Cross-Cultural Understanding: How Thai, Japanese, and Western Work Cultures Differ
Working with colleagues from different cultures can present challenges and opportunities.
Cross-cultural working environments have become increasingly common in today’s interconnected world. These environments bring together individuals from different cultural backgrounds, each with their own unique perspectives, beliefs, and traditions. While these diverse cultures can foster creativity, innovation, and a broad range of ideas, they can also present challenges.
One of the most significant challenges of working in a cross-cultural environment is communication - or more specifically, miscommunication. Misunderstandings and confusion can occur when people have different cultural interpretations of speech and body language. To overcome these differences, it is essential to ensure that everyone is speaking the same language, both literally and figuratively.
Another challenge is cultural differences in work ethics and practices. Different cultures have varying attitudes towards punctuality, hierarchy, and the importance of workplace relationships. To avoid friction, it is important to appreciate and respect these differences by adapting and finding common ground.
Cultural diversity also creates opportunities for personal and professional growth. By embracing cultural differences, individuals can gain new perspectives and develop cross-cultural skills, becoming more empathetic and globally aware.
I’d like to share my observations from more than 20 years working in cross-cultural environments with Thai, Japanese, and Western organisations. I hope these insights can lead to greater understanding and appreciation amongst colleagues.
Please keep in mind, these are generalisations; there are always exceptions to these cultural norms, but they are honest observations from my personal work experience with American, European, and Asian companies.
Thai Working Culture:
Thai working culture places great value on respect, harmony, and enjoyment in the workplace, with an emphasis on hierarchy and personal relationships. Here are some general observations to help understand how Thais approach work relationships.
Respect for authority – Thai working culture places great emphasis on respect for authority figures such as managers or bosses. This is reflected in the use of formal titles and language.
Hierarchy and seniority – Thais also place great importance on hierarchy and seniority. Senior employees are expected to make the decisions. Younger employees are expected to show deference and respect. Thai working culture is hierarchical, and employees are expected to show this respect to their superiors, not only during working hours, but whenever they meet.
Politeness and saving face – Thai employees value politeness and courtesy. They are extremely sensitive to avoiding embarrassment or loss of face, to themselves or others. This means that they may be hesitant to offer criticism or feedback – when they do express themselves, especially to superiors, they will soften their opinions.
Indirect communication – Thai people prefer indirect communication. This is considered polite behaviour. To express strong opinions, or to say ‘No’ directly could be considered rude.
Loyalty and harmony - The concept of sanuk, or sabai sabai (that life should be fun, lighthearted and enjoyable) is important in Thai culture. This notion is often prioritised over individual ambition or competition. As a result, loyalty to the team and maintaining harmony are highly valued.
Work-life balance, and the value of family and relationships – Although Thai people work hard, they place a big priority on their personal lives. It is common practice to take time off from work to attend family events and celebrate traditional religious holidays. Thai culture values relationships, so building a strong relationship with your Thai coworkers is important to maintain a positive working environment.
Gift-giving and hospitality - Thais are known for their hospitality and generosity. Gift-giving is common in many situations, including business meetings. Be aware that if you politely refuse a gift, it may be taken as a rejection, rather than an expression of humility.
Cooperation & respect - Thai working culture is more cooperative and mutually respectful: employees are expected to work together to achieve company goals.
Japanese working culture:
Punctuality and focus – Being on-time is a crucial aspect of Japanese work culture. Tardiness is seen as a sign of disrespect. Employees are expected to arrive on time and studiously focus on their work.
Long working hours and overtime – Japanese employees are known to work long hours, sometimes up to 12 hours a day. This is considered an indicator of dedication and commitment to the company. Employees are often expected to work beyond scheduled business hours, even if there is no overtime compensation.
Collective and group harmony – Japanese working culture emphasises group harmony. Employees are expected to prioritise the needs of the group over individuals. Harmony and unity are of paramount importance, and employees are expected to work together towards a common goal.
Respect for hierarchy – Japan's hierarchical culture is deeply ingrained in the workplace. Age, seniority, and rank play an important role in how employees interact with each other. Employees must always keep their superiors informed: Every decision, no matter how small, should go through the chain of command and get the stamp of approval from the boss. Employees should immediately report any problems to their bosses before trying to take care of it on their own.
Work life balance – The concept of work-life balance is not as prevalent as in other countries. Employees of Japanese companies are expected to prioritise work over their personal lives.
Formal or indirect communication – To avoid confrontation, Japanese communication is often formal, polite, and indirect. Openly expressing personal opinions or criticising others is considered disrespectful.
Lifetime employment – In the past, Japanese companies would offer lifetime employment to their employees. While not as common today, this practice does persist in some sectors. Many Japanese companies still offer long-term job security and good benefits. We can see a higher proportion of Japanese employees who work most of their lives and retire from the same company, compared to other cultures.
Loyalty & respect – Loyalty and respect for the organisation and its members are highly valued, and employees are expected to show respect to their superiors. The Japanese workplace is more formal: most staff wear a uniform or wear gray, navy, or black suits. Wearing ties and suits is common, even in the Thailand’s tropical summers.
Hanging out after work & drinking – When the workday is over, Japanese colleagues go out to socialise with one another. They often hang out in karaoke bars or restaurants for nomikai, a drinking party. With everyone seated around one big table, co-workers are expected to drink, share meals, and engage in friendly conversation.
Western Working Culture:
Western cultures generally prioritise efficiency, productivity, and individual achievement in the workplace. In Europe and North America, employees are expected to work long hours, be competitive, and strive for professional success. The workplace is often hierarchical, with clear lines of authority and decision-making power. There is an emphasis on clear, direct communication and problem-solving. Compared to Asian office culture, Western employees are encouraged to speak up and share their opinions. Typical ‘farang’ work values also include:
Individualism – The Western work culture is more individualistic; employees are expected to work independently to achieve their targets.
Punctuality – Being on-time is of the utmost importance. Employees are expected to arrive punctually for meetings and appointments.
Direct communication – Westerners are known for a more direct communication style; they prefer to communicate their ideas and opinions clearly and openly. Europeans may be more indirect and reserved, while Americans tend to have a more direct and open style of communication.
Attitude towards authority – In my experience, European organisations have a more relaxed attitude towards authority. American organisations often have a more hierarchical workplace structure, where greater deference is expected to be shown to the boss.
Innovation and creativity – The work culture in American organisations is typically more focused on innovation and creativity, something that is greatly valued in start-ups and tech. European organisations tend to place more emphasis on tradition and legacy.
Work-life balance – Western culture places great importance on work-life balance, and employees are generally given greater freedom to manage their time. Still, work is prioritised over personal life. Employees are expected to put in extra hours or work on weekends. Depending on the organisation, taking vacation time can be stigmatised or discouraged. In recent years, recognition of the importance of work-life balance has grown; many companies now are beginning to offer more flexible work arrangements.
Diversity and inclusion – DEI is becoming more important to Western companies. Many organisations are striving to create a more diverse workforce and promote equality and inclusivity in the workplace. There is also a growing trend towards remote work and telecommuting, as technology makes it easier to work from anywhere in the world.
Embrace Cultural Relativism
Working in a cross-cultural environment requires embracing cultural relativism. This is the idea that a person’s beliefs and behaviours should not be judged, but better understood through the lens of the person’s own culture. The norms and values of one culture cannot be objectively evaluated by using the norms or values of another culture.
If you are aware of different cultural norms, and put them in proper context, you will better understand the behaviour of your international colleagues, and forge more productive, mutually beneficial and friendly working relationships.
For example, if you are an American or European coming to work in Thailand, you may want to adopt a softer approach – tone down strong opinions, and literally speak more softly to avoid being perceived as rude.
If you are a Thai working for a western company, this may be a chance for you to come out of your shell a bit, and feel more free to express yourself without fear of losing face.
If you are a Thai, American, or European joining a Japanese organisation, you should demonstrate respect for elders, and show great deference to senior executives. These are indispensable principles in a Japanese work environment. Japanese value decorum and respectability, in public and in the workplace, so if you keep this in mind it will help you gain face with your colleagues.
By embracing cultural relativism, I’ve learned how to place high-calibre candidates who not only have the proper credentials and capabilities – I can tell when a candidate will fit into the new company culture, and when they might struggle a bit despite having the perfect resume.
The Value of Cross-Cultural Work Relationships
I love working in cross-cultural working environments with people from various backgrounds, who have been trained in different disciplines. I find their input helpful for my personal growth and progress.
Because they are by design more diverse environments, cross-cultural workplaces are generally free from prejudice and discrimination. Each individual has a unique set of abilities and skills that other members of the team value and benefit from.
Every day, when I am exposed to different cultures, working methods, and viewpoints, I develop and learn new things from others. These experiences help me as a recruitment consultant role to better support the growth of my clients, especially multinationals expanding their operations in Southeast Asia.
If your company is looking to hire overseas talent, or if you are interested to work for an international company with operations in Thailand, I’m happy to help. Please reach and send me an email: Surichai@jacksongrant.io