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Photo of Aelita Brivins.
Photo courtesy of Aelita Brivins

60 Seconds with Aelita Brivins

What you don’t know about how you’re communicating

As one of the world’s top financial centres, Hong Kong is home to a large expatriate community. But newcomers to the “Pearl of the Orient” often find that adjusting to life in their new home can be a challenge. For 20 years, U of T sociology graduate Aelita Brivins (BA 1985 Victoria) has worked in the city as a cross-cultural consultant. She gives executives an understanding of how their home country’s traditions can strongly influence how they communicate and do business – and she helps them with homesickness too. Brivins goes through customs with Cynthia Macdonald.

Canadians end up in Hong Kong for many reasons. What are yours? I was offered a short-term job in banking and met my husband here, who’s also Canadian. Then I started teaching at the university, where they were doing research in expatriate adjustment. I was always interested in that subject: I come from a Latvian family in Toronto, and was frequently exposed to cultural differences.

Hong Kong has often been called “the world’s most globalized economy.” Are cultural differences disappearing in this increasingly borderless world? In some ways, yes: because of companies such as H&M and Zara, for example, you notice people dress more alike now. But in other ways, no. In Hong Kong, for example, hierarchy is very important, while in North America, employees take greater initiative and are more likely to challenge their bosses. Here people are less likely to do that, so their North American bosses sometimes complain about not getting the input they’d like.

What about differences in etiquette? In Hong Kong, the question “Have you had lunch?” (or breakfast) shows polite concern. It is the same as North Americans saying, “How are you?” These greetings have led to a few uneasy situations where visitors were asked if they had had lunch, only to have the Hong Kong person walk away after they said “No.” They were confused: was this a lunch invitation?

Do other cultures have trouble adjusting too? There are many differences. With German clients, I sometimes run into problems because they are quite direct in their communication compared to others. Or the Chinese pride themselves on efficiency, part of which comes from not discussing a lot; whereas the Indians pride themselves on discussion, and like to look at the complexity of a problem from different angles.

What’s the secret to thriving when you move abroad? I think a successful expat is somebody who has a sense of adventure. Somebody who’s flexible, who entertains different ideas. And who has a certain amount of patience, because things don’t always happen in the way you’d anticipate.

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