Understanding Asian Culture in the Workplace
25 January 2019
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It is generally accepted that non-Asian employees who succeed in Asian organisations tend to be those who understand and embrace the culture of the organisation. They are sensitive to how things are done and understand how decisions are made. One of the challenges facing Asian organisations is how to communicate their high-context culture to local staff.
In high-context cultures of China, Japan and Korea, identification with the group is very strong. An interesting example of high-context culture is the concept of 情. It exists in Korean, Japanese, and Chinese cultures. Although the same Chinese character, 情, is used in each country, the meaning of the same character is subtly different and is also linked to other feelings of group togetherness, trust and identity in the three countries.
The Chinese 情 (qing) refers to emotion of feeling, focusing on loyalty and reciprocity in relationships. In Chinese society, you do more for your family members because of 亲情 (qin qing), for your friends because of 友情 (you qing), or for your colleagues because of 袍泽之情 (pao ze zhi qing). Strangers will get the least qing because there is nothing to bind you and them unless they deserve your empathy, which is 同情. Not understanding qing often means not doing what is expected of you by others; this can include upsetting a group of fellow workers, not being sufficiently appreciative of all-important relationships. The Chinese will rarely deal with people they or their connections do not trust. Someone who has no bonds at all with other people may have the freedom of not be responsible to others, but will find it extremely difficult to survive in Chinese society.
The Japanese 情, pronounced “jyo,” refers to emotion, feeling, love and affection. It is a notion shared and understood in a Japanese society where harmony, consensus and social relationships are still important. Like other characteristics of high-context cultures, it is difficult to explain and better defined by giving examples - office colleagues or families enjoying the first signs of spring together, eating and drinking under the cherry blossom (hanami), bringing back local edible souvenirs for the workplace from holiday, going for a drink after work with team colleagues to discuss work matters, or your regular restaurant giving you something extra for free as “service”, for example. It is interesting to note that although there is increased convergence between western and Japanese culture as Japan becomes more westernised, these root concepts remain true and deep.
It is in Korean society that “jeong” (정) has become deeply embedded and has much broader meaning in the expression of emotions and feelings than in China or Japan. It can be defined as “the emotional links among individuals that are bonded socially and relationally”. One Korean-English dictionary also defines it as “feeling, love, sentiment, passion, human nature, sympathy, heart.” In the workplace this comes out as a strong sense of togetherness and attachment to each other. Jeong-based relationships are likely to emerge through a long period of time together. Identification to the group, another characteristic of high-context culture, is strong in the world of jeong. As stated earlier, this may be better illustrated by examples - the colleague you argue with all the time but would miss if she left the organisation, or bringing in home-made cookies to work because you made too many.
The high context, intangible and subjective nature of qing, jyo or Jeong, defies low-context western-style analysis or definition. The feelings expressed through this one character across three countries, and their links to the group, harmony and togetherness in Asian culture and society are valuable insights to understand, and should be passed on to local employees, by explaining how and why decisions are made and things are done in your organisation. This knowledge can increase performance, motivation, relationships and assist in effective recruitment, in turn increasing the competitive advantage within your organisation.
3HR can arrange training sessions for your staff which explain and expand on these and other related concepts.
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