Getting used to the Asian concepts of ‘face’ and ‘space’

Getting used to the Asian concepts of ‘face’ and ‘space’

Getting used to the Asian concepts of ‘face’ and ‘space’

One essential aspect of working overseas anywhere in Asia is the understanding of and dealing with the concepts of ‘face’ and ‘space’.

If they’re lucky, expatriate professionals taking on new jobs in the Far East are required to attend cross-cultural training sessions prior to taking up their positions. It’s an excellent idea, but the all-important understanding of ‘face’ and personal space isn’t often on the agenda or, if it is, it’s confined to workplace issues. It’s also confusing to many new expats, as Western cultures also have similar concepts even although they’re well-disguised, as in in-your-face reprimanding for errors or shortcomings in the presence of other employees.

Another issue is communication, and includes the notorious Asian ‘yes’ – which can mean a selection of various options including a polite ’no’! In Western culture, ‘;yes’ is nothing more than an affirmative in the same way as ‘no’ is a negative, but in Asia there’s no such thing as a definite affirmative. The most common interpretation is ‘maybe’, but it can also mean ‘I’m just saying this to end the conversation and get on with my life’, or ‘no way, at least not until next month/next year or maybe never’. The only way to deal with it is to wait a day or so and then ask someone else.

A further tricky social issue in Asia is personal space. In the West, we’re used to hugging our friends at every opportunity, shaking hands, patting shoulders and touching other peoples’ bodies in a friendly manner. Try this in Asia and you’re in for a shock. Bows in Japan, ‘wais’ in most of Southeast Asia and other similar ways to greet others are culturally correct, and even the sight of a Western couple holding hands can cause discomfort amongst locals, especially if it’s done in the workplace. In addition, the ‘strong’ Western handshake which signifies confidence is not the best idea, as it’s unappreciated in Asia. For example, in Malaysia, one metre’s space between two people is considered the norm.

Related Stories:

Latest News: