I am meeting someone for the first time and I want to make a good impression. What would be good discussion topics?
Making a good impression is always important, and the first contact is an ideal opportunity to make that good impression about your self. Sri Lanka’s culture is not an exception as long as you know how to make others feel comfortable about you. While the discussion topics could vary according to the person(s) involved, for example, compare the way you communicate with your boss and that with your colleagues, it is always nice to briefly introduce yourself to the person first and give him/her an opportunity to do the same. It is always useful to make the person(s) aware of your goals, i.e. what is expected of your visit/assignment in Sri Lanka. As long as you deal with people of your workplace and with others of similar status, gender would not matter... I believe both sexes are equally receptive to your comments and open to dialogue.
There is not much to worry about in terms of subjects that you should avoid in friendly conversations although I would not recommend that you discuss politics or any issues of sexuality as part of your efforts to make the good impression about yourself. As you get to know the person(s) better, may be you could widen your horizons with respect to the discussion topics. Humour is always welcome in Sri Lanka and I believe it is vital to establish a friendly attitude about yourself among those you are working or dealing with. In my opinion, if humour is effectively used it would demonstrate that you are easily approachable and open to dialogue. But you may want to exercise caution as to the things that you say to make people laugh and to make sure that people would laugh with you rather than laugh at you! Particularly, avoid subjects that may offend certain groups of people based on their sexual orientation, educational background, occupations, appearance, etc.
When meeting someone for the first time in Sri Lanka, a safe topic to discuss is your family, where you are from, what you do. Sri Lankans also like to know how you like their country (being positive of course). It is important to leave space for them to talk, to ask questions. Asking a Sri Lankan about their family will always make an excellent impression especially if you appear interested. Politics should be avoided until you know someone well. Sri Lanka is very divided politically, ethnically, by religion and by social status. Humour is always appreciated if it is universally accepted as being funny. The danger however is what might be humorous to you has deeply offended your colleague.
What do I need to know about verbal and non-verbal communications?
Well, as for the distance between yourself and your contact, I would say you do the same as you are used to here in Canada. We all know by nature what the "acceptable" distance would be when talking to someone in Canada. Follow the same instinct! Nonetheless, no matter how closely you want to stand/sit with somebody, make sure that you leave him/her with some space to breathe! Eye contact is the best way of communication and you wouldn’t have any problem doing it in Sri Lanka. But don’t be discouraged if you saw someone (particularly women) not making the eye contact with you...perhaps they are a bit shy when they meet someone for the first time, particularly someone not from their own culture! I wouldn’t touch anybody during conversations except for the Sri Lankan tradition that people handshake others before starting a meeting, conversations, discussions, etc. Try to make yourself as pleasant as possible. Maintaining a smiling face is one way to achieve that. But don’t overdo it... or they might think that you might be Charlie Chaplin’s second coming! Speak the same way as you do here... and I would like to encourage you to be straightforward in presenting your ideas, particularly about your goals and the reasons why you were there! This will help you better manage your tasks as the assignment progresses!
Sri Lankans like their distance. More modern day people and businessmen will shake your hands whereas traditionally, people greet each other with their hands together (palms together fingers up) in a praying like position. Between genders, space is needed and touching is not acceptable. Within genders there can be more closeness especially as you get to know each other. Eye contact is fine except for between a traditional Muslim male and a female. Directness is not common among Sri Lankans. They prefer nothing to be stated directly but to be insinuated. Life is a dance of finesse. They will tell you that you are fat (people will often make comments that to Westerners are very personal) but will dance around the topic of fraud in the workplace.
Are public displays of affection, anger or other emotions acceptable?
Emotional displays by individuals are not very common and are not generally seen as acceptable.
My own experience with a wide array of organizations based in Sri Lanka is that, in many cases, people are united when it comes to an issue relating to their work even when that particular issue has a direct bearing on one specific individual... so you could expect a collective display of emotions in terms of disagreements, anger, etc. given particular circumstances.
Nevertheless, I don’t think you would likely encounter (or engage in) these things while you are in Sri Lanka. As such, you should not be worried about these things as long as your assignment is not about labour restructuring or political movements of Sri Lanka.
However, the important message that I would like to share with you (which I believe is also applicable to others going to different countries) is that when you first meet with your group (or the contacts) try your best to make yourself as clear as possible about your mission, the things that you would plan to do to achieve your goals, and the ways in which your group members could help you achieve your goals. If you were able to deliver this message successfully at the outset of your assignment, your job will be a lot easier and you will be able to avoid most of the things that would otherwise have adversely impacted your ties with your clients.
Public displays are not acceptable nor are they common. Juxtaposed to this is the extreme violence faced by many in the country.
What should I know about the workplace environment (deadlines, dress, formality, etc.)?
Sri Lanka is a tropical country so you would enjoy warm weather—Colombo (23C-30C), Central Hills (10C-25C), and Southern Beach Resorts (27C-33C)—all year around. Hence, you do not need heavy clothing or boots. Think of your summer garments, they are just fine. As for the traditions, try to dress formally at formal gatherings, for example, meetings with your boss, clients, etc. For other occasions, casual clothing is fine. For men, there won’t be any changes or problems with their clothing. But, if you are a female my advice is that you dress "professionally" on formal occasions, i.e., try to avoid wearing jeans or any other heavily "exposed" material while attending formal events. All other times, you could dress as you wish; still, I would not advise that you should expose yourself too much!
At your first encounters with your group, you may want to address them formally, but as you get to know them, feel free to use their first names to address them. Handshakes are very common in Sri Lanka, but hugging, kissing is very rare, and it may not be in your interest to involve in such ways of welcoming others except for your close friends, etc. The equivalent of "Good morning!" in traditional Sinhala setting is "Ayubowan" which can literally be translated as "Wish you a long life". But most people speak in English and you could freely use any expressions that you are used to in Canada.
Punctuality is an essential part of your dedication to the task you are entrusted with and you will observe in Sri Lanka that it is becoming increasingly common and in many cases, it is well maintained. My advice is that, at all times, try to be as punctual as possible regardless of the habits of others. This will undoubtedly add to your positive image among your colleagues and bosses!
Dress is important to show respect to the person you are meeting with. It is important to dress in a clean and respectful fashion, but not necessary to wear formal clothing in most situations. For women, it is best to be somewhat modest. It is important to blouses with sleeves in most work settings. Short sleeves are fine. In terms of how to address people, listen to their titles. Many people are called by nicknames and it is fine for you to follow suit. Time flows in a relaxed way, so be patient, but it is best not to be late. Always carry a book to read if you are made to wait. People will be absent for many reasons, how it is accepted is dependant on their status. There are many holidays in the year. What is expected of you will depend on where you are working.
What qualities are most highly regarded in a local superior/manager? How will I know how my staff view me?
Educational background and your professional experience would often be your most important strengths. In general, these are the two most valuable criteria that one would consider before judging on somebody’s ability to accomplish a task. However, the way you present yourself could be as important as any other credential in terms of your ability to get the work done within the time period allotted. In Sri Lanka, you would not find any big exceptions to this conventional wisdom. As an important point when you first meet with your managers/supervisors, you may want to present yourself with a brief outline of your accomplishments and abilities (may be in the form of a short CV), with some highlights of the areas that are most relevant to the current assignment/project. This is important for you throughout your assignment/project. Apart from that, you may want to demonstrate your ability to deal with complex issues (this of course depends on the assignment) and your readiness to entertain new ideas, to engage in constructive dialogue and teamwork as part of your job. I do not think this approach would vary according to one’s nationality, i.e. local vs. foreigner, as long as one’s supervisors are convinced that one is capable of doing the job. The appreciation by your staff will depend on the way you present yourself to your group (particularly with respect to your potential and marketability) and most importantly, how well your credentials and previous experience would fit into the job in hand. Also, they will appreciate any previous accomplishments in similar settings, which give them further assurance that you are not only capable but the right person for the job.
Among the local staff, the status of their family, education, connections or degrees from abroad may all be more important than leadership, openness to ideas or hard working. This is more so in the government agencies than in private business, but is true all over. For an expat, openness, friendliness, ability to fit in and go with the flow are all-important. To know how people view you listen as much to what is not said as what is said. Often conversations will not be translated fully for you if the translator feels that it may harm you or influence in a way that is not to their advantage. Much communications goes on between the words rather than within them. Listen with your eyes, ears, and intuition. No one will tell you directly how they or others feel.
In the workplace, how are decisions taken and by whom? Is it acceptable to go to my immediate supervisor for answers or feedback?
To a large extent, this would depend on the particular institutional setting that you work in and the nature of your project or assignment. For instance, in Sri Lanka, like many other countries, government sector institutions have to go through a full range of bureaucratic hierarchy before any decision is made, which usually takes up a prolonged time period regardless of how important the issue in hand is. On the other hand, in the private sector, in general, managers or committees often make decisions relatively quickly. But in all cases, it is prudent to consult your supervisor (or mentor) for feedback on your recommendations or suggestions, which lead to decisions. This is because you are operating in a setup that you know relatively little and it is always to your advantage to know in advance that you are doing the "right thing", the "right way", i.e., operating within the rules, regulations and norms of the organization.
Most workplaces are very traditional with very vertical structures of decision making and power. Often the talk is about horizontal workplaces, but this is a facade. This does not always mean that workers do not know how to get heard, just that they know that they have to please the powers that be first. Your relationship with your supervisor will be personal and the boundaries will be yours to establish. Begin with a lot of listening. Try to let go of your initial assumptions to better understand the structures around you and then figure out how you can work within them. It is very important to understand the power structures within the office. Not all perceived obstacles are true obstacles; they may be more of a dance. Doing the right dance is important to, in the end, being able to establish your space in the work place.
Briefly describe the local culture’s attitudes regarding the following: Gender, Class, Religion and Ethnicity. What impact would the above attitudes have on the workplace?
I am not aware of any difference in attitudes at all based on one’s gender... you will notice that women are as active as men in the workplace.
Sri Lankans are made up of Buddhists (70%), Christians (8%), Hindus (14%), Muslims (6%) and others (2%) [Sri Lanka National Census, 2002]. But, once again, I have not found any difference in attitudes based on one’s religious orientation. For example, I am a Catholic myself, but most of my friends are either Buddhists or from other religions.
I would not rule out the possibility of different attitudes based on one’s class or wealth. But to say the least, that would not matter or affect you at all!
Sri Lanka’s population is made up of Sinhalese (75%), Tamils (16%), Muslims (6%), Burgers (2%) and others (1%) [Sri Lanka National Census -2002]. Despite the differences in ethnicity, a vast majority of people live in harmony and I don’t see any problems caused by this at the work place. After all, you are instantly ’visible’ among the locals and Sri Lankans have no ill feelings towards foreigners.
Local attitudes are very traditional. An expat can stretch these boundaries, as can someone of education or high social structure, but the boundaries always apply and need to be respected in order to get along. It is easier to stretch the boundaries by respecting some traditions than by protesting all.
Religion plays an important part in the life of Sri Lankans be they Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian or another faith. Even the least religious of your colleagues will regularly go to temple or attend church. Special occasions are marked by religious ceremonies and there are official holidays that are religious based (Poya or full moon days). The Buddhist Maha Sanga or Buddhist Clergy wield an significant amount of power in the country.
Although Sri Lankans rarely admit it, caste and social class play an important role in society. It was often remarked that the former President Premadassa was from a very low caste and that this fact symbolized Sri Lanka’s independence from the caste system. In reality, this is far from true as caste and social class still plays an important role in politics, economics and life in general. In rural areas, you will still see segregation of populations based on caste.
Sri Lanka’s civil war has been described as an ethnic conflict between Tamils and the Sinhalese. In many ways this is true, and many Tamils have emigrated abroad because of discrimination and persecution. At the same time, all ethnicities mix within the workplace, and in general there is no problem between ethnic groups. As the war has progressed, tensions between groups naturally rise. With the current cease-fire and peace talks, tensions between ethnic groups should ease.
The impact of these attitudes on the workplace will depend on the type of work, the organizational culture, and the organizational leader. Sri Lankan organizations tend to be hierarchical and lead by men.
How important is it to establish a personal relationship with a colleague or client before getting to business?
Impartiality and honesty are the key words here. One’s ability to adhere to the latter would depend on the degree to which he/would adhere to the former. As such, they are interrelated and therefore, I would not advise anybody to establish pre-assignment relationships with colleagues with the exception that you meet with the chief organizer (or the CEO) who is responsible for your assignment to discuss (and sometimes negotiate if the goals are not clearly defined) and set up a tentative plan for the project/assignment that you will be engaged in. There’s always a risk with trying to establish relations prior to embarking on your project. For instance, if you have established such a relationship and if later on others in the group found out not only you had such a relation with somebody, but also that your actions favour that person you may find yourself slipping into a difficult situation where you would be unable to establish your reputation as a neutral person or/and to gain cooperation from other members of the group. This could jeopardize your ability to succeed in what you are expected of. On the hand, however, it is always nice to gradually develop friendly ties with those you work with after your first meeting with the whole group. So my advice is that you start off with the group, and as the project/assignment progresses you may have enough opportunities and more information that would help you in establishing productive personal relationships.
It depends on whether the relationships are male-male, female-female or male-female. This is not to say that the final respect or power balance is pre determined, but that the gender differences need to be respected. As with all conversations, asking about family, work loads, traffic, whatever is going on is good as people congregate for a meeting. Openness and friendliness are important. Often tea will be arranged during this time to assist in the initial moments of a meeting. Nothing happens on a tight schedule so it is important to plan for and relax during the slow starts.
Would a colleague or employee expect special privileges or considerations given our personal relationship or friendship
Maybe or maybe not. In any case, I think that it is your own responsibility to make sure that you maintain only "professional" relationships with your colleagues. Most of all, your actions should clearly demonstrate that you are only accessible through "professional" avenues and that your relationships are not to be mixed with your work relationships or its obligations. A few things that would help you in this regard include making sure that everybody is aware of your goals and responsibilities and the capacity in which you operate. Secondly, try your best to maintain at all times your impartiality over any issues, actions, decisions, etc. concerning your office work, by signalling others that your relationships would not be useful to seek any special privileges and that you treat everybody in the group equally irrespective of your relationships or friendships.
Yes, Sri Lanka runs on whom you know and what they can give you. Sri Lankans are always under pressure from extended family and friends to gain favours from whom you know. The best way to handle requests is to remain non-committal. The head wag perfected in this country provides the perfect non-committal response: allowing the person to know he/she has been heard but also letting him/her know through non-verbal means that his/her request will not be acted upon. Looking at it from the other perspective, many Canadians feel that what they took for agreement (the head wag) was actually a non-committal response to their request.
I have a work-related problem with a colleague. Do I confront him or her directly? Privately or publicly?
In general, I think it is better if you could confront your colleague in person and try to understand why the problem has risen in the first place. A friendly conversation would not only help you in ironing out each other’s differences, if there are any, but also it would assist you in determining the effective remedial measure(s) under the particular circumstances. Direct confrontation also prevents others from learning about your disagreement with the colleague, which is good, in my opinion, for both of you. Perhaps, it may be that he/she has a misunderstanding over something you did or said or something that he is reluctant to do as part of your dealings with him. And, if that were the case, direct communication would provide a better opportunity for both parties to express their views without the influences of others. However, a word of caution is warranted here. Depending on the nature and the context of your problem with the colleague, you may want to approach your leader (or coordinator) first to get his opinion or to ask him to consult your colleague before you approach him. In addition, if the colleague in question is a female (and you are a male) you should obviously exercise more caution as to how you want to confront her, particularly to avoid any future misunderstandings among your other colleagues.
In general, direct confrontation is not the best policy with colleagues or others.
It is best to take some time to understand the politics behind the conflict. It would also not be a good idea to confront someone in public. Saving face is very important so any confrontation should take that into consideration. In terms of telling if someone is upset or having a problem, it is important to listen for what is said as well as what is not.
What motivates my local colleagues to perform well on the job?
It is important that you make yourself very clear about your objectives and goals of your project or assignment. Make sure to highlight the areas where your work would either improve the skills of your colleagues or enhance their working conditions so that their productivity would be improved and their jobs are secured. If you are on a research project make sure that you demonstrate how your work is useful and beneficial from your clients’ point of view. Also, create a sense of openness and the readiness to entertain new ideas as part of your job, and that you are there to help, but not to punish the culprits. Once you were able to build your reputation along these lines, you will find that there is a natural tendency for most of your colleagues, if not all, to cooperate with you and to work together for they know your contribution and guidance would be beneficial to them. Also, don’t forget to give credit to those who deserve it and appreciate their efforts on a regular and timely manner. You would want to distance yourself from any issues beyond the scope of your project or assignment. Always try to maintain impartiality when it comes to evaluating contributions of your colleagues. Establish close ties with your supervisor and get his opinion particularly on things that you are not certain about, prior to confronting your colleagues.
Loyalty and commitment are the two main factors that influence job performance. These two factors also relate to the hierarchical nature of organizations. If an employee lacks commitment, money is the next motivator.
To help me learn more about the local culture(s), please recommend: books, films, television shows, foods and web sites.
Of course, a wide variety of information about Sri Lanka is available both on-line and from libraries around the globe. You could find the relevant on-line links from the following websites: http://www.lacnet.org; http://www.lankapage.com; http://www.suntimes.lk; http://www.srilankan.com.
As for the books, my favourites are English Patient (hope you saw the movie!) and Anil’s Ghost by Sri Lankan born author Michael Ondaatje. Information on hundreds of other material covering numorous aspects of the Sri Lankan culture is available form the above websites and library databases worldwide.
Traditional Dishes: Name a few cultural, celebration-specific dishes; Kiribath, Kavum, Kokis, Halapa, Sau-dodol, Aggala, Aluwa, Mun-kavum and hundreds of other delicious dishes. You will love the taste and they are relatively inexpensive!
To enter the culture of Sri Lanka, go in with yours eyes open and be ready to go where people want to take you. They will be keen to show you around. The Michael Ondajee books, especially Running in the Family and Anil’s Ghost are very good. Funny Boy (I can’t remember the author) is also very good. Carl Muller is a local Sri Lankan author who is also well read. Christine Wilson’s, The Bitter Berry is an interesting book about the history of the tea trade.
When in this country, I want to learn more about the culture(s) and people. What activities can you recommend?
While you are in Sri Lanka, you are free to pursue your favourite entertainmenmt ideas. There are about ten local TV channels in addition to the international networks such as the CNN, the BBC, the Sports Network and the London Sky News Channel 24. Most channels brodacast 24 hours a day. Newpapers, magazines, etc. are available in all national languages, Sinhalese, Tamil and English. If you missed the chance of going to your favourtite movie before leaving Canada, you may have a chance to see it in Sri Lanka. Most of the latest Hollywood releases are played in Colomo cinemas and of course, those of Sri Lanka’s own are also available, but only a few are subtitled in English. As for the cultural information, there are tourist information centres throughout the country, particularly at the airport and other resorts. You could also consult the Minitry of Tourism for further information and your hotel staff will also be able to help you with this as well.
There are plenty of exotic beaches all around the island. Do not forget to include in your itinerary, the Central Hill country, particularly wonderful Nuwara-Eliya area, about 100 miles from Colombo, and exotic beach resorts around Hikkaduwa, some 50 miles south of Colombo. You will love a huge variety of delicious food and other local dishes at very affordable prices. Consult Yellow Pages, Tourist Information Centres, your hotel or the coordinator for further information.
Colombo is not a hard city to learn your way around, nor is Kandy or any of the other cities on the island. The British Council has a lot of interesting cultural events and the newspapers cover what is coming up locally. The North American Woman’s Association has printed a very useful book on getting around the city. It can be purchased at Barefoot which is a store on Galle Road that sells marvelous handlooms and has a very nice bookstore. The local bookstore, Vijith Yapa is also very good. The Lonely Planet guide to Sri Lanka is also very good.
Rice and Curry are the foods. They are hot, but once you are used to them, very nice. Fruit is great in Sri Lanka.
It is very easy to travel around the island. Sri Lankans love to travel. There are local agencies that rent houses on the beach or in the mountains. They function more like bed and breakfasts with the meals provided. A very relaxing break!
Who are this country's national heroes?
Sri Lanka is a country that had been under three colonial powers, i.e. the Portuguese (1505 -1796), the Dutch (1796-1814), and the British (1815-1948). The independence from the British on February 04, 1948 marked the end of colonialism in the country. Prior to the colonial era Sri Lanka was a kingdom for many centuries (about 21 kings have reined the country) of which the written history dates back to the second century BC All these events in the country’s history correspond to patriots or martyrs of the time who later became National heroes. Furthermore, there are others who fought with the colonial powers and other invaders from neighbouring India, who later became martyrs and now considered National Heroes. To celebrate the heroism of these people the government has set aside a national holiday called National Heroes’ Day.
Cricket players are the national heroes of the recent times. There are ancient warriors who also hold this role. Many architects such as Jeffrey Bowa are also highly esteemed.
Are there shared historical events between this country and Canada that could affect work or social relations?
None of the historical events have any bearing on Canada or its citizens and Canada has established a very high level of reputation among Sri Lankans as a country with is enjoying a very reputable position in the Sri Lanka country and among its citizens. Therefore, there is no impact what so ever that could impact your work or social relations.
Canada is a commonwealth country as Sri Lanka is and many people have some relative in Canada and many people have traveled to Canada.
What stereotypes do Canadians have about the local culture that might be harmful to effective relations?
Nothing that I am aware of. You, as a Canadian, are very welcome in Sri Lanka!
A lot of funds for the Tamil Tigers movement were known to be raised in Canada and this did not help the neutrality of its reputation. Canadian are usually perceived as friendly and approachable.
Your cultural interpreter was born in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). He is the eldest of a family of three children and was raised in the town of Kandana, 10 miles north of capital Colombo, in the western province until the age of twenty-five. He completed his undergraduate studies in Sri Lanka and was a University instructor and a Central Banker until he moved to Canada on a Commonwealth Scholarship to continue his graduate studies. He graduated with Masters Degree in Economics from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. Then he completed his Ph.D. in Economics at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University in Ontario. He is currently a Senior Economist with Statistics Canada and will soon be living with his new wife.
Your cultural interpreter was born in New Jersey, the youngest of three children. She moved to Canada at the age of eight and was raised in the city. She studied medicine in at McGill University in Montreal. Her studies sent her abroad for the first time in 1979 where she studied in Sri Lanka. Afterwards, your cultural interpreter went to Sri Lanka, where she lived for five years. She has been living in Ottawa for the last two years where she works. She three children.
Country Insights - Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
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