Three Things Western Expats Should Know

Entry #1

This week, I was asked what top three things Western expats should know to ease their transition to Singapore. Here was my answer:

It’s common to hear expats say that Singapore is the easiest place to live in Asia. In many ways, that’s true. But I also think that some of the things that make Singapore easy can mask some of its difficulties. On the surface, Singapore seems more Western than other Asian cities - signs are in English, you can drink the water, it’s clean, modern, orderly and safe. But, it’s not a Western city.

When expats are moving to Tokyo or Seoul or Mumbai, they might learn a little of the language, read up on the culture and learn a few do’s and don’ts.  They wouldn’t be surprised when the taxi driver doesn’t understand them, when the store clerk doesn’t provide Western customer service or when their prospect won’t return their phone call.  But when those same things happen in Singapore, the same expats are often surprised and unprepared.

Singlish is English with a twist

I had been told that everyone in Singapore speaks English, so I wasn’t expecting to have many communication issues. A couple of weeks after arriving in Singapore, I got into a cab and told the taxi driver where I wanted to go. The driver, a very nice Singaporean-Chinese ‘uncle’, had absolutely no clue what I was saying. And, I had no clue what he was saying. Yes, we were both speaking English, but that fact was of no consequence. It took 5 minutes before we understood each other sufficiently to agree on my destination. I determined that, in future, I had to simplify my sentences and have my IPhone map ready when I jumped into a cab.

Another lesson came when I realized that all of those people on the phone whom I couldn’t understand were answering “can” or “cannot” instead of “yes” or “no” to my questions. Once I understood how prevalent those two words were in the Singaporean vocabulary, my understanding grew exponentially.

Rules are to be followed

Singaporeans acknowledge that they are rule followers. This is one of the reasons that the country is so orderly and safe. When was the last time you saw a police car patrolling in Singapore or saw police on the street walking a beat? They don’t have to because, for the most part, Singaporeans follow the rules. But, that means that Singaporeans follow the rules – even when you don’t want them to.

Soon after arriving in Singapore, a new friend, who had been in Singapore for a year, took me to have French fries at her favourite French fry shop. She loved the sauces, like curry sauce, etc. that they poured all over their fries. Well, I’m not the biggest French fry fan, but if I’m going to eat them, I prefer them crunchy and not doused in sauce. So, I asked the kid behind the counter if I could please have my sauce on the side. He said yes, as he poured a mountain of sauce all over my fries and handed them to me. Puzzled, I said, “But I just asked you for the sauce on the side” and looking confused, he said, “But this is how they come.” My new friend just sighed and said, “Don’t argue, you won’t win. He was just following the rules.”

Western businesses have job titles and business hierarchies, but even front-line employees are often given some degree of power to make small decisions, especially if it makes the customer happy. This is not the case in Singapore, where businesses tend to be more hierarchical, and job descriptions and procedures are taken very seriously.   If you ask your employee to do something which is not explicitly in their job description, s/he may not actually follow your instructions. You would have better success if you explained your expectations regarding team work, taking initiatives, thinking for yourself, etc. first.

Face is very important

I’d heard the term ‘face’ before moving to Singapore - probably in the many historical novels I’d read that took place in China. Still, I had absolutely no idea how important that concept is in Asia, and what a big part it plays in Asian culture. Face, as an intercultural concept, is difficult to define in Western terms, but might be best understood as ‘reputation’ or ‘good name’. To ‘save face’ might be defined as ‘to avoid being disgraced or humiliated’.

What it means is that a Singaporean would not want to embarrass you or themselves by saying, ‘no’ directly to you. Rather than telling you, “No, we don’t want to buy your product,” your prospect may just not return your calls. Or, he might say, “We’ll have to think about it.” Or, “That would be difficult.” There are many ways of saying 'no', both verbally and nonverbally, that you may not immediately recognize.

Most people want to be helpful

Being aware of these three things can make your life in Singapore much more enjoyable.  You should also remember that most people are trying to be polite and helpful. It may just be that how they were taught to be polite and helpful is different from what you were taught. Take a deep breath, smile and enjoy your foreign encounters.

Written by Risa Heywood.


0 #1 Terry 2014-03-25 09:17
This is a great article!

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