Most Western thinking ignores the fact that 70% of the world’s population live in collective societies, writes James Sowden, reflecting on his tenure as Managing Partner at BBH Singapore.

Last week was my ten year anniversary at BBH Singapore. I should write a book about what I’ve learned, but I probably won’t. Instead I’ve sketched out a few lessons that I’ve learned whilst fumbling through some awkward silences and uncomfortable misunderstandings. These may or may not help you inform future interactions with friends, colleagues and clients from this part of the world (assuming you too are an awkward Western strategist). So, it’s 2008;

‘Crazy Rich Asians’ was still a demographic.

‘The Summit’ was just a condo building and a dictator free zone.

And Marina Bay Sands was yet to be built on a patch of muddy reclaimed land.

It is safe to say that visibly a lot has changed since then.

Yet from a cultural perspective, much has remained the same.

There is a strength to societal structures in this part of the world, that resists change, driven in no small part by affiliative living and the complex relationships that this kind of culture requires. Western thought, philosophy, marketing and advertising strategy is built around individualist societies, which account for only 30% of the world’s population. Doing the math it’s clear that around 70% of the world’s population are collective. To be ignorant of, or to underestimate the importance of, affiliative structures, is the difference between; A successful relationship, An enduring product launch, A great piece of communications … and a not so successful one.


My naive assumption when I moved to Asia was that people wanted to appear ‘Western,’ partly because of their passion for expensive Western brands.

This was completely wrong.

There is a reason luxury brands have flourished in this part of the world: Status, which is vital in providing recognition within complex social groups. Yes, all cultures crave it but in the West, Maslow suggests that our need for self expression is greater, which is not the case here. The owner of an eye wateringly expensive bag and a Chanel twin set, may in fact spend surprisingly little money on the contents of their home, because visible symbols of wealth and success are simply more important. Wearing and buying these brands has very little to do with wanting to follow Western trends. Be careful of your early assumptions.

It is far too easy to reference observations back to your own cultural background and end up with egg on your face.


Due to the driving force of status, hierarchy becomes deeply ingrained – in daily life, but especially in business.  A KPI on a brief may seem clear, but there may also be another one that goes unsaid; “Make my boss happy”.

That’s it. Simple.

Except that finding out what the boss wants, may come much later. And that’s where things get fun. So whilst your job may be to launch a new variant / commercial / campaign. If your clients boss isn’t happy at the end of it, then you won’t have done it properly. Anticipate the requirements for success. Talk broadly to the team. Get face time with superior stakeholders and try to understand what’s going to make them look good too.

The same rule applies to the parents of friends and In-laws, but that is another post in itself.


Asking a team member to ‘find their voice’ – in a meeting, a call, a pitch or in an appraisal – is a much more complex ask than suggesting they have confidence in their abilities or represent their perspective or cultural point of view. At the end of the day junior staff will always defer to senior, for reasons already touched upon. One tangible outcome of this is not speaking out in front of them.This is true even when their job role might expect otherwise and will definitely play out in meetings, on conference calls and in large gatherings.

Just learn to enjoy the silence and collect the needed information elsewhere. Body language is a great start. Side conversations and non threatening questions are another. Be aware of the implications that seniority is having on the conversation that you are in.


As a general rule, it is never cool, to lose your cool. Almost without exception it is just not a good thing to get angry. The concept of ‘losing face’ is hard to understand at first, but once you do understand it, watching it happen, is an excruciating experience. Trust me on this one. When you get angry you lose face, as does the person, or people that your anger was directed at. And the people that witnessed it. That’s a lot of face. And that’s not good.

As a general rule conflict is best avoided. And actually it can be quite a lovely thing.

There is a fairly well known phrase you’ve probably heard before – “Bend like bamboo … ” which is Japanese in origin, but applies to most affiliative societies. It comes from the thinking that even the strongest wind will die down and the bamboo that bends most, will still be standing afterwards. At the heart of these ways of thinking is the importance of finding a path around problems. Don’t be too direct. Don’t disagree bluntly. 

Find a way to deal with the problem in another way. It’ll actually make you a better person.


The final piece of advice is simple. Fortunately if you’re British, or ever have to deal with British people (imagine!?), you’ll probably understand this one. Saying yes, and meaning yes, are not the same thing. In order to save your ‘face’ you must sometimes anticipate that a ‘yes’ might actually be a ‘no’. And that a ‘maybe’ is a ‘definitely not’. This is to keep things simple and save everyone the embarrassment of disagreement. It’s very important to ask the right, non threatening questions, to understand what the real answer is. When arranging details with friends or when briefing a team, ask gentle questions about the conversation you’ve had, that clarify their understanding of it. When taking feedback from a client the same thing is required.

Simple questions can ensure that you know where you stand and this will benefit you greatly.


Cultural context has a profound impact on our behaviours.

When you recognise and understand the difference of ‘We’ not ‘Me’, you will begin to understand the context of the vast majority of your fellow human beings on planet earth.

And maybe avoid looking like a dick.