Every nation in the world has a culture unique to its own. The Germans are defined by efficiency, the Italians by their chilled-out attitude, the self-contained Japanese, the easy going American, the focused Chinese, the hardworking Korean, the sensitive Arab etc Some may be correct, some may not be but they are categorized by popular perception. Indians, for example are either hard working and diligent or lazy and inefficient.
An international work ethic is the call of the day. It need not necessarily be a 9-to-5 at office routine. Work from home is very much acceptable these days while part-timers and freelancers are respected. What you wear to work may also not be a topic companies are bothered about. Work done efficiently is perhaps the demand globally.
While multinational companies are doing away with norms and focusing only on work ethics, at home in each individual country, the broader global outlook is yet to become the mainstay. Countries still have the hierarchy bound, autocratic, stereotypical, misogynist bosses and subservient and sycophant employees, trying hard to please. Troubles arise when they interact with other cultures for a short period, say a trip oversees or work for a foreign company sitting in home country.
It is believed that on an average, Asians outperform most other races when it comes to education, employment and income. Yet one does not see them in leadership positions in the same proportion. It is believed that they lack social skills to break what is termed as the ‘bamboo ceiling’. This is worse than the ‘glass ceiling effect’ that is associated with women.
There are innumerable ways in which people differ across cultures.
Hierarchy – Positions in the West are predominantly based on knowledge, experience and performance. Seniors do not expect to be addressed as ‘Sir or Madam’ as compared to the deferential address of Sir/Ma’m and bowing in the Asian cultures. This may find its source to the colonization hangover as well as the social conditioning of ‘giving respect to elders’.
Work-Life Balance – For most Asian workers, life is work as their lives depend on it. A person and his identity is defined by the work he does. It is not the same for his western counterpart. Thus Asians do not have anything called a work-life balance, they continue to work on all days at all times and are connected to work and colleagues on work at any time of the day irrespective of a holiday. It is so bad that employees boast of ‘not taking a leave’ as a proof of their dedication to work.
Most of their hobbies and friendships are associated with work based relationships or their children’s school-based relationships. Childhood sports and hobbies come to almost a nil once their work life starts. It may perhaps be revived as they retire.
Time – Importance and value of time is perceived differently in different cultures. Working overtime is prevalent only in certain job profiles and not an accepted practice in Western cultures. In India, almost all people work overtime as a rule and it is mistakenly perceived and encouraged as dedication to work.
Punctuality – Though working long hours, in contrast Indians as a rule never get anything done on time. It is not only a malaise at work and in meetings, the habit is prevalent at social gatherings too. Neither do things ever start on time; nor do they get finished on time too. While meeting a deadline is never, stretching the deadline is normal. Workers of American, Japanese, Koreans, Germans, British and any other country in the world follow basic etiquette of punctuality and meeting deadlines as a default system.
Lies or Diplomacy – When an Indian says, ‘I’ll get back to you’, it may imply we are not interested. When he says, am on the way or am reaching in five minutes, he may have not started from home. The West, on the other hand prefer to politely state the truth. This in Indian cultures is rude, who defend their ‘lies’ as diplomacy and being polite. But across cultures, people do not understand this and creates confusion, as there is no clarity.
The apology – There is almost never an apology for an error from an Indian, Arabic or Chinese employee where he would simply shift the blame or deny. The Japanese on the other hand are very similar to the American, although the Japanese are super efficient and may not have a situation of having to apologize!!
The most you can get a semblance of an apology is when they make reparations to correct the error. Apologizing is equivalent to accepting the mistake, and the collectivist culture revolves around broad and collective decision-making where no single person can be held either responsible or accountable.
The Break Routine – Most work cultures the world over, have strict brief breaks and hence they manage to finish the assigned work on time. But it is not the case in India where atmosphere tends to be collegial with lot of time wastages that add to their working longer hours.
Communication Style – Across cultures, one can say that a democratic one is replacing the erstwhile military kind of order. In India the collegial atmosphere still persists among the subordinate levels while it is formal in the west. What one hopes is a more professional approach rather than the formal or informal. Most Asian companies prefer a communication style less direct, and are careful not to offend.
Centralized Authority and Micro-management – Asian employees would prefer escalating problems to their bosses because of two reasons. One, to avoid taking responsibility if things go wrong and two, they prefer being micro managed under the guise of consensus and collective decision making, which is actually boss-centric. This accentuates the sycophant work ethic of revering the boss and deifying by the deferential, Sir/Madam.
Sensitive History of the Past – Most Arabs, for example focus on their rich past and religious heritage in proclaiming their own importance as against Westerners, who although have great pride in their history prefer to move on and focus on developing the present towards a better future. Similar are the Chinese who are aggressively engaged in an ambitious future while Indians are forever furiously engaged in endless arguments and discussions while getting nothing done!
Envy or Contradict – The West are fixated on the perception that the whole world envies their modernity whereas most Asian and Arab countries live in constant denial of the modern and the constant need to preserve their culture. Hence there is a perpetual duality of the English language, the western dress and etiquette on the one hand and their ethnicity on the other.
Trust and Credibility – In Asian and Arabian cultures, trust takes awhile but once established, you are treated as family. Poor grievance redressal systems, rampant corruption, delayed legal structures in these countries add to the lack of trust. Negotiation in business is always exercised with a lot of caution and any attempt to quicken a decision is viewed suspiciously.
Emotional Versus Rational – As against an almost stoic expression in the West, Indian employees are emotionally attached to their work. This is an extension of their zero work-life-balance and work is worship mantra. Performance appraisals become a very difficult and trying process. The Arabs, on the other hand are heavily influenced by spirituality, which is very difficult to validate or challenge.
Safety & health – It is joked that while the West has adventure sports, the Indians have daily life! Value of life is very less, especially of a worker as compared to that of an Officer. Painting, construction and lifting heavy loads is done indiscriminately with no safety harness or lifeline. As a rule, in most countries, employees do not go to work when they are sick, but in workaholic India they continue to. In the lower levels, it may be due to poverty but in the upper levels, it is because of lack of trust amongst the team or the earnest display of dedication. (similar to in the ‘taking leaves’ attitude discussed under work-life balance category)
Socializing – At work, celebrations of birthdays and festivals are very important in India while rest of the world keep their personal preferences outside of work. That said, it could be that India has numerous festivals while the West has only Christmas. Playing of Christmas Santa etc are prevalent in the west too.
Relationships and Networking – Relationships on a personal level are strictly frowned upon in all cultures and it is more an individual basis if it happens. The family outlook on relationships within a team or an organization, the collegial atmosphere prevalent in Asian cultures is sometimes helpful in that colleagues pitch in for one another because of the personal rapport. Thus there is a good and/or bad in everything!!
Networking is again a professional business tool, whereas it becomes problematic with the play of gender influences. Networking sometimes takes on a whole different meaning when it is viewed with a gender biased one. This is a phenomenon prevalent in all countries where women are usually at a disadvantage.
To conclude, business success in Asian/Arab countries is associated with knowledge of regional, religious customs. In India especially, what prevails in one part of the country may not hold true in another; this becomes quite a challenge when MNCs charter a marketing strategy.
While so much can be said about varying cultures across countries, there are few glaring ‘differences’ that are common to all cultures. Gender discrimination, glass ceilings-glass cliff, sexual harassment at work are issues pertaining to women across the globe. The Millenial Gap, the attitudes towards automation, the App-based business trends are some more.
Unfortunately, to add to the innumerable cultural differences, racism has crept in to work cultures. While in the West, it is about non-Whites and immigrants, in India it is about caste, community and religion, and in the Arabian countries, it is religion. Countries are frequently becoming prone to xenophobia.
In spite of all the above, businesses have progressed considerably keeping the monetary benefit and meritocracy as a priority. Countries continue to work across continents treading carefully. If empathy, respect and courtesy towards one another’s culture is given due importance, without being judgmental, the world becomes one. And, a better place to live in too!