To the first-time International Assignee to Singapore - or Asia for that matter - the mere thought of experiencing a wholly different culture is daunting enough. In addition to putting in his best work performance so as to make his expatriation experience worthwhile.
All is not lost if the Assignee has made thorough preparations before his transfer. For instance, the following digestible tips that he could take note of when liaising or communicating with Singaporeans. Although Singaporeans generally speak English with varying proficiency standards; the Assignee is advised to exercise due care given the cultural differences.
Small-talk is one of the most common traits observed by business communities across Southeast Asia. It also takes place between parties who meet for the first time. Making small-talk may be seen as a pointless time-wasting exercise for some Western executives. However, to Asians, engaging in small-talk is a form of establishing long-term collaborative relationship. Besides, it is also a way of establishing rapport and trust.
Topics ranging from asking after the Assignee's family to if he has gone on holiday/vacation. However, unlike their Asian counterparts elsewhere, Singaporeans are not as intrusive as they go for safer topics like the weather. Neither do they discuss any topic at length; it is usually about 10 to 15 minutes thereabouts. Singaporeans are pressed for time that is why.
2. Business Cards
Business cards in Asia serve as an extension of the person's business reputation. Hence, the ritual-like exchange whereby the cards are presented and received with both hands simultaneously - it takes some practice to do so. The trick is by holding the top corners/part of one's card with name facing the receiver. And then receiving the counterpart's with the left hand when both cards "meet".
The Assignee could show interest towards his counterpart by studying the card for a moment and then asking questions relating to their business or work. If this takes place during a formal meeting, the card is placed on the table to the Assignee's right for referencing purposes.
Last but not least, the Assignee ought to take note of the following:
[a] Never put the card inside his shirt pocket immediately; or trouser/pants back pocket as this gesture is deemed disrespectful towards his counterpart. That is, he is literally sitting on them - the horror.
[b] Never write on his counterpart's business card as this implies he is defacing the card
3. Saving Face / Loss of Face
There is a subtle difference between these two phrases as described in the following scenarios:
[a] Saving face - a long-running dispute between two departments whose members do not wish to bring the matter up to their respective supervisors. Else they appear as difficult or petulant they do their utmost to "save face".
[b] Loss of Face - scribbling onto a Singaporean's [especially ethnic Chinese] business card in his presence will cause him to "lose face". I made this mistake several years ago at my first job. I innocently jotted down the person's particulars on the back of her business card, completely oblivious to her stare. And here I was wondering why.
4. Non-Confrontational Stance
It is Singaporeans' aversion to "losing face" - or inclination for "face saving" - that they come across as non-confrontational. Even if a conflict arises over trivial matters, they would rather save the other party's face instead of thrashing out the issue. Such behaviour may appear difficult or strange for the Assignee to grasp.
However, Singaporeans believe in achieving results together collectively, hence their preference for a harmonious work relationship. It can also be said that they do not have a propensity to kick up a huge fuss.
Similarly, any wrongdoing committed by the Assignee's peers or staff should be discussed behind closed doors. Rather than risking a "face losing" episode by confronting - or embarrassing - the wrong-doer loudly in the common area. They may turn out to be not guilty.
5. Hierarchical Structure / Deference to Authority
The top-down management philosophy is practiced in Singapore whereby respect is automatically accorded to a "senior". Thus, if the Assignee arrives with management responsibilities, he is expected to make important decisions which are deferred to him. Unless he works in a Multinational Enterprise, the egalitarian approach is a fairly foreign concept to Singaporeans.
To be brought into the company - or Singapore for that matter - means there is no local equivalent or "talent" for the job. The Assignee is held in high regard and considered as an unrivalled expert in his field as a result. Additional pressure on him to succeed in his assignment!
Consequently, knowledge-sharing amongst or between himself and his subordinates or peers is near non-existent. Secondly, for the Assignee to elicit opinion or suggestion is to lower himself to the level of his peers or employees - or "losing face".
6. Consensual Decision-Making
As discussed above with regard to deference to authority; and their non-confrontational stance that Singaporeans appreciate consensual decision-making. Especially amongst peers or if it is a matter that involves the entire department.
For instance, someone in the department suggests a coffee percolator so that everyone could brew a cuppa. His colleagues are expected to be asked for their opinion or agreement so that they can all reach consensus. Even if it pertains to the percolator brand. There may be those who do not agree, but go along all the same just to maintain peace and harmony.
7. "What would you like to drink? Water?"
Most long-term expatriates in Singapore are aware of this intriguing question that they practice it too, such that it becomes second nature to them. Likewise, guests to Singaporean - regardless of ethnicity - homes are asked same. A guest having travelled a distance is deemed thirsty - especially in tropical countries like Singapore - thus a drink is proffered.
Singaporeans would ask guests their beverage preferences like coffee, tea or simply a glass of water. In other words, a warm gesture of welcome that surely makes guests comfortable; or putting them at ease.
It is not too difficult to master the Business Etiquette of a particular country or culture as expounded on this article. All it takes for the International Assignee is an appreciation of the workings of each practice as featured. He clearly has an edge over his peers in the long run when he eventually becomes adept at the intricacies.
Bear in mind though that what appears weird and idiosyncratic to him, his very own practices will appear exactly same to his hosts. To "Do as the Romans Do" is certainly more relevant than ever in today's increasingly diverse and global workplace.