The article ‘Cultural Clues, Do’s and Taboos for Singapore’ is a brief snapshot of conversation guidelines for Singapore, tips for communicating in Singapore, and strategies for doing business with Singapore to help with understanding the culture in Singapore. It’s important to keep in mind that as we homogenize as a ‘global culture’, cultural tendencies change and evolve as well. Awareness is the first step when it comes to tips for intercultural communication!
Emmy Award Winner, Gayle Cotton, is the author of this article and of the bestselling book, ‘SAY Anything to Anyone, Anywhere! 5 Keys to Successful Cross-Cultural Communication’, available on Amazon as a Book, eBook, or Audio Book. She is President of Circles Of Excellence for Corporate Education, and a distinguished Professional Keynote Speaker. Contact Gayle to be a conference speaker for your events! She is a cross cultural expert that will entertain and inspire audiences of all sizes with her fresh, unique, and humorous approach to cross-cultural communication and social business etiquette. Gayle travels worldwide from business bases in Texas and Switzerland.
Cultural Tips for Singapore – including some valuable business travel tips for Singapore!
When doing business in Singapore, punctuality is essential for business appointments. It is considered an insult to leave a Singaporean business executive waiting.
Occasionally, a Singaporean may prefer to arrive a few minutes late so as not to appear overly eager or anxious, especially if the person has been invited to an event in which food will be served.
The Singaporean business culture is intensely competitive and has an exceptionally strong work ethic. The group, rather than the individual, prevails and the oldest or most competent member usually assumes the leadership position.
Avoid publicly debating, correcting, or disagreeing with an older person or superior. The older person or superior will only “lose face”, and, consequently, you will lose the respect of others.
In Singapore, it’s considered perfectly acceptable to ask people questions about their weight, income, marital status, and related subjects. If this makes you uncomfortable, side-step these questions as graciously as possible so you don’t cause the questioner to “lose face”.
Speak in low, calm tones of voice, and avoid raising your voice or becoming overly emotional and showing anger.
Age and seniority are revered in this culture. If you are part of a delegation, ensure that the most important members are introduced first. If you are introducing two people, state the name of the most important individual first.
Business cards may be printed in English however, since a high proportion of Singaporean businesspeople are ethnic Chinese it will be an asset to have the reverse side of your card translated into Chinese.
Business cards should be exchanged with every business associate you encounter after the introductions. They are exchanged with both hands and held between the thumbs and forefingers. In some cases, this may be accompanied by a slight bow.
The recipient will accept the card with both hands, study it for a moment, make eye contact with you, and then carefully place it on a nearby table or in a card case or pocket. You should do the same when a card is presented to you. Business cards are handled with great respect because they represent a person’s identity. Never write on someone’s business card!
If you compliment a Singaporean, it is best that it is based on accomplishments rather than appearance which may be considered insincere.
Singaporean listening etiquette dictates that you count to 10 before responding. By waiting a minimum of 10 seconds, you will demonstrate that you have given careful consideration to what you heard before responding.
It is considered polite to break eye contact so that you do not seem to be staring or glaring at the other person.
With the exception of handshakes, there is no public contact between the sexes in Singapore. Hugging and kissing, even between husbands and wives, is strongly discouraged in public.
Conversely, physical contact between people of the same sex is perfectly acceptable. You’ll likely observe men holding hands with men or walking with their arms around each other. These actions are interpreted strictly as gestures of friendship.
Singapore has many different cultures and religions. The Muslims and Hindus believe that the left hand is unclean. Consequently, eat only with your right hand, and avoid touching things with your left hand if you can use your right hand instead.
Many Indians and Malays believe that the head is the “seat of the soul”, so don’t touch anyone’s head or face, even if stroking the hair of a child.
Feet are also believed to be unclean, so don’t move or touch anything with your feet, and never cross your legs or feet so the sole of your shoe is pointing at someone.
Among Indians, rocking the head from side to side actually signals agreement, although Westerners may interpret this gesture as meaning, “no.”
The personal relationship you build in Singapore is often considered more important than the company you represent. A relationship with each group member is essential to conducting business. Your Singaporean counterparts must genuinely like, feel at ease with, and trust you.
Business agreements will likely require several trips over a period of months. Negotiations are conducted at a much slower pace than in the U.S. or many European countries.
5 Key Conversation Topics or Gesture Tips
- Travel and the Arts, as the Singaporeans are typically well travelled and cultured
- The modern economic advances and the architecture of Singapore
- The variety of foods and the excellent cuisine
- Your future plans, business success (without boasting), and personal interests
- To beckon someone, hold your hand out, palm downward, and make a scooping motion with the fingers. Beckoning someone with the palm up and wagging one finger will be interpreted as an insult
5 Key Conversation Topics or Gesture Taboos
- The personal life of another individual
- Bureaucracy, politics, and religion
- Legalities, crime, and punishment in Singapore. Spitting, smoking in public, chewing gum, and jaywalking are all offenses subject to fines
- Standing tall with your hands on your hips is typically perceived as an angry, aggressive stance
- It is considered rude to point at anyone with the forefinger. Instead, use your entire right hand
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To learn more about the Do’s & Taboos for Singapore, doing business in Singapore, and the communication and business styles of Asia/Pacific, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East – order Gayle Cotton’s bestselling book ‘SAY Anything to Anyone, Anywhere! 5 Keys to Successful Cross-Cultural Communication’ available on Amazon as a Book, eBook, or Audio Book
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