Domestic helpers in Singapore come from 13 approved countries in Asia. But mostly they are fomr the Philipines and Indonesia and a few are from Myanmar, Sri Lanka or India. Understanding their cultural background will help you a lot. Here are a few tips about communication with a domestic helper.
She may have a reserved personality with limited communication
Most helpers are shy, quiet and even introvert. Their respective cultures have a common element in that they search for harmony in their human relations. One should not confront one’s interlocutor, one should not embarrass him/her and one should avoid contradicting him/her, but one should always save face. It is not easy, in these circumstances to remain as frank, as one would like them to.
In addition, in their education, having eye contact is seen as bad mannered and offensive. Looking straight into their interlocutor’s eyes demands a huge effort on their part that is unnatural for them.
Finally, raising one’s voice is considered aggressive. Hence, their customs dictate them to speak with a soft voice, at times with very little articulation, forcing us, at times, to strain in order to hear them or to ask them to repeat.
Indirect language that goes around in circles
In the interest of not offending her interlocutor and in alignment with her culture, a domestic helper expresses an idea or a point of view in the most indirect manner possible. She beats around the bush, she never makes affirmations and she avoids talking about anything that is going wrong from her perspective.
Thus, the reply “Maybe” should be understood to mean “No”. And the “Yes” is a “Maybe” quite often. This behavior has a direct impact on the communication between the two of you: her sentences are long, her ideas are not clear at times, and the situation she’s talking about is often confusing. It is necessary to frequently recap and clarify the point for and with her. It is important to note here, your helper doesn’t intend to mislead you, but rather, carry forth her cultural customs (of course there may be exceptions to this point!).
The “make the boss happy” dictum
It is particularly prevalent in the Indonesian culture to want to satisfy the boss but it is equally present to varying degrees in the other countries from which domestic helpers originate. The challenging element for all these women is to guess what will make their employer happy. Therefore, if she does not know, she will never say “No” up front. She will say “yes” to everything that she is asked.
Hence, the “Yes M’am” does not mean an approved affirmation and must be interpreted with several nuances. At the least, it could simply signify that she heard the question.
Beware of meaningless and empty expressions
Some replies are repeated when needed like a robot would and are void of any substance. You should therefore, not let yourself be fooled by the reply “I understand” which actually means “I heard you. I’m not so sure about what you mean. But I can’t lose face by asking you more explanations”. By no means does it signify “I got it!”.
By the same token, the “Yes M’am” is in no case an affirmation nor an approval to what you said. It does not mean she agrees with you! The “Yes M’am” is a polite response, which resembles most, in meaning, “I heard what you said”. The “Yes M’am” is nothing more than a saying to express submission and respect.
At all times, avoid asking closed questions leading to a “Yes” or “No” answer. She will always go for a “Yes”! When you give her an instruction, rather ask her to repeat your instruction and then ask her to explain how she is going to complete the task.
Clarify very precisely your expectations in terms of child care!
“Child minder” has opposite meanings for you and for her. If most domestic employees are ready and willing to help out with kids, it’s probably not in the same way that you are accustomed to (and the difference is even wider for Western employers).
First of all, cleaning is the primary concern for a domestic helper. Hence, it is extremely difficult for her to imagine taking care of children before having finished her cleaning duties. In some cases, for example, domestic helper gets up very early in the morning to mop the floors because she knows that at 7:30 she will have to prepare breakfast for the children: housecleaning comes first even if you don’t say so!
On this last note, it is important to highlight that if you ask her to watch the kids when she has not yet finished her cleaning (or what she considers is not finished yet), you are putting her in a very difficult situation. It is a real ethical dilemma because she feels incapable to ignore or put aside what she considers to be her number one priority, the cleaning, even if you explicitly told her that the children were priority.
In addition, there is most probably a huge difference between her perception of childcare and yours. She possesses very little if any skills or tools to understand your expectations. Without any explanations and demonstration from you to show her firsthand what is expected, a domestic helper will assist a child whatever his / her age rather than supervise: she will dress, tie their shoe laces even if the child is old enough, clean their room, carry their schoolbag, prepare their gym bag, prepare their meal and feed them. And she may also feel offended if from time to time, you assist your child yourself!
However, there will be little or no supervision and no engaging or stimulating activities. As for authority, it is a very delicate subject. On the one hand, from the domestic helper’s point of view, the child is perceived as the employer’s equal, and on the other hand, the child is king and is not or barely disciplined, in most of the regions from which these women come from.
A few tips for a better communication :
- Avoid emotions and compassion; maintain a reasonable distance with her ; she is your employee, not a friend.
- Speak with a soft voice : raising your voice will paralyze her and is considered bad manners in her culture;
- Keep calm in all circumstances : don’t get upset…she would stop showing respect to you!
- Don’t say anything negative to her in front of other people (spouse, kids, friends, neighbors, other helper, etc) : she would feel humiliated even for a minor remark.
- A helper who feels humiliated becomes uncontrolable : she will ask for or act in such way to get your decision to transfer her to another family.
- Have weekly meetings, just the two of you, for debriefing the past week and for explaining and preparing the planning of the week ahead. All misunderstandings and critics should be brought up and clarified during this meeting.