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Understanding different cultures and backgrounds facilitates global communications

Understanding different cultures and backgrounds facilitates global communications

Yao Shuang (Sherry)
Sony Electronics Asia Pacific Pte

I aspired to work in HR as it would contribute to the lives of others

I was born and brought up in China's Shandong Province, and my interest in foreign countries developed when my parents were posted overseas. At university, I majored in French and joined an international friendship club because I wanted to work in various places around the world. My experience as a leader of the human resources section there encouraged me to find work that would contribute to the lives of others.

I learned about Sony's Global Internship program just about the time that I began thinking about finding a job. As I was already a Sony fan and was familiar with mobile phones, the Walkman and many other Sony products, I was very keen to participate in the program and submitted my application. While I spoke no Japanese, my senior colleagues at Sony Japan happily spoke to me in English and often invited me for lunch during my two months' work experience in the HR Department. The fact that many non-Japanese people work at Sony reinforced my impression that it is a global company. I decided I would like to work there for this reason and because of its pleasant working environment.

Workplace colleagues helped me overcome the language barrier

I was assigned to the Global Human Resources Department after I joined Sony, but was nervous because my knowledge of Japanese at the time was limited to simple greetings. The person in charge of hiring at the HR department informed me that I was eligible to take a Japanese language training course free of charge for three months. However, my course was extended to one year after I told my boss I was worried that I would find difficult to speak enough Japanese to do business in only three months. Since there are many non-Japanese employees like me, I believe it is very important to provide adequate language training and other post-hiring support, although it does vary from person to person. To help me improve my Japanese faster, the senior colleague who was in charge of mentoring me took turns with me writing in Japanese in a diary. When I wrote about what I had done today or intended to do tomorrow, my colleague provided careful advice, complimenting me when I used Japanese properly, or suggesting that it would be better to use other expressions. I am still extremely grateful to my colleague for this.

Even after I learned to speak Japanese to some extent, my colleagues would translate difficult Japanese into English during meetings and on similar occasions. And while most Japanese companies only use Japanese in e-mails and other communications, Sony uses both Japanese and English as standard in its internal documents, canteen menus, etc., so I had very few problems doing my work. However, I'm afraid the English language is not one of the strong points of Japanese society in general, making it rather difficult for non-Japanese people to live there. I had considerable trouble when I concluded a mobile phone contract in Japan for the first time because I did not understand the content of the agreement. For non-Japanese workers to work effectively in Japan, I believe it is very important to provide them with support in the area of daily life as well as work.

Just after I gave a presentation on a new employee study theme during my early days at Sony
Staff canteen signs are written in both Japanese and English

Showing interest in others is the first step towards understanding them

The Global Human Resources Department is in charge of supporting non-Japanese employees, and initially I had a lot of problems because I did not know how to conduct mutually acceptable negotiations with some people who were very self-assertive. My boss advised me that it is important to be interested in the people involved. When I actually tried this approach, I found I was able to gain insights into the background to their thinking and their sense of values, which greatly helped things go smoothly. I also started reading books on Japanese history and culture, travel magazines about Japan, and books written by Akio Morita, one of Sony's founders. As a result, I gradually began to understand how the Japanese think, and what they consider important.

Sony has a corporate culture of diversity which is frequently on display in the way its employees go about their work. I particularly like the custom of using the honorific "-san" when speaking to others, irrespective of their position within the company. This is particularly welcomed by non-Japanese employees, who are not accustomed to addressing others in the company by titles such as manager or section chief. It also greatly facilitates communications with one's superiors by creating a sense of informality. I often attend the events that take place during the company's Diversity Week. I believe that speaker events on the theme of respecting diversity help Japanese employees to understand the varied cultures of non-Japanese employees, making it easier to accept them.

Embracing Singapore's culture, discovering an ideal work style

After I had been in the company around two-and-a-half years, my boss asked me if I would like to work in Singapore. I happily accepted the offer because I had always wanted to visit different parts of the world from a very young age. Our work in Singapore is to provide Japanese expatriates sent to positions in Southeast Asia with consultation services in connection with their work during their assignments, their careers and daily lives, as well as support with the posting, arrival and repatriation processes. Generally speaking, most Japanese employees tend to be reserved and some are perplexed by the atmosphere in Southeast Asian workplaces, where employees constantly assert their opinions. It is my job to listen to their problems and counsel them. Southeast Asia is culturally close to China, so I provide Japanese employees with advice on how to understand and deal with the thinking of Southeast Asians from my position as someone who understands the cultures of both Japan and China. In Singapore, I make a point of remembering the full names, ages, family members and interests of all my colleagues and superiors so that I can offer something to talk about when we chat. Since this conveys my solicitude for others, it helps conversations about work move in a positive direction.

Naturally, diversity is highly valued in a multiracial republic like Singapore. The distinctive desire to create a large, single family that transcends nationalities and ethnicities also affects the Sony workplace in Singapore, where everyone enjoys games, sports and even trips together. While I feel the line between work and private life is more blurred than in Japan, in reality there is a reasonable sense of distance between them with no excessive intrusion into one's private life. Although I generally find it difficult to be too involved with my colleagues, I was quickly able to let my hair down with them. Until I went there, I assumed that work involved setting my own targets and completing them to some extent by myself. In Singapore, however, the general approach to work is for everyone to accomplish everything together as a team. There is a limit to what individuals can do alone, but tackling things together broadens the scope of what we can accomplish and speeds up the work process. I was thus able to find the ideal work style by understanding and accepting Singapore's culture to deliver optimal results while listening to the views of all my colleagues.

(Top) With my Singapore HR colleagues (Bottom) Team building

I want to stay active globally through mutual understanding with people from the world

My impression from working to support expatriates in Japan and Singapore is that essentially there is little difference between people even if their nationalities or ethnicities differ. Once one overcomes the barriers of language and culture, all that remains is the common global currency of person-to-person communications. To establish such communications, it is necessary to understand individuals from a variety of cultures and backgrounds and create an accepting environment. Looking ahead, I would like to continue supporting expatriates so that they may quickly overcome the barriers they face and work effectively in their new surroundings.

My next wish is to work in the United States. I imagine the thinking and levels of self-assertiveness in the United States differ from those in Southeast Asia, Japan and China, and suspect there are differences in how people approach work, such as whether it is OK to simply pursue good results, or more important to focus on process. Working and communicating in different cultures to date has been marvelous for me. Conversing with people from different countries and learning about their cultures has enabled me to steadily broaden my own outlook, and made me want to become a global citizen who can be active in any country or region anywhere in the world.

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