Break Etiquette in the Chinese Workplace

Break Etiquette in the Chinese Workplace
Jan 23, 2018 By Mikey Choquette ,

You’ve just bagged yourself a job in China. Congrats! You’ve swatted up on China’s overtime rules, lunch break  etiquette and even know the do’s and don’ts of dealing with your Chinese boss. But what do you do if you want to take an impromptu break at work. Maybe you need a cigarette break or are dead tired and need a nap. Perhaps you need to take a very important call or have to step out. Or maybe you just need a bit of “fresh” China air. What is the workplace break etiquette in China?

Photo: Simon Law

Taking a Cigarette Break in the Chinese Workplace

If you’re a smoker, you definitely have more leeway to take work breaks in China than you might have in the US, for example. While the States has banned smoking in most public places and the stench of a smoker in the office is generally met with frowns, I’ve witnessed little parallel in the Middle Kingdom. As such, smokers are afforded some freedom, even to the point where smoking in corridors and toilets is tolerated in some offices. Great if you’re a smoker. Not so great for everyone else.

As long as smoke breaks are reasonably short (or you are accompanied by a superior) you can more or less take as many as you please in the Chinese workplace. As long as your work isn’t affected, no-one cares what you do to your lungs. 

Taking Naps in the Chinese Workplace

While most folks wouldn’t reckon Spain and China have too much in common, there is certainly a siesta-attitude in the Far East. Sometimes you just need to retire for a few moments a take a quick nap at work. While sleeping on the job is frowned upon in countries with the Protestant work ethic, China is all about it. Go ahead and rest up.

Akin to smoke breaks, as long as work gets done and you are fairly inconspicuous in your nap location, you can get away with short sleeping breaks in the Chinese workplace. However, only one nap a day is standard. Most people just slump their heads directly onto their desks, sometimes with the help of pillows bought in especially for the purpose. In some Chinese TV dramas you might even see the protagonist find repose in the rest room. Not to be recommended to germ-o-phobes.  

Taking Phone Calls in the Chinese Workplace

Sometimes you just have to take a phone call at work, especially if you have a million kuai di delivery men depending on your directions. After ascertaining the caller is not one of millions of annoying telemarketers, you can usually just use the universal gesture of receiving an important call by getting out of your seat, pointing to your phone and mouthing gibberish. More than likely your boss won’t mind at all, especially if the call is five minutes or less.

If you’re on your phone a lot or for a long time each call, however, it might not prove kosher forever. If your boss has a zero tolerance policy, you’ll find that out pretty quickly. In the end, phone calls are treated differently in every workplace, regardless of country. In China though, cell phone overuse is a big issue, so watch and learn from your colleagues.

Taking Snack Breaks in the Chinese Workplace

Sometimes your stomach starts rumbling at work and the whole office can hear. Oh boy, you should have finished that jian bing for breakfast or piled in more noodles at lunch. Can you step out to snag your favorite cucumber-flavored Lays?

Answer: probably. If you'e ultra-quick (i.e. if there’s a 7/11 nearby) and nipping those hunger pangs in the bud will hasten your work you're probably fine to go grab a snack. If you’re a delinquent worker always on the prowl for an excuse not to work, then there may be bigger problems. Often, however, Chinese workplaces will have onsite facilities or at least something very nearby to satisfy this need. Chinese people are obsessed with food, after all.

Taking a Fresh Air Break in the Chinese Workplace

When your head fogs over and the magic’s not happening in the office, sometimes you need an impromptu step outside. Maybe you just broke up with your partner, have family problems, work issues or you’re just sick of staring at your screen. Can you nip out into that questionable haze and release some steam? For this one, as all, you need to use common sense.

No boss wants a useless break. China’s new-found capitalist spirit necessitates busy workers, but if the break is offset by a happy worker, then most Chinese bosses seem okay with employees taking five minutes to reset their brains. Of course, if this kind of fresh air break isn’t available to you, you can always take up smoking.

In conclusion, I think sometimes cultural differences can be blown out of proportion. Break etiquette in China is not so different to that in the West and will of course vary from workplace to workplace. In the end, like in any job in any country, keep your head on a swivel, take note of your coworkers and do as the Romans (入乡随俗 - Rùxiāngsuísú).

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