The Chinese workplace is a veritable minefield of social norms and customs molded from thousands of years of strict hierarchies and beliefs. So what if you find yourself in a position of potential conflict where these Chinese norms and ethics of business just don’t align with your usual approach? Let’s take a look at four hierarchical pitfalls you’re likely to run into when working in China.
Save for a short period during the slightly less conservative time of communism, the traditions of Chinese hierarchy have, and probably always will, reign supreme in every layer of the Chinese society, for better or worse. These norms are not always obvious to the naked eye. If you’re a student, you’ll likely spend most of your time with very liberal teachers and faculty staff that know how to deal with riotous Westerners. If you’re teaching English, your foreignness is the primary product the schools are selling to the parents – meaning that you’re expected and encouraged to behave like a foreigner. But what if, for example, you happen to be the only foreigner in a Chinese company?
The glass door with the undersized hinges flings open as the last person enters the tiny conference room 15 minutes late. With a confident stride, he passes you with a fresh scent of 中华 (Zhōnghuá) cigarettes emanating from his suspiciously expensive-looking hoodie. Everyone in the room looks on silently as the new arrival is given the best seat at the table. “Who is this guy?”, you wonder.
The person who was talking right before the mystery-man entered fumbles a bit with his words, then continues with the next slide, only this time he’s stuttering every now and then and sweating ever so slightly. After the presentation, no-one says a word. The guy next to you is going to town on his Hello Kitty stress ball, and the presenter quickly sits down.
The mystery-man looks troubled, and eventually starts talking. Although you’re unable to understand everything he says, you can tell that he’s not happy about something, which is strange, considering that the project is on time, on budget and the client is happy.
After several minutes of what is clearly harsh criticism, he points directly at your boss, who immediately lowers his head, slowly nodding after each new sentence. The criticism seems neither just nor accurate, so you weigh your options: should you be quiet and let everything play out, or should you wade in and stick up for your boss?
The solution: If you find yourself in a situation like this while working in China, it’s better to not disturb the process. You have no idea who this guy is, but as he seems to be important, it’s best you respect the hierarchy and keep your head down unless it’s absolutely imperative to everyone involved that you speak up.
The scenarios: “None of us will be able to attend tonight’s conference call with the Australian subcontractor. Could you pass on these messages?”. “Sure,” you reply, unaware of the implications of the request. After accepting the task, your boss promptly sends you a document containing a bullet list of bluntly phrased notes for your call:
As the conference call draws near, you start to wonder where your real allegiances lie. The bullet points are obviously hyperbole – you’ve seen similar attempts to gain leverage a thousand times before — yet you know you can’t say, “Oh, don’t worry. My boss likes to exaggerate. Don’t take it too seriously,” to your foreign business partners.
“G’day mate. Great surfin’ weddar innit? How’r you todie?”, asks the subcontractor. As always, you resist the urge to reply with “Let’s put another shrimp on the barbie”, and instead wonder just how to deliver the message without ruffling feathers on either side.
The solution: In a situation where you have to choose between being the buddy-buddy Westerner or a representative of your Chinese company, it’s best to take the middle road and just be formal. Pass on the messages as diplomatically as you can but make it clear you don’t necessarily agree entirely. Hyperbole is best avoided in a business context, but so is undermining your boss.
The scenario: “Hi, do you have time to help me out with this?”, she politely asks over WeChat, followed by a cute sticker. Why, if it isn’t the supervisor for the other team asking for help! “Sure, what it is?”, you reflexively reply before you realise your mistake. A glance at the spreadsheet she sent shows a lot of red rows waiting to become green. Do you really have the time to help the other team?
“Oh, nothing big - could you give me some suggestions for the new product presentation?” Sounds harmless enough, but you happen to know that the presentation is 20 pages long and requires extensive editing. Still, you want to stay on everyone’s good side and increase your office 关系 (guānxì). On the other hand, if you keep saying yes to every task that’s requested of you, you’ll never be able to do your own job.
The solution: Being asked to help other teams with special tasks is a common occurrence for foreigners working in China, as it’s often related to your unique expertise, for example, in English. Note that the most polite way to decline this kind of request is not to say “no”, as that’s simply too direct in Chinese culture. Say that you’re too busy to help today, but would be happy to some other day. With any luck, that’ll give the others the impression that you’re both willing to help out and working hard in your own role. If you put them off long enough, they should get the message according to the rules of Chinese refusal culture.
The scenario: “No campaign wrong we now stop and recondition focus on KOL before Q2 or else no money left you understand ok?”. The words are clear, yet their meaning is obscured. They belong to your company’s CEO. The other people involved in the conference call are silently waiting - for clarification, for context, for salvation.
“Ok, so, uh, like, ok, yeah sure, we can do that,” eventually comes from the dazed Canadian on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Do they really understand? Your CEO is an exceptionally intelligent person and shouldn’t be derided for his less-than-perfect English (no-one should), but his word is the law, and if he is misunderstood, people could lose their jobs. But correcting your CEO in front of other people? Even if it’s a simple clarification?
The solution: You briefly remember the mystery-man in the conference room last week, and decide that even though the Chinese labour laws officially tend to favour the employee, it’s better to save your job than let your CEO lose face on your account. Let people on the same level in the hierarchy interpret each other face-to-face, and then follow up in private afterwards if you have doubts about understanding on either side. Openly correcting someone higher up is most likely not going to end up costing you your job, especially since foreigners are assumed to be blunt and ignorant of the rules, but it will be seen as disruptive and embarrassing in the Chinese workplace.
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Keywords: Working in China
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