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Is it true that Asians don’t ask?

The Art of “Bothering”

2022 October 14 | by Monica Zhaung Critical thinking - Exploring cultures

The idea of not “bothering” other people is intriguing; it typically depends on each person’s personality but may frequently be embodied in Asian culture.

Confucius’ “己所不欲,勿施于人” (Don’t do unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you) is deeply rooted in every Chinese’s mindset. Likewise, in Japanese culture, “他人に迷惑を掛ける” meaning to annoy/bother others, and “do not cause any trouble to others” is a common sense that Japanese have been introduced to it ever since they were a child.

Reflecting on these thoughts in real life, here’s a very interesting example: the “arriving five minutes earlier” rule.

It implied that employees at big Japanese corporations would show up exactly five minutes before the official working hours, regardless of how early they might arrive.

This type of workplace behaviour has never been specified, nor does it happen by accident. Japanese people generally believe that being late for work is obviously not advisable, but the enthusiasm for going to work earlier than others is also “causing trouble for others” – because it makes their coworkers seem less engaged, which can be stressful for them.

Therefore, those who arrive at the office earlier would rather kill time with a cup of coffee and hang out around the office, than step into the office to work.

Another example of “not bothering others” is when Ming (see cartoon strips above) hesitated to confirm the project with his superior, wasting his time and effort in the process.

This could be because the majorities are hesitant, uncomfortable, and afraid of disturbing our leaders and bosses – particularly in Asia, whose culture is steeped in hierarchy and deference, it’s an uphill battle to get its workers to direct their communications to people of higher authority and power.

Asking seems too difficult.

Below, there’s an interesting Ted Talk from an American performance artist Amanda Palmer. She described the adventure journey she had just by simply “asking” others: in the days of being a street artist, she deeply realized that:

the nature of asking/requesting is cooperation,

and people who truly understood this concept wouldn’t feel guilty asking for help from others because they believe they are in a cooperative rather than competitive relationship with the world.

 

 

The Art of “bothering” comes from both sides: to bother and to be bothered.

To bother

There’s a story in Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography: Franklin was elected secretary of Parliament in 1736 with no opponents, but the following year, a new congressman delivered a significant speech against him to help other candidates. Franklin wanted that position so badly that he decided to “ask” something from this congressman.

Franklin heard that he had a rare book in his library, so he wrote this congressman, stating that he would like to read it, but could not find it anywhere and begging the congressman to lend it to him for a few days.

As a result, within a few days, the book was delivered.

Franklin returned the book in about a week, writing a note to express his gratitude for his kindness. After the “bothering,” the next time they were in Parliament, the congressman spoke to him (which had never happened before) and was polite. From then on, the congressman offered to help Franklin at any time, so they became good friends, “and our friendship continued until his death,” according to Franklin.

How did Franklin turn the enemy into a dear friend by asking for a favour?

In fact, this is a “reverse” method of expanding your social network; asking someone for help is a compliment in itself – because people have the need to be “needed”.

Extended reading: Book review of Asking the right questions by Arduino Mancini.

To be bothered

It’s easy to blame it on culture for employees’ fear of speaking up in Asia. However, this persistent employee silence has caused widespread and sometimes lethal consequences; remember the famous plane Korean Air crash in Guam where the pilot made an error, and the co-pilot was too afraid to correct him.

How could we encourage more Asian colleagues to speak their minds?

It’s critical for leaders to downplay their power cues when interacting with staff members if they want to truly learn the truth from those “below them” on the corporate ladder, according to Professors James Detert and Ethan Burris in their Harvard Business Review article. They recommended that leaders practice MBWA (Management By Walking Around) by interacting with their staff in the cafeteria, hallway, or at their place of employment to reduce this psychological distance.

A survey conducted by the Founder and CEO of the Centre for Talent Innovation (now Coqual), Sylvia Ann Hewlett, reveals that employees are 4.5 times more likely to freely express their views when leaders exhibit most of these inclusive behaviors:

  • ask questions and listen carefully;
  • facilitate constructive argument;
  • give actionable feedback;
  • take advice from the team and act on it;
  • share credit for team success;
  • maintain regular contact with team members.

What else do you have in mind? Do you see any different solutions?

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