Southeast Asian Business Culture – Anecdotes From Outside the Fishbowl - Intercultural Insights
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Southeast Asian Business Culture – Anecdotes From Outside the Fishbowl
May 23, 2017

An important step towards becoming a competent player in the international work environment is having a good understanding about one’s own culture. Like water to a fish, the influence of our own culture is often invisible to us. Getting an outsider’s perspective can help us to explore the waters we swim in and learn more about our own cultural baggage.

With the aim of understanding how Southeast Asian business culture is perceived by non-Asian individuals, I recently spoke to three foreigners who are currently working in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore respectively. I asked them to share a little anecdote about their experience working with Southeast Asians. After collecting their feedback, I was able to match it against the attributes of Southeast Asian working culture and contrasted it with their host culture in order to highlight potential areas of dissent.

Here is what they shared with me:

A Dutch Perspective

“In one of our weekly meetings, the Indonesian sales manager unintentionally shared wrong sales figures with the team. To my surprise, none of his staff members, who must have noticed the error, made any remarks. After the meeting, I asked one of his staff why she kept quiet and did not try to help her boss out. Her reply astonished me. She said that she did help him by allowing him to ‘save face’.”

Compared to many Western cultures, Asians communicate more indirectly and the idea of saving face might not be well known to your Western counterparts. Be aware that in cultures that value direct communication, being explicit, open and frank is appreciated. To say what you mean and mean what you say is a way of showing sincerity. In cultures with relatively flat hierarchies, such as the Dutch and Swedish, superiors might ask for or even expect to receive instant input and feedback from their subordinates.

An American Perspective

“I have worked in Malaysia for many years now. When I first arrived, my biggest challenge was building up a network of clients. Little did I know about the importance of having frequent meetings and to work on creating an atmosphere of trust first before even considering to talk about business.”

In Southeast Asian cultures, there is a stronger focus on the person than on the task. Thus, relationship building is an essential element of any business activity. In cultures that are more task-oriented, such as the American or German, people tend to get straight down to business and focus on the products or services concerned. In order to succeed in your first business encounter with a person from a task-centric culture, make sure to come well-informed and prepared to the meeting and communicate your interest in a formal, clear and concise way.

A French Perspective

“It takes quite a lot of sure instinct to really find out what my Singaporean colleagues think of new ideas and projects. Often I find myself kept in the dark.”

In Southeast Asian cultures, seeking consensus is valued. This can be achieved by remaining calm, showing self-control and intending not to confront or contradict anyone. In more confrontational cultures such as the French or Arab, communication is seen as an opportunity to exchange ideas, and to compare, debate and discuss opinions. Preparing yourself for a debate, fine tuning your arguments and looking out for the meaning behind the words are strategies to increase your persuasiveness when discussing with people from more confrontational cultures.

Ready to jump outside your fishbowl?

Intercultural Awareness and Cross-Cultural Communication trainings, as well as specific country courses offered by Akteos, can help you successfully maneuver through the oceans of the international business world.

All our intercultural training courses are underpinned by our Akteos’ Cultural Profiler and Nomad’ Network. This model of ten cultural dimensions allows you to have a better understanding of one’s own cultural baggage and offers a wealth of information for business life with country packs from 64 different cultures.


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About author

Carolin Barr

Carolin Barr

Carolin is German national with more than 10 years of international experience. After her academic study in Austria and Indonesia, she gained professional experience in commercial and non­profit organizations in Germany, Singapore, the United States and the Netherlands. Carolin holds a Master of Arts degree in Cross-Cultural Communication and worked as Intercultural Consultant for Akteos Netherlands before relocating back to Singapore and joining Timeo-Performance and Akteos Asia.

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