Cultural literacy – the real language of business (Asia Savvy Conference recap)

Asia Savvy Group PhotoAuckland is special.

If you want proof, just go to Asia Savvy next year – you’ll see the diversity that makes Auckland one of the most diverse cities in the world. Last year’s census showed 23% of Auckland’s population identifying as Asian.

With the global economic centre of gravity moving to Asia, this is exciting news. Our biggest and fastest growing market is not just in our backyard, they are in our front yard!

Of course it’s not a clear cut “us” and “them”. Thousands of people from Asia are making their home in New Zealand, and many thousands have done so generations ago. 

But there is still a cultural divide that hampers New Zealand companies doing business. While there are no shortage of business-themed Asia conferences, Asia Savvy is a conference primarily for students. It’s a refreshing perspective that businesspeople would be well advised to adopt: listen and learn before you earn

In the time syENGAGE has focused on China, I’ve heard a consistent message again and again from the veterans – get the cultural literacy right first, and the business will be much easier.

It’s basic respect to show interest in your potential customer. But we kiwis – as well as our other English speaking relatives – have a cultural tendency to want to get to the bottom line first – something that goes against the more long-term focus of our Asian neighbours. 

My personal conference highlights:

  • 3News Producer Jessica Rowe’s story of working in Chinese state media for a year
  • Craig Pettigrew from The Better Drinks Company relating his experiences in Japan and lessons learnt
  • syENGAGE alumni Camellia Yang sharing Air New Zealand’s experience engaging with a Chinese audience through weibo, wechat and other online channels
  • Oxfam’s Bert Maerten comparing the Pacific and South East Asia from a development perspective
  • Chris Henderson from Cognition speaking on Indonesia (a huge but often-overlooked rising nation)  

Simon speaking at Asia SavvyIn my speaking slot at Asia Savvy, I talked not about business or ecommerce or any of the terrifically exciting things happening in Asia. I talked about my very personal journey learning the world’s most difficult language by making friends online

We often focus on specific skills, like speaking mandarin, but I believe the most important skill is cultural literacy.

In the Asia Pacific region there are thousands of distinct cultures (in China alone there are over 55 ethnic groups). It’s not possible to learn them all. But it is possible to be curious about them all, and friendly towards them all.

Asia Savvy DinnerCuriosity and friendship. A powerful combination, where we assume the best, not the worst, about anything or anyone we don’t know (until proven otherwise). I’ve heard it called “unconditional positive regard”, and I prefer to call it love.

Call me a hippy if you like, but as I look at western countries like New Zealand coming to grips with “the Asian Century”, I think this kind of love should be the foundation of our business strategies.

What do you think? Can love get us where we need to go?  


4 thoughts on “Cultural literacy – the real language of business (Asia Savvy Conference recap)

  • Tony Gallagher

    Nice perspective Simon. I realise that when we met I was all business and not enough curiosity and friendship. Kiwis could extend a bit more of that to one another as well as to the Asian community.

    • Simon

      Oh, thanks so much Tony. 🙂 I quite agree, I was probably very down-to-business on that day as well.

  • Michael Anderson

    Great article Simon! I agree with you totally when you say, “Curiosity and friendship” is a powerful combination. That’s essentially what we are promoting here in Nanjing.

    • Simon

      Thanks Mike! Looking forward to discovering more (and who knows, maybe reporting back here) in November!


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