Asia is not on our doorstep, it is now in the lounge room of our future.
A key indicator of how well we get on across different cultures is: “did they show respect”?
This can be a very unreliable indicator.
For example, an Indian business person in Mumbai shows respect by answering calls from his clients, even when he is meeting with others.
Or a leader from Chennai shows respect by giving you time, even at the expense of his schedule for the day – meaning schedules might not amount to much.
From our cultural perspective, we look at answering phone calls during meetings and being behind schedule as signs of disrespect.
In Thailand, respect is shown by never inconveniencing people and being courteous – but the westerner might see this as covering up.
In Hong Kong and other parts of Asia, respect is shown by pure professionalism at all times in dress and manner, so that emotions are never shown, while in India showing emotion can be a sign of respect.
In Australia, Holland, South Africa and Israel, respect is displayed by being blunt so that people know exactly what you think and feel – a bluntness that can be misunderstood for lack of respect in much of Asia.
Japanese respect is shown through formality, good manners, following ritual and process – again, a contrast to our casual approach.
How can we prepare ourselves for relationships that cross cultures?
The biggest single cultural dimension that blocks communication and collaboration between westerners and Asians is called “absolutism versus relativism”. It is impossible to understand each other without knowing what this difference means.
Finding absolute truth
The “absolute” cultures of the west derived this trait from the Greeks, who believed we could find absolute truth, good and so on. This means most westerners believe you can find the one best way to do something, the one great plan, the perfect contract, the way.
The “relative” cultures trace their origins way back past the Greeks and grow up believing that relationship is central, and that things are partially good and bad. We can plan but who knows, nothing is ever perfect and in most conflicts the answer becomes relative.
Right away you can see the seeds of misunderstanding and potentially conflict. The westerner looks for certainty and guarantees – the Asian accepts uncertainty, impermanence and change.
Another dimension of culture is the individual versus the collective – the individualism that is so paramount in Australia is not reflected in Asia where living and decision making is a collective operation.
This has an impact across tourism, retail, sport, business and politics.
The westerner’s experience is that “I make decisions” and operate largely independently, while your Asian counterpart involves the collective in almost every decision.
What is the right thing to say?
The origin of this difference is – do you view yourself primarily as an individual or as a member of a group? For citizens of Japan, China and India, the answer is certainly that they see themselves within the context of the group.
Asking yourself questions you’ve never asked before is part of the process of becoming multicultural – What is the right thing to say? What is the right way to say it? What is my body language saying? What impact am I having? It goes beyond the simplistic are they showing respect?
Tolerance becomes a core value in this new, connected world, and for many this is a new or unusual experience. This tolerance reflects an understanding that there are different cultures at work here, and that success comes from getting along.
Simple things like accepting the need for some workers to take special religious holidays can replace potential resentment with understanding.
Communication differences are also found in how we express emotions – in “neutral” cultures (Australia, UK, US, Japan) emotions are kept in check while in “affective” cultures (India, Italy, Brazil) emotions are expressed openly.
Generally speaking, Aussies are uncomfortable where some occasionally express emotions with great strength – so we will have to adapt, perhaps even realising that in many of these “affective” cultures, the harmony that follows is quite powerful.
All of these different ways of showing respect can be confronting and ultimately defeating to those unprepared, which is why Australia needs to educate a generation who can be effective across borders, relating to a large variety of cultures and enjoying “unity in diversity”.
* Stephen Manallack is a published author and cross-cultural trainer. His new book is Soft Skills for a Flat World (Tata McGraw-Hill).