Chinese New Year in Singapore

Since 8 is an auspicious number for the Chinese, we present to you eight expat tips for Chinese New Year:

  1. Chinese New Year is a two-day public holiday in Singapore, although it’s actually celebrated for 15 days. During this time  it’s common to visit family and friends. In other countries, the public holiday is longer. Eight days in China and three days in Taiwan, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Macau.
  2. To wish someone a Happy New Year, you can use the traditional expression “Gong Xi Fa Cai” which means, “Wishing you a prosperous New Year”.
  3. If you’re invited to a Chinese New Year celebration, don’t wear white. White is associated with death.
  4. At a New Year meal, you may get to participate in the fun Singaporean tradition of tossing the Yu Sheng. Yu Sheng is a beautifully composed salad of raw fish, vegetables and sauces. Guests use their chopsticks to toss the salad into the air while yelling good wishes for the New Year. Remember that the higher you toss, the more prosperous your year will be.
  5. The word for Mandarin orange in Cantonese sounds like the word for gold, so the giving and receiving of these oranges has become a New Year tradition. If you were to visit a friend for the New Year, you should bring 2 oranges in a red gift bag. They would then give you 2 oranges in return.
  6. Your hosts will be delighted if you arrive at their celebration with ‘hong bao’ or red packets for their children. Whatever amount you decide to give, make sure it’s in crisp, new bills and that neither the number of bills nor the amount of dollars contains the number ‘4’ as this is an unlucky number.
  7. Many people also give ‘hong bao’, as we might give Christmas bonuses, to service people who they deal with on a regular basis. Don’t be surprised if the recipient doesn’t immediately open your red packet. It’s considered bad manners to open a gift in front of the giver.
  8. This is the only time of the year when some shops in Singapore close. If you were surprised to find most shops and restaurants open on Christmas day, Chinese New Year is slightly different. Small shops, hawker stalls and family-owned businesses are likely to be closed. Big restaurant chains and malls, as well as tourist attractions, will be open as usual.
Cultural Inclusion During Meetings

Have you been in cross-cultural meetings where there has been an imbalance in participation with some people contributing more than others? There can be various explanations for this including differing personalities, experience levels, opinions, language skills and interest levels.  

Alternatively, there may also be cultural explanations due to different communication styles and patterns across cultures. In this article, you will find a series of helpful steps to ensure you have effective, balanced cross-cultural meetings.

Before the Meeting

  1. Ask for input for the agenda by sending out a group email to all participants. Send individual emails to those who are less likely to respond to the group email. If needed, make a few individual phone calls.
  2. Send out the agenda at least 48 hours in advance (remember to consider time zone differences, if applicable) and give all participants the chance to comment on the agenda and prepare any specific content they will need to present or speak about during the meeting.
  3. Identify a facilitator who has three main roles: time keeping, managing the agenda and making sure everyone has the chance to contribute. Be sure to rotate the role of facilitator so everyone has a chance to facilitate a meeting. This may help people who are usually quiet to participate. 

During the Meeting

  1. Clarify and check for understanding by repeating, summarising and paraphrasing. This ensures that individuals who did not understand also have a chance to ask questions. Be sure to pause and wait for responses to questions to ensure that participants from cultures that are comfortable with silence also have a chance to speak. If possible, confirm important numbers and statements in writing as well, e.g. in the Chat box.
  2. Go round one by one to ensure everyone has the opportunity to participate. This works best for meetings with seven or fewer participants. For larger meetings, use pauses after questions/comments and other participation tools (chat and polls for virtual meetings) to ensure that everyone has a chance to contribute in a way they are comfortable with.
  3. Summarise and confirm the next steps at the end. This includes tasks, deadlines and people in charge, so all participants are on the same page and have an understanding of roles and responsibilities.

 After the Meeting

  1. Send a written summary of the meeting to all those involved. This includes the decisions made, follow up actions, people responsible for these actions and deadlines.
  2. Ask for feedback on both the way the meeting was conducted, and the meeting summary. Ask for input and clarification where applicable. This gives people who didn’t feel comfortable speaking up during the meeting another chance to contribute to the next steps. This also ensures that people can mention any challenges they may have regarding meeting deadlines or completing the actions they are responsible for.
  3. Follow up informally to check understanding and agreement by individual email and possibly a few phone calls so those who are not comfortable responding to a formal email are also able to share their perspective.


The tips above can ensure that participants contribute in various ways regardless of cultural or other differences that might typically prevent them from speaking up. By creating various opportunities for all participants to share their thoughts before, during and after the meeting you are able to bring in different perspectives and create greater team cohesion. While it may seem like more work initially, following these steps can prevent misunderstandings, missed deadlines and poor performance in the future.

Want more cross-cultural tips? Check out Dr. Zsuzsanna Tungli’s book: The Culture Key Between Asia and the West.

Conference Calls and Culture Clashes

Written by Dr Zsuzsanna Tungli, Managing Director of Developing Global Leaders Asia. Earlier version published in HQ Asia.

Picture this. Andrew Garde, the leader of a cross-geographic team in a large MNC sits in his Chicago office and dials in for a conference call. On the call is Cheng Yang, the marketing manager in Singapore, and Suwathana, the product manager in Thailand.

For the next half an hour, Andrew leads the discussion on how the team can launch a new product across different markets in Asia, including Singapore and Thailand. Andrew is keen to have the launch soon to stay ahead of their competitors. The team leader and its members sign the teleconference off with the following exchange:

Andrew Garde (AG): So when do you guys think we can launch this? It’s ambitious, but I know we can launch this in two months. What do you all think?

Cheng Yang: It certainly is ambitious. We can try our best…

AG: That’s great! What about you, Su?

Suwathana: Yes, I think it could be possible. You know we are getting a lot of requests from the headquarters lately.

AG: Yes. Yes. I appreciate how busy we all are. But this is a critical product for our company, so let’s make this work.

Suwathana: OK.

AG: Fantastic! Thanks for your commitment – this is going to be a game-changer for us. Alright, have a good day both of you!


While it may appear Andrew has achieved consensus and buy-in from all parties, in reality they missed the deadline for the product launch. Andrew was frustrated that his Asian colleagues had failed to deliver on their commitments. But did they really commit?

In today’s globalised world, multinational teams are very common. Diverse teams can lead to increased creativity, better problem-solving capability, and deeper understanding of regional markets. But they can also lead to missed deadlines, deals going astray and low morale.

The primary points of contact for multinational teams are conference calls and emails, rather than face-to-face meetings. Hence, it is critical to understand and overcome the challenges inherent in cross-cultural conference calls. In any such call there are at least two important issues to consider.


In the above scenario, Andrew is the team leader. However, the level of deference to leaders differs across cultures. In the US, there is an expectation of empowerment, open communication and even direct criticism. For Cheng Yang and Suwathana, however, their respective cultures – Singaporean Chinese and Thai – have taught them to respect hierarchy. This also means that they should not contradict their superiors, and certainly not in an open manner. When their team leader, Andrew, invites comments on the deadline, their natural tendency is to agree and to accept his suggestion.

Asian organisations tend to have hierarchical structures. Both Cheng Yang and Suwathana would have in-country supervisors, and Andrew failed to consider the importance of the respective in-country supervisors’ buy-in. Without this clear buy-in, other projects might take precedence and push Andrew’s project down the queue.

These cultural miscommunications can be overcome. In the above scenario, Andrew could have clearly stated that he required direct input, or given his team further opportunities to raise concerns discreetly – perhaps via email or in a subsequent one-on-one conversation. Establishing greater trust with his Asian colleagues would also have made them more comfortable in expressing their concerns. Lastly, he should have avoided presenting his views until others had had a chance to express theirs. By first stating, “I know we can launch this in two months”, he made it difficult for his Asian colleagues to voice their doubts – and together work out alternate solutions.


Direct communication means, “I tell you exactly what I think in a straightforward manner, and you don’t have to guess the meaning of my words.” Truth comes first. Indirect communication is subtler. People choose their words carefully. Harmony comes first.

Both styles can be effective in their proper cultural context. The challenge comes when people who use different communication styles interact. While Asian cultures tend to favour indirect communication, the US is generally known as having a culture of direct communication. In this scenario, Andrew failed to pick up the indirect signals that indicated Cheng Yang and Suwathana had concerns about the project timeline.

Let’s take Cheng Yang’s comment, “It certainly is ambitious. We can try our best…” To Andrew, it sounded like a commitment to deliver. To Cheng Yang, however, this was a commitment to endeavour, not promise of delivery – and should raise a red flag.

When Suwathana mentioned, “You know we are getting a lot of additional requests from the head- quarters lately,” she had assumed that Andrew would understand that she meant she was overloaded. Her “OK” was not an acceptance of the deadline, but instead that she understood Andrew’s wish for a speedy project delivery.

How could Andrew have better communicated with his Asian colleagues? He could have clarified to ensure there was a mutual understanding, or asked his colleagues to summarise the takeaways from the meeting. It would have also helped if Andrew had first met his colleagues in Asia and taken time to interact with them on social matters before jumping to the topic at hand.

Most importantly, it helps to first forge strong relationships across teams. These relationships are the key pillars that facilitate more open communication channels. Some may say that we do not have time to make small talk. But it is better to spend time getting to know your international colleagues socially, than end up with projects that miss their deadlines by months.

Earlier version published in HQ Asia. Read the earlier version here.

Basic cross-cultural survival tips for new Western APAC leaders

Basic cross-cultural survival tips for new Western APAC leaders

Doing businesscan be risky and challenging for newcomers to Asia where many of the behaviours that made you respected and successful at home can be misunderstood and looked upon as arrogant or rude. While generalizing is always dangerous and there is no one “Asian culture”, just as there is no one “Western culture”, there are some cultural similarities among the countries in Asia. Knowing the basics can keep you from starting your business relationships on the wrong foot during those first visits.

1. If you are a man greeting a woman, say hello with a slight nod of your head, unless she extends her hand.

For religious and cultural reasons, many women in Asia do not shake hands with men. It could be embarrassing if you extend your hand to a woman. Also, when you do shake hands, with men or women, leave the bone-crushing handshake at home. Handshakes in Asia tend to be much less vigorous and forceful, and this is perfectly normal for both genders.

2. Give your business card with two hands and the text facing the recipient. Receive a business card the same way. Take a few seconds to study the card and don’t put it in your back pocket or write on it.

Have a good supply of business cards made when you arrive in Asia because you will go through many. In many Asian cultures, business cards are seen as an extension of the person and should be treated with respect.

Lining up the business cards on the meeting table is appropriate and a great way to remember people’s titles and names. You may also want to put the cards in seniority order so you know to whom you should address most of your remarks and questions.

3. In a meeting or at a business meal, wait for your host to start talking business first. Expect a lot more “small talk” than you are probably used to.

In the US there is a saying, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” The opposite is true in Asia – business is considered very personal and successful business is built upon relationships.

4. Keep your emotions in check.

Harmony is an important value in Asia. Self-control is a virtue, and losing your temper will not help you gain respect.

5. During a group meeting, address your questions and comments to the most senior person in the room, but don’t openly challenge them.

Hierarchy is widely observed in Asia. Don’t be surprised if an employee who might be quite vocal when speaking to you one-on-one doesn’t say much or is vague when his manager is present.

Challenging people in front of others is a sure way for both parties to lose ‘face’ and can quickly sever a relationship.

6. Try to understand all the messages sent to you during your meetings. Look out for hesitation and non-verbal cues. There are many ways to say “no” in Asia without using the actual word “no”.

While you may value being direct and saying what you mean, especially in business, this is not a value that is typically shared in Asia. You may need to read between the lines and observe facial expressions and body language to get the real message behind the words.

7. When asking a question or waiting for a comment, you may need to wait longer than you are accustomed to. Don’t always fill the silence.

Asians typically have a longer gap in their communication between sentences than most Western cultures. The silence might make you feel uncomfortable and that’s okay. This gap is natural for Asian speakers because that is the way they use language, both native and foreign.

8. Invest in developing your cross-cultural competence, it will make your work more effective and your foreign experience more enjoyable.

Learning how to correctly pass a business card is easy and important, but understanding how to motivate your Asian team or how to successfully conclude a business deal is not as simple.

You may have heard the analogy that culture is like an iceberg. The 10% of the iceberg that is above the water represents people’s behaviours you can observe with your senses. The above tips are just a few of the behaviours you may encounter when first visiting Asia. The 90% that is below the water are the values, beliefs and often subconscious assumptions that inform those behaviours. Understanding those values, beliefs and assumptions are the key to being a successful leader in Asia.

Find out more about cultural training click here.


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