Global Cultures

Kiwi at home in Singapore

December 2015

Tina Marinkovich, a Kiwi, has lived and worked as an ex-pat for almost two decades across many parts of Asia. She shares her insights on the subtleties of Asian culture and adapting to the unique social and business mores she has encountered on her travels.

Born in Whangarei, New Zealand, Tina moved to China at 29 with her boyfriend, now husband, Simon Josey.

Some 17 years later, after stints in Taipei and the Philippines, Singapore is 'home' for the couple and their two sons, Alex, 15, and Finn, 12.

Tina, 44, is the head of organisational communications for DHL Supply Chain Asia Pacific, the world's largest logistics company. In addition to this she develops and deploys DHL Supply Chain's global employee engagement and development platform, the Certified Supply Chain Specialist, across the region, encompassing about 45,000 employees in 14 countries.

Regular travel and cross cultural communications are at the heart of what Tina does– not only around Asia, but to London for global team meetings and Bonn, Germany where DHL Supply Chain's parent company, Deutsche Post DHL group, is based.

Tips for doing business in Asia

Guanxi is a person's social networks and how to cultivate influence in business through giving and receiving favours. “In China, and most of Asia, it is not what you know, it's who you know. You don't ask someone to do something for you unless you have guanxi with them."

Giving a gift or taking someone out for a meal is a way of showing someone respect, and helps to maintain and strengthen the relationship.

“In Asia concepts such as guanxi, kiasu, face, harmony and conformity are important to consider, “ says Tina.

Tina works hard at her guanxi, which is essential for keeping her team happy and motivated. It may involve having additional conversations, and bringing in other networks or contacts to ensure everyone is comfortable and that no one 'loses face', or feels humiliated or disrespected.

Kiasu is another concept that must be factored in, especially in Singapore. “Kiasu is almost impossible to explain, it's a sort of greediness, and a fear of missing out on something," says Tina. “If I am rolling out a program I like to pilot it in Singapore to tap into this idea of kiasu, with the idea that we are showing respect by doing it here first, because that is how important Singapore is. Understanding about kiasu and guanxi makes things happen a lot easier in business."

In other countries these concepts may be less important. Tina was in Bangalore, India recently for a video shoot where guanxi was less important than appealing to the local's sense of pride in their Indian traditions and culture. “It was a completely different conversation," says Tina.

Producing material for multiple countries involved in the company's Certified Supply Chain Specialist program requires careful consideration. “We don't just translate something, we do something called trans-creation," says Tina. “It's not just translating words, it's translating meaning." Often the visual elements on a page are important in communicating the right message. “For most of my Asian countries, I won't use a picture of an individual by themselves because they are all about team, community and cooperation." But when creating material for New Zealand or Australia, Tina is more likely to use photos of individuals busy on a task.

Getting away from the hustle and bustle.

Lost in translation

Tina has learned that some things can, indeed, be lost in translation. Trying to get her team in Japan to understand why 'passion' was an important corporate value was a challenge due to their kaizen approach to business. “They understood passion and what we were trying to get across but didn't think it was appropriate. They said, 'It's not a Japanese employee's role to feel passionate about their job. They have to be efficient and if anything they have to do their work without emotion.' So that was interesting."

Tina's life in Singapore – with its bustling diversity and fast pace – at times seems a world away from her quiet, middle class New Zealand childhood – spending summer holidays camping at Northland beaches. It wasn't until she was in her 20s that Tina took her first flight overseas. In contrast, her sons attend an international school in Singapore, and take school trips to Malaysia, India and Indonesia.

Although they are “proud Kiwis", having grown up only in Asia Tina says her 'third-culture kids' sometimes feel like “a fish out of water" when they travel back to New Zealand, with their American accents and broader view of the world.

Tina, herself, has grown and changed after living in Asia for so many years. She is more aware of the subtleties of non-verbal communication and of body language cues. Things like taking off your shoes when visiting someone's home have become second nature. Tina has also adopted the practice of pasalubong - bringing a small gift or item of food back from a trip as a gift for colleagues, something she picked up after four years living in the Philippines.

“Asia is very much a high-context culture. You give respect by the way you do things, not what you say, and I've definitely taken that on," says Tina.

She has found that humour doesn't always cross cultures, and avoids cracking jokes when she MCs large town hall meetings at work. “Coming to Asia you realise that humour is about context and culture and everyone interprets things differently. That was one of the hardest things to come to terms with," she says.

Mango shopping at the wet markets

“As a general rule I always do my best to observe excessively polite etiquette of the country I am in. That includes using correct business card etiquette, making introductions and giving gifts, establishing credentials before getting to 'business at hand' and strenuously avoid any yes-no situation – until we have a well-established relationship," says Tina.

“Even then I have to constantly remind myself not to crack too many jokes, don't fill the silences in any conversation and not to be offended myself when people tell me in a matter-of -fact way that I have got fat, or look tired or don't suit the colours I am wearing. Ironically, absolute honesty on those matters is considered a way of 'giving face' or showing that you feel close to someone."

Multicultural melting pot

On weekends Tina enjoys getting away from the hustle and bustle. The family lives in Bukit Batok, five minutes from the lush Bukit Timah rain forest. There they walk the family dog, and marvel at the monkeys.

She enjoys the multicultural world view in Asia – the street festivals and the different cultural and religious observances that make up life in Singapore.

“Here, there is a sense that no one is more right than anyone else. We go straight from Ramadan into Diwali and we are building up to Chinese New Year. It's a huge melting pot here, and you see that in the food we eat, which is amazing."

Being a businesswoman in Asia hasn't held her back, says Tina. “I am the only woman on our extended board, but the guys respect the work I do. In some cultures, being a woman telling people what to do has been tough, but then you have the guanxi, the seniority and respect, that you have built up otherwise."