From The Straits Times    |

A few years ago, I declared myself a “masochist” to a panel of interviewers during a job interview for a communications role at a local school in Singapore.

It was in response to a question about my career trajectory in the media industry, and why I wanted to make the switch from a more dynamic, creative environment, to a decidedly more bureaucratic one.

Unsurprisingly, I did not get the job.

“Real smart decision-making there,” remarked my colleague. She could barely hold back an eye roll when I recounted my gaffe. I can’t explain why I said what I said: It might have been an attempt to defuse a stressful situation with an extremely dry sense of humour. But it certainly boils down to the fact that I’m rather fond of speaking plainly.

Admittedly, when your first instinct is to shoot from the hip, you’re not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. There have been instances where I’ve had my fair share of run-ins with co-workers who have taken offence over unfiltered feedback – one such episode resulted in a flurry of angry e-mails over my refusal to acquiesce to what I thought was a ridiculous request, which I had pointedly – ahem – pointed out.

Which got me thinking: Why aren’t we more open to those who say what they mean and mean what they say? It takes the guesswork out of figuring out what we are all thinking, even if we’d rather be anywhere but having this conversation right now.

Wouldn’t it be a time-saver at work to give feedback freely without worrying about hurt feelings? Perhaps we’d all shave minutes off meetings if the agenda did not also include erring on the side of political correctness.

“Wouldn’t it be a time-saver at work to give feedback freely without worrying about hurt feelings?”

Navigating the cultural divide

As much as I welcome uninhibited expression in all facets, the fact is, when faced with uncomfortable situations at the workplace, most of us in Singapore fall back on a politically correct (PC) veneer to avoid a war of words.

Associate professor Brian Lee, a Communications Studies expert at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), shares that PC culture is more likely to be practised in a society that emphasises collectivism, which focuses more on the needs and goals of the entire community, rather than individual interests.

“Most Asian cultures are predominantly collectivistic in nature. Although Singapore is highly globalised, ethnic Chinese, Malay and Indian communities still have a profound impact on Singapore culture historically.

“It is key to understand that political correctness is a rather complicated concept. It can also be impacted by different cultural and ideological perspectives,” he adds.

Prof Lee makes a salient point. I can only draw from my own experience: Over the years of working with both Singaporean and expat-led companies, I’ve noticed the markedly different styles of interaction among my colleagues.

For instance, my Australian and British bosses typically frowned upon long and excessively detailed meetings, preferring agendas that were short, concise and to the point. In contrast, most Singaporean managers tended to value discussions that delved into the thought process behind your work.

From my Western or Western-educated managers, I have received feedback brimming with explicit displeasure, such as “your copy’s rather perfunctory, please rework and add XYZ”. The same sentiment would be fed through a more PC filter in a predominantly Singaporean environment: “Your copy could be improved! How about adding XYZ because [insert reason]?”

A work acquaintance – a doctor educated and trained in the UK – confided in me about the challenges she encountered when transitioning to work here. She mentioned that her direct style of communication, which was common in the UK, was perceived as abrasive by some of her Singaporean peers. To avoid causing more friction with her co-workers, she eventually adopted a more nuanced approach.

“I’ve noticed the markedly different styles of interaction among my colleagues… my Australian and British bosses typically frowned upon long and excessively detailed meetings…”

Speak freely, or hold on to your peace

American author and Insead professor Erin Meyer, a specialist in cross-cultural management and intercultural negotiations, notes that language, history and culture are just some of the factors that influence what she dubs “high and low context” communication styles.

In her book, The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, And Get Things Done Across Cultures, Prof Meyer illustrates a scale that ranks cultures from “the most explicit” (meaning low context communication that is simple, clear and understood at face value) to “the most implicit” (indicating that communication is nuanced, layered and not plainly expressed).

Singapore falls slightly past the middle of the scale, towards “high context” countries like Japan, China and India, while the likes of the US, Australia and Germany occupy the “low context” end of the scale. Adding to the complexity, Prof Meyer suggests that high-context cultures typically stem from countries with a long-established shared history and a homogenous population, such as Japan.

Conversely, some cultures on the opposite end of the spectrum, like the US, with a shorter history and large immigrant population, tend to rely on direct communication styles to prevent misunderstandings.

Whether you agree with her analysis or not, it does shed some light on why certain feedback, while seemingly inoffensive to one, could be deemed offensive to others. Still, I have to point out that we should consider this framework as merely a tool for adopting a different perspective, to avoid the “un-PC” stereotyping of individuals, especially when many of us live and work in cosmopolitan metropolises.

“I think the category of ‘Singaporeans’ is a generalisation, and a misnomer to begin with, as the cultural diversity of Singapore is growing each year. Expats coming from Asian countries, as well as those from normative Western/European backgrounds, means that both local and expatriate communities are increasing in cultural diversities. Moreover, many families in Singapore come from mixed cultural settings,” says Dr Jinna Tay, a senior lecturer at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Department of Communications and New Media.

One might also take into account the nature of work and the industry one is involved in. Dr Tay suggests that in certain industries, adopting a low-context form of communication would be more appropriate.

“This is especially true for roles and industries that are more information or text-based, such as conveyancing and administration. However, in the service sector, high-context communication is essential to enhance job performance. So, depending on the sector, low or high context may be required for one to do the job well,” she adds.

“While it has been used derisively to describe examples of self- censorship, being “PC” is also being aware of how words can easily be weaponised.”

You have to be able to walk the talk

Although “politically correctness” is used here to illustrate a more measured style of communication, it is also important to note that the term, which first appeared during the Russian Revolution in 1917, has evolved with the times. While it has been used derisively to describe examples of self- censorship, being “PC” is also being aware of how words can easily be weaponised.

“Political correctness is not about censoring speech, or cancelling values – it is about understanding at a deeper level how normative behaviours could have discriminated, bullied or disadvantaged segments of the community. It is about setting the playing field right for individuals in such social or corporate settings,” explains Dr Tay.

I have not worked or studied overseas. Instead, my preference for direct communication can be attributed to both my outspoken nature, and my experience working in companies with multicultural workforces and bosses of different nationalities.

That being said, there have been many times when I have to remind myself that it is a two-way street. Being confronted with a blunt assessment of your flaws can easily be misconstrued as a personal attack, and this is when you have to be certain that you only dish out what you can take.

No matter the approach, I am of the “PC” stand that there is no right or wrong route, as long as work gets done. If you ever find yourself constantly feeling misunderstood, alienated or stressed about whether your colleague is going to take offence at a comment you made, perhaps it’s a sign that the environment or culture isn’t the right fit for you, and you might be better off elsewhere.

And if I’m to be absolutely honest, there are those who would consider me an a**hole ( just ask my team). But I wouldn’t trade the freedom of speaking my mind for anything, not even for inner peace.

After all, I am a masochist.