leaders, but for all global citizens to understand how to operate effectively in a globalized world.

I see it on a daily basis in my practice, as I coach leaders who are French, British, American, Swiss, Australian – and how one of their primary challenges when coming to Asia is not only understanding the Asian context and environment, but that of the myriad nationalities who live and work in Singapore. My guess is that it would be no different in New York, London or Abuja.

I hear it in my children’s voices when they easily say hello in Mandarin, French, Zulu, English or Japanese. Even if they don’t know what to say after ‘hello’, they are immersed, without knowing it, in a polyglot of cultural differences – and my wish is that they assimilate an intuitive understanding of all of them. My wish is that it makes them better global citizens, and that the lesson of multi-cultural acceptance and understanding that was born in South Africa, continues and serves them in whatever journeys they take.

This exposure to difference – different culture, different values, different food, different languages – this difference make us all so much more. There IS strength in diversity, in flexibility and in being comfortable with the new.

And life of course is so serendipitous – today I saw the great pic that ends off this post on Feel Good Lifestyle’s facebook page. Not all of us can experience working and studying abroad; not all of us want that experience. But we can all travel. If not you – encourage your children to.

And if you ever meet me and I say ‘howzit’, know that I’m simply saying ‘hello & I care about you’ in another language.

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