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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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