How to be “Asia savvy” in the workplace

New Zealand’s connectivity with Asia is extremely important to KiwisWhen it comes to flourishing in the modern workplace, this is what’s known as “Asia savviness”.  

According to “New Zealanders’ Perceptions of Asia and Asian PeoplesAsia New Zealand Foundation’s annual survey, almost half of all New Zealanders have visited or lived in Asia (47 percent), with Singapore being the most visited. In fact, one in ten Kiwis has lived in Asia for six months or more.  

One in six Kiwis speak an Asian language. Food and travel are the key areas of interest in connecting New Zealanders to Asia, but confidence in engaging with Asian cultures in the workplace is also at the top of many Kiwis’ minds. In fact, more than half of us believe that being “Asia-savvy” is an important skill for the modern New Zealand workforce.  

From understanding Asian protocols and etiquette to Asian societies and knowledge of languages, there are some key areas of learning for the future that Kiwis are interested in for the benefit of their careers. What does it really mean to be “Asia savvy”?  

High context culture  

Whether working in an organisation in Asia or working with Asian people in New Zealand, Kiwis should understand the Asian workplace is known as a “high context culture”.  

New Zealand can be considered a “low context culture”. That means, generally, it is a culture where people say what they mean, and mean what they say.

You should not have to understand specifics about New Zealand office culture in order to “interpret” what a colleague, manager, client, or customer is saying to you. There’s little need to “read into” what people say – a “yes” means yes, a “no” means no, and so on.  

Asian cultures, across the board, are higher in context. 

Northern Asian countries are the most contextual. In Korea, Japan, and China, the workplace culture is very high context (as is general culture in Korean, Japanese, and Chinese societies). Feelings of trust and identity are extremely important here, especially when it comes to anger, confrontation, and disagreements at work.  

Antje Fiedler, senior lecturer at the University of Auckland Business School and director of the China Studies Centre, says it’s important to be aware of subtle cues when it comes to the high context business cultures of Asia. “In the West, we are showing our emotions much more strongly, but in many Asian countries, people often don’t want to influence others with their emotions and are not necessarily showing how they feel,” she explains.  

In New Zealand, we sometimes passionately express our personal view, and openly debate different options, whereas in Asia harmony is important and thus, conflict and confrontation is avoided."

"For example, in the Japanese work environment, people would not say no, but communicate in a more subtle way that something is not possible. It is important to be able to read these subtle cues and learn how to communicate in the Asian context effectively.”    


Business relationships are cultivated differently in Kiwi and Asian cultures. In Asia, there is often a strong link between trust and successful business relationships. Developing strong personal relationships is important and this can be achieved by taking the time to get to know each other through social activities, such as sharing meals, going out for drinks, and karaoke.   

Felicity Roxburgh, Asia New Zealand Foundation’s director of business (and once a Hong Kong-based diplomat), emphasises the importance of getting to know one’s colleagues socially before doing business with them.   

“In Western business, trust tends to develop as business develops,” she explains. “In an Asian context, there’s a lot of getting to know each other first. 

It might feel like you’re investing endless hours in yum cha lunches, late-night drinking and karaoke, and attending enormous weddings. But that time spent is not frivolous. It’s for the long-term health of the business relationships you’re building.”    

Fiedler explains an additional element: “While building personal trust is important, so is developing competence trust. Business introductions and referrals are important, like a positive job reference in New Zealand would be."

"You also should actively provide examples to demonstrate your capabilities and past achievements to give evidence of your competencies.”  


What’s known as “constructive criticism” in Western countries would be received as rude and insensitive in Asian cultures. “Saving face in Asia is important,” says Fiedler. “Constructive criticism is still valued but needs to be managed carefully. For example, you would not openly criticise your workmates in Asia, but give productive advice in personal meetings.”   

When Roxburgh recounts time spent managing an office in Asia, she remembers a level of indirect critique that might surprise some Westerners

“In a situation where I didn’t follow the correct process, nobody came up to me and explained what I did wrong,” she recalls. “Instead, generic signs were put up all over the office “for everybody”, to take any directness out of it. But I knew the signs were meant for me, and so did everybody else.”   

As such, the key lesson here in Asia savviness is understanding one’s audience. Fiedler adds, “I believe it is important to understand what motivates people in different cultural settings and reflect how your behaviour might need to be adjusted to build meaningful relationships.”  

Why now? 

Unfortunately, young Kiwis feel they’re missing out on Asia-savvy skills . In a survey by Asia New Zealand Foundation of 16 to 25 year olds, 65 percent said they haven’t received any study or career advice about Asia. Moreover, although most students believe Asia will have an increasing influence on New Zealand’s demographic profile, 55 percent of all students feel they aren’t prepared for engaging with the people or cultures of Asia.  

“All indicators show Asia will play a critical role in young New Zealanders’ careers, their personal relationships, and their life experiences,” says Foundation executive director Simon Draper. “Developing Asia-related competencies will be a necessity for their future.  

“We hope this report prompts schools, parents, students, educators, officials, and community groups to engage in a meaningful conversation about whether we should formalise learning about Asia in our education system.” 

- Asia Media Centre