I’m borrowing the title from a book I randomly pulled off the shelf yesterday – Working Across Cultures, by John Hooker (2003) – as it certainly describes the attitude that I carried to Singapore as a young adult migrating from Australia. On temporary assignment, I was being posted for nine months to complete a project to deliver an effective quality system in a distribution environment across two countries and three locations. The multiple locations I had done before, however looking back I can see that I was unprepared for the multiple countries and the multiple cultures I needed to work with to achieve my aggressive target.
At the time I was briefed and prepared by the management at home and expatriate management in the host country – I was going to teach these people… These people who called mobile phones “hand phones” and who added -lah as a suffix to words at odd places… I was going to teach them how business was done.
Such was my attitude when I called my first meeting of management stakeholders. Scheduled at ten in the morning, a time I deemed suitable in case anyone was late or needed a few minutes to tackle those urgent requests. I was waiting in the conference room for 15 minutes before I realised that it appeared no one was coming. Being a small office I quickly stuck my head around corners and checked if we were still on. “Coming, coming,” was the general reply. I went back to the conference room and waited. We started at 10:45am.
This was my first introduction to a small difference as to ‘how things were’ and my perception of ‘how things should be’. I spent the first two months of my posting trying to hold meetings on time before finally discussing this with other expatriated westerners who basically agreed that this was “just the way things were.” The Singaporeans didn’t seem to think this was a problem, and it seemed that I was the only one bothered by it. What was wrong with these people?