c27 August 2013


Sally Maier

This month marks my two-year anniversary at Gong Communications and my four-year anniversary of living and working in London.

Having worked in the public relations industry in Hong Kong, Singapore and now London, people often ask me questions like “How do you find working in London as opposed to Asia?” or “I am moving to Hong Kong/Shanghai/Beijing. Do you have any tips for me?”

I still remember the single most valuable piece of advice, given to me by my old boss in Singapore before I moved to London. He said, “Sally, when you work in London, you have to try to be less blunt.”

I said: “What do you mean?”

My boss said: “For example, instead of saying ‘Do this for me please’, say ‘When you have a spare moment, would you mind doing this for me please?”

I said: “Oh, isn’t that a bit of a long winded way of saying the same thing?”

My boss said: “You will learn.”

This is just one of the many examples of cultural differences between working in the East and the West. The art of building cross-cultural sensitivity and awareness in the workplace and in our everyday life has become ever more important in today’s globalised world. For instance, at Gong Communications we are a small team but between us were born, brought up or have lived in countries including China (Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong), Singapore, Kenya, Ghana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Madagascar, Tanzania, Uganda, France, Italy, New Zealand, UK and the US.

Here is a checklist of cultural sensitivity and awareness based on my personal experiences of working in the UK and Asia and working with companies around the world:

1. Communications method: When communicating with Asian or African markets where English is often not the native language, identify the preferred method of communication (both verbal and non-verbal). For example, in most Asian countries, emailing is often preferred as the primary communications channel, as this provides people sufficient time to digest information rather than feeling obliged to give an immediate response over the phone. Also consider if translation is needed. At Gong, I have found that Asia or Africa based clients or suppliers often prefer emailing to phoning whilst UK-based clients usually prefer calls. Having said that, regular face-to-face meetings are still crucial for effective communications.

2. Degree of politeness: As a Hong Konger working in London married to a French man, I realise the way Chinese people communicate can sometimes come across as “blunt” or even “rude” in the Western world whilst the way Westerners communicate can be considered “too polite” or even “fake” to someone from the East. My old boss’ advice is an example of this. It is not for me to say which is wrong or right, but it is important to bear this difference in mind to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings or hard feelings.

3. Reading between the lines: Since I was young I have loved learning English, but it was only after I moved to London that I started to fully experience and understand the depth of English as a daily means of communication. I found it confusing and frustrating at times as I made mistakes by literally taking people’s words at face value. Being aware of this cultural difference has enabled me to become a better communicator/manager at work. I now have a more complete understanding of what clients or colleagues are asking for or of picking up on the nuances within a piece of feedback.

4. Brainstorm: I found the working culture in London (and especially at Gong) to be generally collaborative, creative and entrepreneurial whilst in Asia (Hong Kong and Singapore) it tends to be more hierarchical, formal and practical. For example, in London, work brainstorm sessions are very common whilst in Asia they are not as popular as people are not used to randomly contributing ideas in front of a big group of people. Instead they often prefer to do their own research and then come up with ideas individually. This is important to know when trying to gather information and ideas effectively and efficiently from colleagues of different nationalities.

5. Trust: As the world has become more culturally and ethnically diverse, work ethics such as honesty, respect and diligence remain of vital importance in the global work place. Trust is still the most essential foundation on which to build a long-term relationship with clients, bosses, colleagues and friends regardless of their nationality or where they live. In this more digitalised and mobile age, there are no secrets and the safest way to communicate is to live up to your own principles and be yourself while being sensitive to the cultural differences of those around you.