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7 Tips for Surviving the Chinese Workplace

Mar 30, 2017 By Sarah Meik , eChinacities.com Comments (43)     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: Chinese Workplace Surviving Surviving Chinese Workplace Surviving the Chinese Workplace

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43 Comments ( Add your comment )

1
comment|1471|0
Lisa

Thanks for the great advice. This is really useful for foreigners working in Chinese companies, especially when they are Chinese owned and/or managed and there are many Chinese staff. It can be hard to adjust to the new climate and figure out how to succeed wtih both coworkers and bosses.

Aug 21, 2009 18:03
2
comment|1474|0
Alice

I like this article very much. Give us the knowledge we need to have when working with chinese. Very important never make them loose face, they won't forgive never. What you do can be taken and used by them, no reference to you, and you must ignore.

Aug 21, 2009 21:40
3
comment|1475|0
Alice

Otherwise, chinese people is warm, when you don't work with them are excelent!!

Aug 21, 2009 21:45
4
comment|1520|0
alice in wonderland

Stereotyping and prejudices disguised as some sort of nuggets of insights. Each any every one of the depictions abound in good old america. The employer has software installed to monitor websurfing, and that is why i write from home. Copying is rampant among western people. Look no farther that the idea of imprinting the company's name on the handbag - LV, Coach, etc. One or the other white folks are copying the other. How is it they do not come up with this insight? Are they blinded by their racial prejudices and thus, will stereotype and accuse other people of copying their copying their pathetic ideas?

Aug 27, 2009 18:25
5
comment|8518|0
Bryan Pope

All I can say is, "Wow, you're an idiot."

Nov 12, 2010 20:06
6
comment|8872|0
Kwok Leuih

Another moron incapable of understanding nuance.

Nov 24, 2010 23:19
7
comment|25886|50302
supporter of Alice in Wonderland

@Bryan Pope and Kwok Leuih
I studied at ETH in Zurich Switzerland. One of my colleagues (Donat Houser) has druged me (in my coffee), stolen my hardware idea, sold it to Orlikon Contraves. Orlikon Contraves built it and it worked fine. I was invited to visit Orlikon Conraves in an excurssion (I didn't want to go but many insisted that I have to). They showed me my idea. They offered me a job for 4000 SFr. I was still a student. I rejected their offer.
Guess what ! I couldn't pass any of my next exams. For example, in Numerische Mathematic, I have solved the problem with correct final result, but I didn't get any point because the assistant who has marked the paper has solved it using another way (solution) ! Physics, Informatik (Computer Science) papers were marked the same.
You see the vertical bar at the end of airplane wings. That was also my idea. Simon promised to help me patent it. and he patented it under his name.

All I can say is:
Ef you see K ETHZ.
Ef you see K Orlikon contraves,
Ef you see K switzerland.
Ef you see K swiss people

By the way, a bit swiss history. The original name was SCHWEIN (meaning pig in German). The swiss thought it's not a nice name so they turn the N to right (Z), so the name SCHWEIZ was introduced.

Conclusion: Pink people (an A4 paper is white not your face buddy, you are pinkman) don't copy ideas, they steal them.

Mar 31, 2012 06:35
8
comment|25914|74093
MissA

Supporter: If you're going to pretend that a multi-national organisation has engaged in corporate espionage against you, it's sensible to at least learm how to spell that corporation's name correctly!

Apr 01, 2012 19:27
9


Sorry, I haven't installed German fonts, so I don't have the 'O' with two dots on it. In fact, you can write it with 'oe' instead.
If you want to search them on the Internet, you may type "Oerlikon Contraves".
By the way, ETHZ satands for "ETH Zürich - Eidgen?ssische Technische Hochschule Zürich" ( I copied from the Internet).
I remember the bastards at ETH, at that time, were paying only 250 S.Fr. (< 190 USD) to a Chinese PHD student in Chemistry Faculty to do research for them. The student said that he was not aware that 250 S.Fr. is at al enough to cover living expenses in Schweinerland. He said that it was too much money in China (due to high exchange rates). He was lucky to rent a room in a village near zurich and walk 2.5 hours going and 2.5 hours back home for 250 S.Fr. He was eating at other chinese who were living in zurich.
Fu?k Eidgen?ssische Technische Hochschule Zürich.
What a bastard are the swiss !

Apr 03, 2012 06:08
10
comment|28909|0
paul

welcome to western europe! yes, people in western countries DO steal ideas and copy others. not to the extent as in China, though but yes, they do. there's a group of entrepreneurs in germany whose business model is pretty much based on copying other companies (mainly foreign internet/e-business). has been working very well for them (they've made over $1bn). the difference is they do it more hidden as society (officially) does not really value copying others.
and corruption? well, let's be honest it does exist. You'll hardly find it on lower levels but quite often on the upper end. It's controversial and most people do not accept it. But again, it's not very uncommon in higher position in public services and in private companies. Same with Guanxi. For example, about 80% of job openings in Canada are not published. So how do these position get filled? Bottom line is we should stop pointing fingers at other nations. There is no such thing as a perfect society....

Jun 24, 2012 20:35
11
comment|8514|0
Wemkt

If you come to china for work, you will be surprised how friendly Chinese people are. They will forgive what you done wrong because you are a foreigner. But if you are business man, you will need to pay attention to the culture things.

Nov 12, 2010 18:13
12
comment|8519|0
Mark

It is also worth noting that in a Chinese office of a western company, with local management, it is the local Chinese business culture that prevails. Even if senior management is expat.

Expats, remember this and you will avoid some pitfalls of local office politics.

Nov 12, 2010 20:12
13
comment|8873|0
Kwok Leuih

Remember also that Western bosses in China can be beastly because they feel unconstrained by Western business practices. I was asked by an old China hand in an interview what my religious views were, as well as various other obnoxious questions. Giving him the benefit of the doubt and signing the contract, I found working under him to be a painful ordeal. A lot of what the article's author has said is good common sense in the Chinese workplace. I have since moved to a Chinese company, play by the rules, and enjoy it immensely.

Nov 24, 2010 23:28
14
comment|9770|0
Jan

I really wish I read this article before I came to work in China 3 yrs ago...hahaha. Very true. Idea stealing/On the surface seemingly nice but really hate your guts and only doing it just to give you face/pretending to be modest/ the list goes on.

Though the article tries to make it out like these are good things, but in fact these are negative things.

Chinese people in general CAN BE very conniving depending on the situation. I find some Americans like that as well, but the majority of Americans being pretty simple, decent people.

Wow, good article.

Dec 22, 2010 22:32
15
comment|10820|0
nini

My advice after 3 years' living in China:
1. Make friends with the right people (e.g. invite the big boss to eat out)
2. Remember about mianzi: your superior is always right
3. If you disagree with your boss, see above
4. Be friendly and nice to Chinese staff
5. Show them you are interested in Chinese language and culture and don't make sarcastic remarks
6. Strive for harmony in the workplace
7. Contract is not important, guanxi (relationship) is important
8. Don't come to your boss screaming about overtime, invite him to KTV instead and learn a Chinese song in advance
9. Ask your superiors for advice and accept criticism with humility
A lot of acting there, right? But it works wonders.

Jan 19, 2011 09:59
16
comment|25897|0
Carat T. Kidd

5. Show them you are interested in Chinese language and culture and don't make sarcastic remarks.

that is all well and good, but call me old-fashioned, butt kissing is not very cool especially if the person has slant regard for the kisser and in regard the kisser's culture, which let's face it unless China is somehow involved they couldn't care less. They only like NBA cos of Yao Ming.

As for not making sarcastic remarks. You obviously have not been a witness to the small minded sniggering and stares you get as a western man with a local woman.

so i disagreee with your point.

Mar 31, 2012 19:52
17
comment|25904|50302
jobless expat


Dear Carat T. Kidd

there are no well paid jobs like those here in china. and as you can see there are enough butt kisser expats hugging these jobs.
If you are not a butt kisser just leave them alone.
They enjoy the good money and chinese enjoy a clean ass.

Apr 01, 2012 01:28
18
comment|26087|0
K

Excellent points. After four of my own years in China I have to say that's about the best advice (your comments and article together) that I've seen so far.
As a reply to both people's general comments and the article itself, there are good and bad people everywhere. Use your best judgement, and as the article suggests, the golden rule is still golden.
One last thought, due to all "idea-stealing" posts. Wasn't it a very old saying that went "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery"? People have been "stealing ideas" from each other for centuries. That's why they invented patents and copyrights. If you don't have that on your idea, then don't complain when someone else uses it. If you do have a patent or copyright, then complain to the high courts.

Good posts...keep it up!

Apr 08, 2012 04:58
19
comment|26191|0
Claire

this tips is really helpful for those who come China to work.

Apr 11, 2012 22:12
20
comment|10940|0
Ame Desu

How about dealing with two faced superiors or Chinese staff?

Backstabbing Chinese colleagues?

I'm from an Asian country but never been this worst...

Jan 22, 2011 00:41
21
comment|25875|74093
her

A decent list, and yes, the idea stealing one is definitely correct.

I'm a teacher. We were told, at a meeting a few weeks ago, that the western staff were not utilising the ideas and creativity of the Chinese staff enough, so we should consult with them more, and they should give us all their ideas for lessons.

The staff responded by bringing me some 'new ideas', all of which had been taken from watching my western colleagues. My colleagues have also been given advice on new classroom activities, which look strangely familiar to me...

The extra tip I would give is: don't attempt irony or sarcasm. It probably won't translate and could backfire i.e. "no, of COURSE I have nothing better to do on my Saturday night that a promotions activity for the school"... "oh, great, the event starts at 8pm and we'll pick you up from the office."

Mar 30, 2012 20:07
22
comment|25879|0
Lydia

I love your article so much...you are very funny...love your consolation to whomever falls prey to their work being copied...buying some Li Ning shoes hahahaa....just love the way you think

Mar 30, 2012 21:57
23
comment|25882|0
Ramesh

Thanks for your article....... It makes me clear about the chinese working culture. I am in china for more than a year.... My chinese colleagues who knows english are very friendly and helpfull to me. I thought "why other colleagues who knows little english, are not interacting with me, even i approached them they feel uncomfort with me" . Now i understand the reason....

Mar 30, 2012 23:18
24
comment|25896|0
Katy Ve'er

I want to know what numpty thinks Li Ning are a 'decent pair of sneakers'? (Point 6) For one thing they are made out of PVC! Second - they dont last 5 minutes and third, it is impossible to get a pair bigger than size 42.

I bought a pair of Asics once and the stall operative took great haste in the bargaining process, (once i offered a realistic price) of saying "oh come on, they are leather" - like leather is a luxury raw material or something. My thoughts on that sentence? HELLO, DUMB ASS.

Mar 31, 2012 19:43
25
comment|25898|73076
Truth

Good Article! My colleagues forced me to provide a detailed programme for the English Corner,and they copied the ideas and published a book.I only discovered it when I was teaching and came over a text I wrote.Another colleague that was friendly enough spilled the beans.There's always the likelihood of having a head-on collision with one of the mostly female colleagues who take care of foreign teachers.Most of them are more than Tiger moms,and very conniving.One successfully defruaded me of half of my airticket money.I only realised her gymicks eight months later.Dealing with foreign colleagues for long has transformed them into veritable experts at petty ironies,so people should always watch out.

Mar 31, 2012 19:55
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