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Wandering Career Paths: Working in Asia through a Cultural Lens

Thanks to globalization, more opportunities in around the world are opening up. Not only can we travel to Asian countries, but we can also develop our careers there and live like locals. However, let's focus on the cultural differences and challenges in the work environment, where Comarch has branches and is recruiting vigorously in Asia.

In this article, I discuss some significant aspects that differentiate us from Asian work culture. This breakdown will allow us to identify where the biggest differences are apparent, and to note the similarities. We asked several Comarch employees who work in Asia for their opinions. We take a closer look at daily work life in South Korea, Japan and Thailand.

Language barrier

Without basic language skills, working in these countries for work will be a challenge. The alphabets of the Korean (Hangeul), Japanese (hiragana and katakana) or Thai ( àksŏn thai) languages appear basically everywhere, if only on the streets, where we may have trouble reading the name of a store or finding our way. It is important, therefore, to learn not only the alphabet, but also the culture of a country, for example, by means of prior familiarity with literature. Many travelers encounter what is known as "culture shock," which we may avoid with adequate preparation. Moreover, the ability to speak Japanese is highly valued in Japan; it shows our willingness to adapt to Japanese culture. The Japanese will certainly appreciate a foreigner knowing their native language, which will open many doors in the job market. Of course, the exception to this is multinational corporations, where English is mainly mandatory (although knowledge of the country's native language is still a great asset). Familiarization with a foreign culture, customs or language will allow us to avoid mishaps and better fit in to a hitherto unfamiliar environment.

Differences in business customs

In Korea, Thailand and Japan it looks very similar. One should prepare very carefully for a business meeting.

Anna Akutsu, who works as a Business Development Manager at Comarch's Japanese branch, recalls:

-Many times the client wants to know the full agenda before the meeting. It is in the right tone to prepare a concise but logical presentation, enriched with diagrams. The Japanese are eminently visual in this regard and follow content best in pictures. Also, explaining concepts to them from general to specific works best. Good preparation is important, because even if we don't live up to the client's expectations, they will often not tell us.

It's also worth remembering that everyone has their own place in the room where a particular business meeting is held, and you have to be careful about who enters first and last. Even the tone of voice counts, as does the length of a speech. Moreover, the composure, calmness and patience with which we approach the other party play a very important role here. In Thailand, a smile will lead us to success. Thais are generally very open and friendly, and reciprocating this will pave the way for us to win their affection. This is similar in Korea, where it's better to be overly nice than to be waspish for a while. Here, we will be met with questions about our private life, which may come as a shock to us, as it is not our daily routine in the workplace. However, it is worth answering them politely, as our interlocutor certainly does not have any negative intentions. In Poland, the exchange of contacts during networking is mainly used to exchange profiles on Linkedin or business numbers, and the "digital" form is definitely dominant. In Asian countries, business cards are the main tool for making new acquaintances, and such an exchange should be initiated by a person senior in experience and age.

City in the night.

Does dresscode pose a challenge?

In companies in Poland, the way we dress for the office varies greatly. From suits, high-heeled shoes, smart shirts and ties, to sneakers, sweatshirts and T-shirts with slogans. Of course, there are situations where casual or smart elegant dress is required, such as face to face meetings or video conferences with clients. What does it look like in Asian countries? There is no clear answer to this question. In Japan, appropriate dress is strongly observed. Ties, blazers and white shirts are a must. A particularly strict dress code is in place for meetings with clients, although this is slowly being abandoned. The relaxation came after the pandemic, where the home office relieved us of the obligation to go to the office and thus to "dress up" properly.

-Japan has introduced an interesting ‘cool biz’ concept. This means that from May to October you can have shirts without a tie. In summer, shirts alone, even short-sleeved ones are acceptable. This is dictated by the need to save energy as well as loosening the previous hard rules. Another issue is the increasing influx of foreign workers and foreign-owned companies where dress code issues are less regulated and the approach more individual”, notes Country Manager Lukasz Zezulak, who works in Japan.

As for women's dress, there is also a noticeable change. There is a move away from skirts and suits, but coming to the office in a low-cut top or other skimpy clothing may be met with disapproval. Anna tells us more.
For ceremonies, Japanese men match work suits with a specific tie, while Japanese women use ready-made sets. Young women will often choose lace dresses with covered shoulders, while older women will choose Chanel-style suits.

Marcin Zak, who is in support at Comarch and therefore has no direct contact with customers, says that "I come to work in sandals, jeans and a t-shirt." However, he works in Thailand, where the situation is similar, but less strict than in Japan. Of course, it all depends on the company in question. At Comarch there is no specific dress code, and thus we can come to work dressed casually. One exception, as above, is meetings with clients.

The conclusion is that there are many companies, and many rules of appropriate dress.


Hierarchy in the company

This is quite a broad topic. In Poland, hierarchy is also there to regulate positions in daily work, to know who is a leader and who is just starting out in their career. From my observation, we also attach importance to it but not as much as Asians. In Japan and South Korea, hierarchy is incredibly important and affects the daily life of an individual, which is basically non-existent as teamwork is much more valued and effective. The Japanese assume that it is only when we enter a group that we gain our identity, that it is in the group that our greatest strength lies. In both Japan and South Korea, the strong spirit of Confucian culture is palpable, hence the great commitment to hierarchy as well as to showing respect for each other.

The important role of hierarchy also influences the way decisions are made in Japan, which is based on the ringi system, under which decisions concerning the company are made in groups. Consequently, the decision-making process in Japanese companies is considerably prolonged, and negotiations take a long time. It is therefore necessary to be patient and await the desired feedback. Emphasizing the importance of hierarchy also manifests itself in the above-described exchange of business cards, where it is the older, more experienced person who should initiate the exchange.

During business meetings, our interlocutors should be seated in places of honor, facing out, and the most important guest should sit opposite them. If conditions allow us to do so, such a person should be given the best possible view, such as trees, the city or an aesthetic painting. During the meeting, you should not put your hands in your pockets, or check your phone or watch. This will be perceived as disrespectful to our interlocutor. Our attention should be directed solely to the conversation with our Japanese partner. It is also very important to remember the proper greeting, of course you can shake hands, but it is much more in tone to bow or nod, according to custom.

  fast soups

When addressing a Japanese interlocutor, use the person's last name, adding the suffix -san, meaning "Mr./Ms." (e.g., Tanaka-san). We should not address a newly met Japanese person by their first name; as this is reserved for closer, informal relationships. In email correspondence, it is even more appropriate to use the suffix -sama at the beginning of an acquaintance, instead of -san (which means "Dear Sir/Madam"). [1]

In South Korea, great importance is attached to the matter of honor. It is very easy to "lose face" through inappropriate behavior, insulting a person of higher position or social status. It is important to learn who is who in the company, as getting this wrong can end up being a major faux-pas. This is quite an embarrassment in a business environment, and such mistakes should be quickly clarified and never repeated. Working in a Korean company, the initial stage is being a "freshman" (hubae, junior),[2] which is a challenging period. Not only because you learn new skills and have to absorb a huge amount of knowledge, but it also lasts until a "fresher freshman" is found. At company meetings, a new employee's opinion is rarely taken into account. They also have to face unequal treatment by senior colleagues (seonbae, senior).  Often, too, their opinion carries little weight in the organization. Why? Solely and solely because of their lower seniority. How is this done in Japan? Luke explains here.

-In Japan, it is an accepted custom to hire graduates while they are still in college. After graduation, they go to companies as so-called core staf with no position or specialization. Their job is to learn the company's culture and way of working. They stick with senior colleagues and apprentice themselves to the profession of working in the corporation. Over time (after about a year) such people often already work fairly independently and are the backbone of all teams. Only after many years can they be promoted to manager or specialist.

Interesting fact: did you know that in Japan, the boss gives a weekly speech on the goals, vision and achievements of a particular team? Such meetings are usually held early in the morning, before work, so most Japanese arrive at work an hour early, just to listen to their boss.

In this article, we have focused on the differences in daily work. There next one will focus on Asians' leisure time and the role of women in society and work. We will also look at the school system that prepares children and young people for their future profession.

[1] https://www.trade.gov.pl/wiedza/kultura-biznesu-w-japonii/
[2] https://www.kreator-szkolenia.pl/blog/miedzykulturowe/co-warto-wiedziec-o-wspolpracy-z-koreanczykami/

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