While there are some commonalities in nuances in Asian cultures, there are many things that are so different that we could be living on another planet. As someone who has worked and interacted with people in workplaces across Singapore, the Philippines, South Korea and India, here is a look at some ways of working that are different—subtly or significantly.

It’s black or it’s white

It was a good first day at the office for Craig who had just moved to Singapore from India. A few things took him by pleasant surprise. Like when he asked his secretary Irene to help with airline and hotel reservations for the forthcoming medical conference as well as referrals for a real estate agent. Within the hour, Irene was back with updates: trip bookings were done, she had secured names of real estate agents and wanted to check if she should schedule them to meet Craig the next day. Craig wasn’t surprised at the speed and efficiency of the way this was done—this was after all, Singapore. What impressed him was the way instructions were understood and then executed to the letter, something he struggled with sometimes in India.

Relationship at work are important for Filipinos. Photo: Reuters
Relationship at work are important for Filipinos. Photo: Reuters

Them and us: Both the Indian and Singaporean way of doing things have their pros and cons. Make no mistake—while Craig’s Indian team was superintelligent and high-performing, it had its own way of operating. It didn’t always follow instructions to the T. While it’s good to get additional perspectives and information, at times one just wants things done quickly, no questions asked or advice offered. In Singapore offices, employees execute tasks and comply with instructions well. Also, in the city-state, communication is often cut and dried with a preference for things to be clear. As long as instructions are clear, and deliverables defined, life is good. Indians, on the other hand, are better equipped than most to navigate their way in nebulous territory.

Work and play

Some years ago, there was a popular tagline for an advertising campaign to boost tourism in the Philippines, which had this tagline: “It’s more fun in the Philippines’!" As someone who lived there for a few years, I can attest to this.

Singaporeans are efficient and follow instructions. Photo: Bloomberg
Singaporeans are efficient and follow instructions. Photo: Bloomberg

The fun factor is an extension of the accent on food, families and festivals. Bonding happens and work gets done over food, typically endless pizzas, doughnuts and Starbucks coffee (not surprising, given the country’s American influences). Christmas is hugely significant and cities start gearing up for it from October.

The personal touch is an important constituent of working and living there. This is important in other places too; universally, people want to feel valued and cared for but in the Philippines, this element is more pronounced. It stands to reason then that taking the time and effort to build good work relationships with colleagues is an important aspect of getting work done in the Philippines. The adage “the team that plays together stays together" is particularly relevant in this society.

Them and us: In India, like in the Philippines, the personal connect is a factor in getting work done. Given the ingrained hierarchical mindset, in India, an assertive or aggressive stance often gets the job done. However, this approach seldom works in the Philippines, given the Filipinos’ sensitive nature. For many Indians, work takes up a large share of their time and mind space, and working is not off limits over the weekend. This spillover is less prevalent in the Philippines, where in general there is a preference to keep the professional separate from the personal.

Surviving stress

If food is a great way to bond with Filipinos, in South Korea it’s taken to another level. Here socialization in the form of team dinners are a big deal and it is accepted—and expected that these be regularly held. After all, they help in alleviating the stress created by working at a relentless pace.

Indians are good at navigating nebulous territory. Photo: Hindustan Times
Indians are good at navigating nebulous territory. Photo: Hindustan Times

Everything in Korea is characterized by a sense of urgency. Pali-pali is a value that is ingrained; literally translated it means “faster, faster", an attitude that permeates every area of life. But there’s a flip side to this high-performing environment: people have high levels of stress and there is low tolerance if things don’t work or are slightly delayed. A Korean I spoke with mentioned, “This is the dark side of efficiency. People are always stressed and that may explain why drinking is integral to the after-work culture."

Them and us: It isn’t surprising then that in terms of business dealings, given the inherent pali-pali mindset, Koreans don’t engage in niceties beyond a point. They are polite, of course, but in a business meeting, the expectation is that people get to the point soon, whereas in India, the tendency to make small talk before getting to business is common. While Indians are extremely hard working and committed, the urgency to finish things quickly isn’t always evident. In a lighter vein, they are not so conscious of every pal-pal (every moment).

In Korea, the time and place for chatting and getting to know people is at the after-work hweshik (dinner with co-workers). Hweshiks help in alleviating stress and may resolve unspoken issues but more importantly they are an opportunity to forge camaraderie. People eat, drink and often sing—this is one occasion when pali-pali doesn’t seem to apply. But no matter how late it gets or how much alcohol has been consumed, the expectation is that people show up for work on time the next day. This aspect is seldom seen in India; usually after office parties, people troop in late the next day with the familiar excuse being doled: “There was so much traffic, yaar."

Among the most valuable skills for any 21st century manager is to have the ability to work across diverse work cultures. So spend some time to understand the norms, cultural nuances and values of the people you work with if you want to be a successful global manager.

Aarti Kelshikar is the author of How India Works: Making Sense of a Complex Corporate Culture

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