Mindsets differences of Asian/Western devs
Preamble: This is an important topic not many people tackle. Yes, it could happen that some people misunderstand it. Let me say what I’m trying to do here:
- Be as non-judging as I can be
- Give you the tools to help cross-cultural understanding
- Have a couple of people proof-read this.
And this is what people say who have read this exact post you are about to read:
Wow, you described exactly what I am thinking
— Shaily, India, Senior dev
TODO, need more! — TODO Man, Philippines
Who am I to talk about this? I spent 9 years on and off in Vietnam. I speak fluent Vietnamese and have hired dozens of devs all across Asia. Oh, and I’m German.
Why is this post important?
I have seen many colleagues start with wrong expectations and wrong tools to work in cross-cultural teams. When people get put together to work in a team, things usually go very well.
Problems arise mostly from entrepreneurs / founders who want to get something done for cheap and come in with high expectations.
I can tell you: there’s no cheap solution to software. (if you want cheap software: your biggest lever is reducing it to the absolute necessary features. That’s for another post.)
And many founders then try the following:
- Go on some hiring platform or get cold-emailed from an outsourcing company
- Get excited about the low wage and hire some people
- Work with the devs in a western way (= leave them alone)
- Find that things don’t work as expected
This post should teach you the main differences in mindset. When you see problems with people arising, and you have one or some devs from Asia in your team, this might help.
The foundational principle
Before I left Europe for Asia, my co-founder back then told me an important concept. She was a relocation consultant. For her work she traveled all over the world and has sent executives and their families abroad. Also, she received a lot of people from everywhere and helped them get started in Europe.
What she told me help me understand and empathize. The principle is the following:
- Some cultures are
- Some are
Before I explain these, I ask you to not see this too strict. Just like this funny map:
The world is never black and white, but the tendencies are there.
You can never draw a line like this and think it’s 100% correct. Yet, it’s somewhat true. Yet, there are always tendencies that are more or less correct. And yet, you can still learn from it.
Now: let me explain these 2 concepts.
The general driving force of interactions can be simplified as “What value can I get here?
You might have heard Americans say “The value is great”. Deals are made by choosing superior products or services, even if they come with a less great experience or have poor service.
Countries that are likely more transactional: USA, Canada, Germany, France, Scandinavia, Singapore.
General motivation: “What relationship can we build and how will I look in the eyes of others?”
When I see TV ads in Vietnam it’s easy to spot the commonality: when you purchase a product someone else is getting jealous. Or the family is proud of you.
Deals are made because of the people you work with, and most importantly: the people you work for.
Regions that are likely more transactional: Almost all of South East Asia, Latin America, Southern Europe.
All these things get explained better with some examples.
TODO: Insights from Martin:
- greek/spain/italy: their culture is totally different.
- problem: if the Toro who leads, sucks, the whole thing sucks.
- they often want to collaborate better. whereas in Germany it’s more technical.
- Rationality Westerners make rational work decisions and career decisions, Asians more likely to make decisions because someone in authority taught them that way or because their friends do the same.
1b. add: work style (Martin) iterative thinking: germans can do this really well.
- Socialisation Westerners more likely to enjoy team building, one on ones, company culture etc
Asians like it less and do their socialising with colleagues outside the office over food, drinks etc. For them it’s like making school friends and cliques all over again
- Quitting Westerners will quit if it makes sense.
Asians will quit to show solidarity with their friends even if it does not make sense.
- Career advancement Westerners will be proactive in seeking roles and promotions, building new roles for themselves etc
Asians will wait for others to promote them or not at all
- work life balance Asians work longer hours and it’s normal, fewer complaints about commutes, 6 day work weeks etc
Westerners highly value work life balance, 30 hour 4 day weeks etx
Situation: responding to feedback
Some more ideas from chatgpt:
Business negotiations: Transaction-based culture: In the United States, a business negotiation between John (an American businessman) and Ahmed (a businessman from Dubai) might focus on the terms of a contract and the delivery of specific goods or services. John might be focused on getting the best deal possible and be willing to walk away from the negotiation if he cannot reach a mutually acceptable agreement. Relationship-based culture: In Japan, a business negotiation between Kenji (a Japanese businessman) and Xiaoming (a Chinese businessman) might involve building a personal relationship and taking the other party’s perspective into account. Kenji might invite Xiaoming out for tea or dinner to get to know him better, and the focus might be on maintaining social harmony and finding a mutually acceptable solution that benefits both parties.
Employee relations: Transaction-based culture: In the United States, employees like Maria might be expected to follow rules and procedures without question and to prioritize their work over their personal relationships. Performance evaluations and promotions might be based on objective criteria, such as job performance and productivity. Relationship-based culture: In Greece, employees like Nikolas might be more likely to feel a strong sense of loyalty to their employer and to expect to be treated with respect and dignity. They might prioritize personal relationships with their colleagues and feel a sense of obligation to help one another.
Communication style: Transaction-based culture: In the United States, communication might be direct and to the point. Americans like Jake might value honesty and directness, and might be more likely to get straight to the point in conversations and meetings. Relationship-based culture: In China, communication might be more indirect and nuanced. Chinese people like Mei Ling might value social harmony and might use indirect language to avoid confrontation or to maintain social relationships.
Problem-solving: Transaction-based culture: In Singapore, problems might be solved by following established protocols and procedures. Individuals like Tan Wei might look to the rules and procedures to guide their decision-making and to resolve conflicts. Relationship-based culture: In Italy, problems might be solved through personal relationships and social connections. Italians like Giorgio might prioritize social harmony and might look to personal relationships to resolve conflicts and find solutions to problems.
Conflict resolution: Transaction-based culture: In the United States, conflicts might be resolved through mediation or legal action. Americans like Emily might value the rule of law and might be more likely to use the legal system to resolve disputes. Relationship-based culture: In Mexico, conflicts might be resolved through personal negotiation and compromise. Mexicans like Enrique might value social harmony and might prioritize finding a solution that benefits both parties and maintains social relationships.
Back to my old co-founder. She was a relocation consultant. For her work she traveled all over the world and has sent people everywhere.
Also, she helped a lot of foreigners set foot on the ground. She got them accommodation, schools for the children. And she answered all kinds of questions. She has seen the contract of cultures on a daily basis.
I’ll trust her when she explained this to me:
Some cultures are
transaction based, s ome are
What does that mean?
And here is a list of countries that are often considered to have a transaction-based culture:
United States United Kingdom Germany Switzerland Australia Canada Singapore Sweden Norway Denmark.
Japan China Greece Italy Mexico India Brazil Argentina South Africa Philippines
Story from my Vietnamese learning process: calling older people “em”, because I didn’t get it.
Culture can refer to the values, beliefs, behaviors, and practices that are shared by a group of people and passed down from generation to generation. There are two broad types of cultures: relationship-based cultures and transaction-based cultures.
Relationship-based cultures prioritize personal relationships and social connections over formal rules and procedures. Examples of relationship-based cultures include:
Confucian cultures, such as those found in China, Japan, and Korea, which emphasize respect for authority, loyalty, and interdependence Mediterranean cultures, such as those found in Greece, Italy, and Spain, which value social connections, hospitality, and a strong sense of community Latin American cultures, which place a strong emphasis on personal relationships, warmth, and emotional expressiveness
Transaction-based cultures, on the other hand, prioritize rules, procedures, and formal contracts over personal relationships. Examples of transaction-based cultures include:
Anglo-Saxon cultures, such as those found in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, which emphasize individualism, competition, and efficiency Nordic cultures, such as those found in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, which value fairness, transparency, and equality East Asian cultures, such as those found in Singapore and Hong Kong, which emphasize a strong work ethic, efficiency, and respect for rules and hierarchy.
It’s important to note that these are generalizations and there can be significant variations within cultures. Additionally, individuals can have cultural influences from multiple cultures, and cultures can change over time, so these categorizations are not set in stone.