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7 Tips for Surviving the Chinese Workplace

May 15, 2017 Translated by Sarah Meik , Comments (5)     Add your comment Newsletter

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So, you’re new to China; new language, new air, new food and especially, new people. On your first day here you might well feel like you’ve landed on a completely different planet. But don’t worry, you’re still on Earth and Chinese people are definitely human, just like you (which, at the end of the day is the most important thing to remember). The big difference is that China is what sociologists call a "high-context" culture, which means people are about building and restoring relationships with others, as opposed to individualism. They also, arguably, prize things like harmony and hierarchy over efficiency and profit. Here is a list of things that may be different working in a high-context culture.

Understanding the Chinese workplace

1. Work Place Etiquette

In the west, the biggest concern at work is the bottom line. It doesn’t matter how the job gets done, as long as it does. Most companies give employees the liberty to listen to music, talk to others or snack on their own time as long as they stay on course and do their tasks.
In China, they care about finishing the job, and they care about how it gets finished. If you have an office or clerical job in China, don’t be surprised if your supervisor looks over your shoulder to monitor your web surfing. In one company I worked at, our boss would pace through the cubicles like an evil school master to make sure we were all staying on task. Checking e-mails and having unnecessary conversations were not allowed. I was once reprimanded for "making funny" at work because I was laughing too loudly at a joke.

"Quiet now, or make funny anotherwhere," my boss insisted (which of course only made us laugh harder).

2. Hierarchy

Hierarchy is clearly defined in the Chinese work place. Your boss does not want to become your "buddy" and he’s most likely not interested in your opinion. So be careful about how you state your opinions, and who you state them to. You don’t want to say anything that would make you look better than the boss by coming up with an idea that he or she didn’t. And you also don’t want to make your boss or another co-worker lose face, by talking about their faults in front of others.

And if you yourself are an overqualified underling at work, don’t be surprised if the boss tries to make you lose face in front of others. One tactic used to "remind employees of their positions" is to reprimand them in front of others, so everyone can see who has the upper hand.
This happened to one foreign co-worker of mine who had a prestigious career before being hired at my school as a simple English teacher. Because of his prior experience, and his habit of speaking his mind to superiors, one supervisor purposely and sternly criticized him in front of others over a small issue. By doing this she was able to reassert herself as the boss, and his position as a teacher.

3. Indirect Communication

Because the Chinese are very concerned with face, and because they are nice people, they generally do not want you to lose face. (Unless they feel their authority is questioned.) So instead of being straight forward about your performance at work, they may dance around the issue, politely hinting to something they wish you were doing better, instead of being direct and telling you the bad news. If you have a hunch that this is happening to you, ask your coworkers to be straight forward. Explain that you want to do the best job possible, but cannot unless they are honest with you. Remind them that your feelings will not be hurt, and that you actually feel more respected if you are given honest feedback.

4. Don’t Be so Quick to Praise

A Chinese friend once told me she wished to be like the lowly peanut.

"I wish to be a very valuable fruit," she said, "But to be hidden underneath, where no one can see me."

What she meant was she wanted to work hard and help others, but she wanted to avoid the praise and accolades that might come with an important position. Chinese people are often very modest and do not ever want to appear boastful. So, if in the workplace you want to praise someone, consider doing so in private. If you praise them in front of others, use modest language. Instead of telling them they are absolutely the best at something, tell them, they seem to always work hard, and it shows in their work. Use more objective, and less exaggerated terms.

5. Language Barrier

So you notice your Chinese co-worker seems real nice, but isn’t really into your jokes and doesn’t say much to you past, "good morning." Don’t assume it’s because he thinks you’re the smelly foreigner (although, this may be true). The Chinese co-worker probably does want to talk to you more, but feels insecure about having a conversation in English.

"Many Chinese people are eager to talk with Westerners," says one of my very well-spoken Chinese friends, "But many are afraid to try. They think their English is too poor, so they will be brief with the foreigner."

To solve this, try to speak in Chinese to this co-worker, or offer free English lessons just for fun. On the other hand, maybe you find yourself afraid to use your Chinese to build relationships with your coworkers. You are afraid they will totally not understand your attempts at their language, but don’t be afraid. Most Chinese are very open minded to new people in their culture. They may even offer you free Chinese lessons.

6. Idea Stealing

It’s no secret. In Chinese culture, it’s generally okay to steal ideas and copy others. Be prepared for this to happen to you. It doesn’t matter which job you find yourself doing in China, you might have a co-worker outright use your ideas, or modify them slightly and then use them as their own. But don’t be angry. Being an unscrupulous copy-cat is not the bad thing here that it is backing home. People just want to do a good job, and if they can do it copying someone else then they will. It’s nothing personal or political. So if someone steals your idea, don’t be sad. Go out and buy yourself some Li Ning shoes and realize that although the squiggly check looks an awful-lot like the swish on your Nike’s, they’re still a pretty good pair of sneakers.

7. Remember, We’re All Human

I just listed some things that might scare you off from Chinese culture. But understand this is just a general discussion on a culture with 1.3 billion people. You will meet so many new people and personalities that it’s impossible to try and peg any of them into the traditional Chinese paradigms. Remember, back in your home country there are plenty of micro-managing, anal bosses who have no tact, and couldn’t care less about your reputation; and all of us know at least one conniving and manipulating co-worker. It seems in China, sociologists will say that these personality types are accepted here, whereas in the west, we separate ourselves from those emotional nut-jobs. We attach negative terms to their behavior, separating their erratic personalities from our cultural norms. And when people are diplomatic, we applaud them and say that they’re behavior is in fact the norm, all the while forgetting the simple truth that every barrel has its bad and good apples.

Always remember that we are all still human. We’re more similar than we are different. The same obvious social rules apply in China, as they do in other countries. Chinese people like foreigners who are nice to them, and hate foreigners who are condescending or rude to them. No matter where you are, it’s best to stick to the Golden Rule and "do unto others, as you would have them do unto you."

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Keywords: Surviving the Chinese Workplace Surviving Chinese Workplace Surviving Chinese Workplace

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5 Comments ( Add your comment )


More ECC articles telling foreigners that insecure, incompetent, inept, and borderline dictatorial morons are better than you. I love #1, #2, #3, #4. #1 says being a micromanager will illict respect and dedication. #2 says it's okay to be belittled by people who are less than you rather than them using you as a valuable resource, because #3, you foreigners suck at your job anyway and we're going to tell you how bad you are at it simply because, #4, praising a job well done is for weenies. Then these idiots wonder why most foreigners are one and done at jobs in China. It isn't the stupid ideas of backwards people. It's the foreigner who can't/won't/unable to adjust from going from an educated, skilled person to a useless cog that needs to be micromanaged, insulted, and belittled at every step of the way. And let's not forget stabbed in the back as well by the Chinese co-workers, since #6 says that's okay to do because everyone does it.

May 15, 2017 03:51

Haven't I read this article a month ago?

May 15, 2017 04:00

1. the writer must never have seen teachers watching movies, having a social hour (or two), or sleeping

May 15, 2017 07:09

Good information

May 17, 2017 01:32

wow, good to know

May 19, 2017 09:29

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