Dealing With Culture Shock In The Workplace, In Singapore And Beyond

August 18, 2017 6 min read
Dealing With Culture Shock In The Workplace, In Singapore And Beyond

Settling into the workplace in Singapore can be challenging for anyone. With a tremendous diversity of cultural backgrounds present even within a single team it's easy to suffer from culture shock, especially if you're a new expat. In general, dealing with culture shock in the workplace is not an easy step. Read on for tips to help you deal with cultural differences in the workplace.


Singapore is a great country for work opportunities. In fact, Singapore ranks second in the world when it comes to attracting and developing talent. So, working in Singapore can be very exciting. Singapore’s use of English, the mix of Asian and Western cultural influences and their meritocratic values should make it easy for a foreigner to adjust to Singapore’s work culture right? Well, not always. Most of the time, many foreigners still experience serious cultural challenges at work, adding to the stresses of coping with Singapore’s fast paced life.

Singapore has also some of the longest working hours in the world. If you think you are experiencing workplace stress, here’s how you can manage your thoughts and emotions better.

dealing with culture shock in the workplace

Do you, for example, find that your confidence is making colleagues feel uncomfortable? Have you started feeling guilty when you’re the first one to leave despite completing all your tasks? Do you find yourself developing a more aggressive attitude towards your new home?

The truth is, you’re going through what hundreds millions of people around the world experience when settling into a new cultural environment. You're probably experiencing some of the negative effects of culture shock.

“Culture shock” was first coined by world-renowned anthropologist Kalervo Oberg in the 1950's. It refers to a person’s disorientation when moving to a new country or culture, resulting from losing all familiar references, which may lead to forming negative opinions on the new culture. Culture shock at your workplace can be experienced in the most subtle ways - how conversations are handled or how relationships are formed, for example. If we lack a proper understanding of culture shock, it’s easy to overlook these subtleties and leave our expectations unchecked.

We can spend more time in the office than in our own houses so we need to look after our mental and emotional well being at work. Learning more about culture shock at work is one way to start. With a better understanding of your cultural struggles, you can prevent your daily annoyances from escalating into anxiety and depression. If you feel that you may already have anxiety or depression, follow these links to learn how to deal with it: 7 tips for dealing with anxiety, expat depression, causes and treatment options.

Stages of culture shock

Oberg identified four stages of culture shock. They provide a guideline for how we normally adapt and cope with new cultures.

  1. Honeymoon
  1. Crisis or Shock Period
  1. Adjustment or Recovery
  1. Adaptation
deal with cultural differences in the workplace

I’m definitely in the crisis or shock period. Is it my fault or theirs?

It’s nobody’s fault. To better understand culture shock at work, we can look at cultural differences using cultural dimensions created by psychologist Dr. Geert Hofstede. He conducted groundbreaking research on cross-cultural groups and organizations, which then formed the foundation for these cultural dimensions. His research findings and theoretical ideas have been used internationally in psychology and management studies.

It is important to note that these cultural dimensions may not apply to everyone within the culture but can be used as a general reference to analyze apparent cultural values of a group and ideally, bridge cultural gaps.

dealing with culture shock

Observing cultural differences, differently

Power Distance

The first dimension expresses the culture’s attitude towards power inequalities among individuals in a society. In Geert’s model, Singapore scores high on this dimension, which means that members with a lower position often expect and accept an unequally distributed power. At work, power is often centralized, hierarchy may be more complex, communication can be more indirect and reliance on managerial employees tend to be higher.

Not all people will place so much importance on their job titles, so do pay attention to how senior colleagues act around you. You can also start by acknowledging the status of your seniors. Also, be careful about challenging them in public. It may be seen as an embarrassment or a sign of disrespect. If you do believe that an idea of theirs is worth challenging, do so in a formal manner or in a way that does not humiliate them.

Are you a leader? Be more patient with building relationships with your team members. Sometimes, building positive relationships is considered more important than accomplishing tasks. Building healthy relationships over time may also help the team be more productive.

Individualism

The higher a culture scores in this dimension, the more important “I” becomes compared to “We”. Singapore, being a collective society, scores low in this dimension.

At work, this can mean that it is more acceptable to make decisions while respecting everyone at the same time. Having public confrontations may not be appreciated and in fact, may lead to lower productivity. You may also observe this cultural quality in social settings when people prefer to do things together.

If you are a manager, try to be more aware of how you approach meetings, discussions or decision-making.

Masculinity

According to Dr. Hofstede’s model, the higher the score in this dimension, the more a society is motivated by achievement, competition and success. A lower score means that feminine values such as caring for others and quality of life are more valued by society. Singapore is in the “middle” of the scale but according to the Hofstede Centre, Singapore leans more towards the feminine side.

It may therefore be more important to show sympathy for your colleagues when they are going through problems, to give credit to your team members when you succeed in important projects, and to make efforts in achieving consensus in discussions.

Uncertainty Avoidance

This dimension addresses the degree to which a society deals with anxiety brought about by uncertainty. When the culture scores higher in this dimension, people will make life as controllable as possible because they do not want to deal with uncertainty. On the other hand, cultures that score lower tend to be more relaxed, open or inclusive. Hofstede’s model gives Singapore a low score in this dimension, suggesting that people are more likely to be risk-takers, preferring changes and challenges.

At work, we may observe how decisions are made more quickly with less time spent on exploring ambiguities and risk. Singapore’s tendency to follow many rules should not be confused with low tolerance for ambiguity. The presence of many rules is related to Singapore’s high Power Distance Index according to the Hofstede Centre.

Long Term Orientation

This dimension refers to how a society deals with its past while dealing with present and future challenges. Cultures that score high in long-term orientation embrace future-oriented virtues such as thriftiness, pragmatism, persistence, and perseverance. Such cultures also tend to pay more respect to traditions.

Singapore scores high in this dimension. Society, for instance, places importance on preparing for the future through education, constant improvements, ordering relationship by status, and saving face.

Because of long-term priorities, discipline becomes an important part of people’s lives at home, in schools and workplaces. If you come from a culture where people are more expressive, try not to take offense when your colleagues are working more than socializing with you. If you are a manager, help your team build on their long-term goals.

Indulgence

There isn’t much data to determine where Singapore stands in this dimension. What this dimension refers to however is the degree to which people try to control their desires and impulses. Cultures who score low in this dimension have relatively strong control and puts less emphasis on leisure time. If you find colleagues who appear to stand at the opposite end of this dimension, in comparison to you, learn to be more respectful and try not be critical about their preferences.

Respond, don't react: carefully considering cultural differences is the key to dealing with them

Understanding a culture is only one way to make better adjustments in your new home. Remember that you still have to take the character of individuals into account. It’s also not wise to create your own bubble and settle in your comfort zone forever. Try to be more aware about how you are forming expectations of others and of yourself, and also what others are expecting of you as a new employee in the company. Finally, try to find similarities between your culture and that of others, and be more open to adopting the positive aspects from the different cultures.

Moving from the cultural shock stage to the adjustment stage may take time, and that’s okay. Different individuals have different experiences, personalities and coping abilities. If you find that your struggles are overwhelming and you need more help in easing difficult transitions at work, find a Singapore wellness expert specializing in work stress or transition issues.