A few years ago, I asked a colleague in my then company to send a message to a certain Mr 林 in Taiwan.

With the Singaporean efficiency, the colleague immediately started typing: “Dear Mr Lim”…

“Wait,” I said. “I think you got the person’s name wrong.”

Lim?

林, literally meaning “forest”, is one of the most common family names in Southern China.

In Singapore, where more than half the ethnic Chinese are of Hokkien or Teochew descent, 林, spelt “Lim” according to Hokkien & Teochew dialects, is the second most common name.

According to a 2000 (yeah I know it is old but still) statistic, 6.6% of Singaporean Chinese carry the surname “Lim”.

So it is not a surprise when she naturally wrote “Mr Lim” to address the gentleman in Taiwan.

The 10 most common Chinese surnames in Singapore in 2000

Lin?

In Taiwan, where most of the population is Hokkien, 林 is also a very popular family name. According to The Department of Population under Ministry of the Interior, 8.31% of the residents in Taiwan carried this surname in 2016.

However, as mandarin is mandated for government records, 林 is spelt Lin.

So should my colleague write “Mr Lin” instead?  

No.

The gentleman, who had been living in Taiwan for decades and spoke fluent Mandarin, is Japanese.

So we should address him “Mr Hayashi.

Hayashi, or 林 in Kanji, shares the same origin (in most cases) as Chinese “Lin”. And it is the 19th most common name in Japan. A variant of Hayashi, Kobayashi (小林 or “small forest”) is the 9th most common name in Japan.

The name 林 is also spelt Lam in Cantonese, Liem by Indonesian Chinese, Lâm in Vietnamese, and Im (or Lim) in Korean.

Liem Sioe Liong is one of the most famous 林s in the world

Cultural exposure

As the world is more and more globalised, many of the businesses we run nowadays are cross border.

Communications across cultures are becoming easier and easier, as you would find more and more of your counterparts in other cultures be more aware of the cultural differences and make attempts to bridge these differences.

However, the differences are there, and it will take decades for all of your counterparts to be perfectly nuanced in cross cultural communications (maybe AI will reach there faster). Miscommunications will happen and trust need to be carefully built (and maintained).

To be effective in running cross-border businesses, a cross-cultural understanding is essential. And more basically, understanding things can be different (such as 林 is not always Lim) is a key advantage for anyone to navigate across cultures.

Making an effort

Making an effort on that is also important. A few years ago, I met with Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič, then on a trip to Asia. After greeting him, he said “Wow, I’ve been in Asia for two weeks, and you are the first person to pronounce my name in the authentic Slovak way.” Ice breaking done!

What I did not tell him then was I had a Slovak colleague sitting right next to me at work, and I quickly checked with him how to pronounce the name Šefčovič prior to the meeting.

Now I am glad (and proud) the team at Momentum Works is a cosmopolitan bunch, with Souheast Asians who have lived in the Middle East or Latin America, and Chinese who have no problems pronouncing “Thiruvanthapuram”.

Thanks for reading The Low Down (TLD), the blog by the team at Momentum Works. Got a different perspective or have a burning opinion to share? Let us know at hello@mworks.asia.

 

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Jianggan Li is the Founder & CEO of Momentum Works. Prior to founding Momentum Works, he co-founded Easy Taxi in Asia, and served as Managing Director of Foodpanda. The two years running Rocket Internet companies has given him a lifetime experience on supersonic implementation, and good camaraderie with entrepreneurs across the developing world. He holds a MBA from INSEAD (GMAT 770) and a degree in Computer Engineering from Nanyang Technological University. Unfortunately he never wrote a single line of code professionally - but in his first job he was in media, travelling extensively across Asia & Europe, speaking with Ministers & (occasionally) Prime Ministers. Apart from English and his native Mandarin, he is also fluent in French and conversational in Cantonese & Spanish. He tried to learn Latin (for three years) and Sanskrit (for six months) as well. In his (scarce) free time, he reads, travels, hikes and dives. Pyongyang, Tehran & Chisinau are among the interesting cities he has been to.