Publications & Products
The Asian Equation
The Asian Equation

Western directness plus Eastern modesty can equal cultural confusion—and disastrous encounters with alumni and donors. An insider reveals how to turn misunderstandings into mutually beneficial relationships.

By Antonia Y.H. Yeung



On my first day of college in North America, essentially my first day outside of China, I summoned the courage to say hello to the person beside me. "Hi, how are you?" she replied. I was surprised at her kindness in asking, but before I could respond she was already busy with someone else. I met three other students that day and each time was perplexed why no one would let me explain how I was. I soon realized this was a cultural misunderstanding, that the instantaneous friendliness commonly exhibited in North America may not reflect any special interest in the person addressed. It was just a normal way of conversing.

This same kind of cultural confusion often occurs when Westerners travel to Asia. It happens with individuals as well as businesses. Companies worldwide have suffered their fair share of embarrassment in foreign dealings-just ask Pepsi about its "Pepsi brings you back to life" slogan, which was interpreted in China as "Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave."

Preventing these types of misunderstandings requires cross-cultural understanding. No two cultures are identical—why should advancement practices across national or international borders be an exception? Cultural awareness is becoming more and more relevant to alumni relations and development as the fields grow and evolve. Emerging markets for institutional advancement, such as in Asia, are moving from a direct adoption of established practices from the West to a hybrid approach incorporating their own cultural norms and values. The realization that what works in the U.S. may not work elsewhere is a modest yet crucial starting point in formulating an international engagement strategy. For Western advancement professionals who want to connect with their alumni as well as potential donors in Asia, understanding everything from the right gestures to basic etiquette is essential.

Why ‘giving back' doesn't work in Asia

Developing a sense of belonging among your constituents is key to the success of advancement efforts, but the definition of that community can vary across continents and cultures. For example, in years past in Latin America there was no real culture of giving to social or environmental causes, but according to Elvira Ibáñez, coordinator at CASE América Latina, this is changing. "We are not so advanced like in the United States, but we are starting to grow," she says. In my own experience working with Asian institutions, I've found that almost everyone in the community gives; however, those gifts are often reserved for relatives, low-income people, charities, and religious entities.

Improved education and a growing middle class are reversing those trends. In China, foundations, government-run development initiatives, and higher education are, respectively, the top three recipients of donations, together receiving nearly 80 percent of the value of all gifts in 2012, according to Coutts, a private bank and wealth manager, in its 2013 "Million Dollar Donors Report."

In Hong Kong, "million dollar donations were distributed across a variety of different charitable causes" such as foundations, public and societal benefits, higher education, and charities for the arts, culture, and humanities, the report said.

So, it is possible to connect with your international audiences and make the case for higher education's value and purpose—but your proposals must be relevant to those cultures' values and norms.

When we talk with colleagues, advancement professionals often assume that everyone does things the same way. At conferences and professional exchanges, best practices and notions of benchmarking are shared with the implied idea that success could well be replicated across institutions, and sometimes cultures, given the right components and means of execution. But the term "institutional advancement" was almost nonexistent in Asia 15 years ago (and does not usually have a proper translation in the local language), so advancement professionals must ask themselves: How well does the practice transfer to the Asian context?

Asian cultures are often referred to as "high context" whereas their Western counterparts from Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and most regions of Canada and the United States are "low context." The high-low distinction refers to the reliance on conditions beyond the spoken word and was first presented by anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his 1976 book Beyond Culture (see chart).

A one-size-fits-all method for advancement purposes will not work. Even the phrase "give back" can be hard to fathom in countries where most colleges and universities are publicly funded and education is seen as an entitlement supported by taxpayers. Since the government funds education, and alumni (and likely their parents and family) have contributed through taxes, people tend to think they've already paid their dues.

Overseas alumni who paid hefty international tuition rates often don't feel obliged to financially support the institution. Under such circumstances, advancement professionals may have more success focusing on compassion rather than institutional needs, such as a campaign that supports physically challenged or poverty-stricken students.

Listen to social cues

Think of working with constituents in Asia as a blind date—give the relationship plenty of time, prepare to feel confused, and do not expect immediate results. Be aware of at least the following four cultural characteristics:

  1. Modesty is the best policy
    Asians express themselves through modesty and nonverbal cues such as pauses, silence, gestures, and body language. To a Westerner, these subtle expressions may seem like Asians are being slow and indirect. In some cases, you may be greeted with a composed smile or a few nods to your question and left wondering what he or she is thinking. Your Asian counterparts are reserved not because they are reluctant to pitch in but because they want to consider their options and are worried about disappointing you. In order to achieve mutual understanding, it is important to be clear about intentions, have patience, and follow up to verify details.
  2. Decisions are made by groups, not individuals
    In most parts of Asia, family ties and kinship are highly valued. Individuals often consult with family members before making major decisions. When working with a constituent in Asia, you may have to interact with the people within his or her circle of influence who are likely to have an impact on decisions such as giving and contribution. This is called respecting "guanxi" in Chinese business terms—an awareness of one's role within the network of relationships.
  3. Know what "on time" means
    Being on time varies depending on where you are in Asia. In Japan, arriving 10 to 15 minutes early is customary and considered respectful. In some parts of China, arriving early to dinner is considered rude, as if you are too eager to receive a free meal. Be flexible with event planning and scheduling: The stated time may or may not be the intended start time.
  4. Respect seniority
    Seniority—by age or rank in an organization—is still guarded and much-respected in most parts of Asia. When initially meeting with an older alumnus, for example, instead of addressing him by his first name, address him with the most appropriate title (president, doctor, professor) and last name. When reaching out to your Asian alumni volunteers, express respect for alumni group officeholders and identified opinion leaders. Possible gestures include conducting exclusive personal meetings, seeking advice from them before anyone else, arranging seating at an event to suggest their status, and public recognition.

Cultural insensitivity not only makes advancement moves difficult but may also jeopardize established goodwill and trust between the institution and its supporters. Consider this example: A recently installed development officer of a Western university went on a whirlwind alumni tour of Asia to drive support for the institution's new campaigns. During the fundraiser's visit to Hong Kong, senior local alumni were surprised that he was staying at the city's top luxury hotel. The alumni wondered if their gifts had helped fund the visit. They were further taken aback when the development officer outlined campaign objectives just 30 minutes into their first meeting. As Mansoor Ali, associate director of international alumni programs at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., points out, "In Asian culture, it's all about the relationship first. You must gain a person's trust and get to know them, and only then can you ask for a gift." That gift officer probably never understood why those alumni did not respond to the follow-up campaign appeals and subsequent invitations to meet.

If your message isn't relevant to your audience and their values, you're basically forcing your own beliefs and practices upon strangers. Advancement officers in Asia should concern themselves less with the ubiquitous emphasis on the culture of giving and more on the culture of asking. By taking the time to build cultural awareness and relationships within the institution, university administrators can bridge these gaps in understanding and nurture relationships with their international constituents.

Don't let language barriers get in the way

Common phrases can mean different things in different cultures. In the West, for example, one might say, "The early bird catches the worm." In contrast, the Eastern (Japanese) idiom, "果報は、寝て待て," which means "All good things come to those who wait," shows a fairly dramatic cultural difference. Is "time" a resource or just what happens around us? Is being faster (hence saving time) or being patient (eliminating uncertainties) more appropriate? The exact meaning may be up to interpretation, but the essential point is that, in Asia, establishing a successful relationship can take months, not hours.

The same is true when it comes to disagree­ments. In the West, you might hear, "Let bygones be bygones," while in Hong Kong, for instance, one might say, "凡事留一線 日後好相見," or "In whatever you do, don't burn your bridges. You will never know when you will need help in the future." While Western culture is generally upfront and frank, an Eastern approach entails strict adherence to hierarchy, displaying an emphasis on rank-appropriate or relationship-appropriate language, and demeanors that shy away from being confrontational.

Third, let's look at the phrase "The East wants a strong relationship; the West wants a strong contract." Contractual agreements in the East are templates regarding intentions, goals, and expectations. They are built upon trust, with the assumption that disagreements can be sorted out. This is why contracts in the West sometimes strike Easterners as being far too specific and too focused on contingencies. The impression of preparing for worst-case scenarios, akin to a prenuptial agreement, can be a real turnoff in the East.

There may never be a perfect formula to advancement beyond your home base. But even though you can't change a person or a culture, you can change your reaction toward that culture. What I have experienced from meeting CASE members and partnering with alumni communities worldwide is that while lessons can always be taught, awareness can only be experienced. So go out there, reach out to your international alumni, and invite them to be your local advisers.

About the Author Antonia Y.H. Yeung Antonia Y.H. Yeung

Antonia Y.H. Yeung is an engagement strategist certified in behavioral analysis and mediation. She is vice president of course development at the Institute of Crisis and Risk Management in Hong Kong and founded EDVANZ People Solutions. She has served CASE as a commissioner for alumni relations and as inaugural chair of the Asia-Pacific Institute in Alumni Relations.




Add a Comment

You must be logged in to comment . Your name and institution will show with your comment.