I’ve had seven different jobs during my time in China and so encountered a wide variety of local colleagues. The majority have been affable, diligent and helpful. However, there are some differences in approach and behaviour that failed to span the cultural bridge and reminded me that China is indeed a very unique country. Here are six things to be aware of when working with Chinese colleagues.
Sarcasm and banter doesn’t often land
Many people in the West like to lighten the work day with some jokes and bantering with their colleagues. It helps to develop team spirit and dissipate the ennui that can come creeping in after lunch. But humor is a highly subjective thing, especially when there are language and cultural barriers in place.
Even if you can speak pretty good Mandarin, don’t expect your Chinese colleagues to be amused by sarcastic and negging comments. They might detect that it’s a joke and smile, but in a culture where “face” is so important, it’s best to steer clear of taking the micky, even if it’s meant affectionately.
Staff socialising can be awkward
Westerners are often keen for staff nights out; they can be good fun, especially when copious amounts of alcohol are involved. Don’t expect anything similar if you’re invited out with your Chinese colleagues. The main staff socialising I’ve encountered are company-organised staff dinners and team-building events.
Despite China’s reputation for boozy business banquets, I’ve found that these days, such events tend to be light on the alcohol but heavy on the “comical” activities that foreigners usually shy away from (unless uninhibited by alcohol, of course).
For example, I was once invited to dinner with an adult class I’d taught English to. At the well-received request of one of my students, each person at the table performed a little song, poem or routine. I must admit that I was caught by surprise and a little embarrassed having only had a few tiny glasses of the world’s weakest beer by this point.
Say there’s a problem of some kind in your workplace. You may find the issue is not directly addressed among your Chinese colleagues, no matter how obvious it is. The concept of face, while admirable in its consideration of the feelings of others, sometimes prevents Chinese coworkers from getting to the root of the matter.
For example, when I first arrived in China, I started out as a university ESL teacher, having only ever worked as a high school English teacher beforehand. My approach was thus that of a high school teacher, which wasn’t what the students needed or wanted.
While my teacher-sense picked up that something wasn’t right fairly quickly, neither my colleagues, my boss nor my students told me what I was doing wrong as they didn’t want to embarrass me. Thankfully, I figured it out for myself some weeks later, but it rather spoiled my and my students’ first semester.
Forewarning is a luxury
I’ve sometimes found that my Chinese colleagues aren’t so hot at giving me a heads up when something is afoot. Perhaps this is a function of China’s top-down political system — where information is only passed on when and if you need it — but it can be agitating.
For example, one time when I was teaching English at a learning centre, I went to my usual classroom only to find it had been turned into a building site. This was puzzling, as I’d just picked up the key for the room’s audio-visual cabinet from a colleague who didn’t think to tell me that a massive refurbishment was taking place there. I eventually found the classroom where my students had been redirected. Clearly someone saw fit to tell them, but not me!
Another time, I received a phone call on my way home from my boss who said a photographer was going to take some pictures of me for publicity purposes. “When?” I asked. “Now. Can you come back to campus please?” And on another occasion when copyediting for a publication, my boss sent me 19 articles to work on “By tomorrow, thanks.”
Even after you’ve left work, be prepared for sudden changes to your plans.
Ask about the money
Don’t expect anything to be handed to you on the plate when it comes to money in China.
Let me give you an example: You’ve gone for a job interview. You’re in your smartest clothes, have prepared well and answered all the questions put to you. It seems to be going well. Then the question: “What are your salary expectations?” You’ve done some research and talked to friends in the industry, so suggest X RMB a month. The HR guy across from you frowns. “Oh, we can only offer Y RMB a month,” he says.
Why not just say that then? The answer: If a Chinese company can save a few bob on your salary, you can bet your life they will. The same goes for pay rises. You’ll probably have to hold someone over a flaming barrel if you want one. If you think your starting salary is too low or you’re due a raise, therefore, you need to pipe up.
Chinese companies, like the country, tend to be rather top-down. While Western managers usually try to show that they’re “just like you,” and therefore encourage a collaborative approach in meetings, the Chinese version is prone to overlong speeches by executives and managers, all sharing tedious information as though it were the lifeblood of the company.
Even if you escape these weekly assaults on your will to live, you’re unlikely to avoid the annual company conference, a ghastly enactment of corporate group-think. Expect to hear the organisation insisting “We are your family” while executives give self-congratulatory speeches exuding an air of noblesse oblige. Also prepare to be baffled by how this seems to be the social highlight of the year for your Chinese colleagues.
Seven jobs and counting, there are still some things I will never understand.
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Appreciate sharing your job experience in China! I was born and raised in Beijing, and have worked and lived in USA for 32 years. I'm considering to work in China starting next year so that I can take care of my aging parents while traveling in that region. Just my two cents: - Salary negotiation tactic is similar here in the West. The employer or recruiter here actually will press you to give a number first, then they will take your number and counter offer a lower number. It's merely a tactic. - as for annual corporate meeting, same here. As a matter of fact, more! My current employer holds all sorts of quarterly and periodic all hands meetings. My management now recently even holds meetings 8am through 6pm or later throughout the day, exhausts the team and I feel, disrespect and take advantage of employees' personal time. These are corporate and management cultures, can happen anywhere. - overtime: since the 90s, I've seen corporates here no longer pay overtime. We've all been put to work overtime unpaid for decades, unfortunately. - one thing I see and I want to learn is, my American colleagues are far better at setting boundaries and not let management take advantage of them. For example, this weekend is July 4th, a National holiday. Last Friday boss said to the team to maybe expect to work this weekend. The rest of us, the ladies, are silent. However, the only young white male colleague said, "I do not expect to work this weekend". I thought I need to learn from him. That's a great way to professionally reject manager's attempt to cross personal boundaries. Reading your example of 19 translations by tomorrow, I thought of... maybe we need to learn from my young American colleague to set boundaries, to "manage UP". I would tell that manager that I already made plans that evening, I will need 1 or 2 days to do 19 translations while other tasks may get delayed since I have to do this task. Ask your manager to help you prioritize which tasks to do first. I would not let management take my personal time for work. Of course, it is a personal choice. - sarcasm: after all these years, I am still a Chinese inside culturally. I never like the negative and unproductive nature of sarcasms at workplace. I find it annoying and sometimes even insulting if not humiliating. It doesn't help get the situation better. On this, I'm still a Chinese inside :) - "face": I feel it's important to RESPECT the local culture no matter where one is. When in Rome, do as Romans do. It's important to develop ourselves to have tolerance, to respect and honor differences. That's my take :) Again, really appreciate your article :) it helps me learn where China is now :) it's so good to know that you take the adventure to work and live there :) Thank you!
Jul 03, 2022 21:42 Report Abuse
good to hear another perspective, however your experience in the work=place is that of North America and can not be used as an example of how all non-Chinese work-places operate. articles like the above generalise WAY too much and this one plays into the Chinese expectation of non-Chinese stereotypes. For example in Europe there are strict labour laws that dictate clearly about work hours and remuneration on over-time. Likewise 'sarcasm' - this would not be tolerated in may European work-places having strict guidelines on behaviour and 'respect'. Also, why did you need to call out the behaviour of one 'white male' ? If you don't have the confidence of your own abilities, then you will be walked-over in ANY work-place. When in China my confidence in my ability seemed to annoy some of my colleagues because i refused to be walked over and bullied by management.
Jul 03, 2022 22:23 Report Abuse
Dear Blondie, totally agree with you, my comment is absolutely limited by my own personal experiences, specifically in Texas :) I can't speak for either coast in the U.S., for example. Even in North America, it can be vastly different. I agree with you, Europe is very different including humor :) As for 'confidence', that is my point, there is a drastic cultural difference, not necessarily individual. Of course, I can only speak of the traditional culture I was raised. I don't know how it is now in this regard in China with younger generations. In the frame of traditional Chinese culture I was raised, it is about respect and being modest and polite. Looking back, I realize now I was being bullied big time in corporate America. The more polite and nice I was, the worse I was treated. My understanding is, my kindness and politeness was mistaken as "weak". Actually, that is not "weakness", nor a sign of lack of self-confidence, it's simply being polite, nice and a gesture to be courteous. I think this is a main difference. You are right, we'd be walked all over and I was being walked all over in the American culture with the Chinese behavior. It did not work. Recent years I've been working on finding my own personal style to be myself while practicing to be "assertive" and not to be bullied. I see it first-hand now, the bullying culture here starts young... I saw plenty through my own child's experience at school here. I hope you will take this cultural understanding in China, it may help you smooth out some of the "annoyance". Appreciate your point :)
Jul 03, 2022 23:46 Report Abuse
Thanks for your reply - and i could add thanks for replying by mentioning points I raised AND being polite. Sadly on this site there have been some posters who prefer to throw 'insults' rather than reply in open conversation (and not even in English !!) I have found it is possible to be polite, courteous, nice AND assertive - being firm in your position and not caving into personal attacks is key or being a push-over. When someone attacks you PERSONALLY in the work-place, it means 1) they are trying to shut-down the conversation, 2) They have no evidence to back their position, 3) they are just a bully and bullying/being aggressive to others (especially when in a position of authority), is in my experience a sign of weakness and shows poor leadership. In China I found that what many non-Chinese considered 'confidence' was labeled as 'arrogance'. I treat everyone as an individual, so if someone is coming from a level of experience I will treat different from someone with less (life) experience, because you can have all the degrees and education in the world and still be an ass, or not have gone to university and be a likeable and reliable co-worker. But the bottom line is, no matter what country you are in, PROFIT is the bottom line for any company you work for and only the naive think that their employer really cares about them (no matter what your employer says to you). Good Luck !
Jul 04, 2022 00:30 Report Abuse
I agree with what you said. I believe, people and creativity cannot be labeled by a "degree". In my earlier career, I had a patent (with only a B.S. degree), but later a Ph.D. from Stanford put his name first on the patent application. He was only hired AFTER I already developed the prototype and my boss and I need more workers to help us test the software. I let it go. I have learned and witnessed a lot of unethical behaviors in academia when I was in graduate school. I can understand why local Chinese may perceive Western "confidence" as "arrogance", because the traditional Chinese culture is about being "modest and humble". Some people do not have good manners no matter where we go, it has to do with one's upbringing. One thing I find is, everyone wants to be "heard". Maybe just need to find a way to make them feel "heard". Sometimes, it is better to maintain "distance", set boundaries. I had a colleague 3 years ago storm into my office and talked to me rudely. I learned my lesson out of that incident, I should get up and walk away from that situation. Hope you focus on yourself, try not to let other people's dramas bother you and upset you. Enjoy the time there for the things and foods you like. Best to you as well :)
Jul 06, 2022 03:05 Report Abuse
sadly too, many people 'focus on themselves' and are so self-absorbed that their narcissistic behaviour renders them oblivious to others. This kind of behaviour is reinforced by social-media and emotional dependence on smart-phones. There is a balance between self-care and empathy for others. I would never brag about accomplishments or achievements, push myself to be the centre of attention, nor feed into others' self-absorption. Basic courtesy to all and clearly defined boundaries maintained in a civil and polite way. I don't acknowledge poor manners from others - no matter who they are. Sadly I witnesses very little 'modesty and humility' in China during my time, the 'foreigners' being the ones who were more quiet and less willing to talk about achievements. China has become such a competition at all levels that I refused to talk about anything 'significant' I had done, mainly because it is no-one else's business other than my own. It is possible to be firm and assertive without being rude to others. Good luck in all you do.
Jul 07, 2022 13:17 Report Abuse
I think to excuse everything that passes regarding Chinese mannerisms and norms on account of their concept of "face" is to come under the thumb of totally outdated concepts. "Face" does no favors for the future of China, nor the prosperity, growth, development and evolution of it's Citizens and culture. It is an outdated, immature, pathetic, and overly-sensitive concept that locks Chinese people into perpetual poverty and immaturity. If there's one thing I'm certain of, countries like China and Japan that just can't seem to allow themselves to evolve along with the rest of the world, are in a very real sense, not only holding themselves back, but all of us along with them. Fcuk the concept of "face".
Jun 14, 2022 15:08 Report Abuse
Thanks for the information shared. I, however, would disagree that in Western cultures the bosses work hard to show 'they are just like you'. I've worked in many multicultural environments and have never come across that. On the contrary, they always make sure in one way or another to enhance they are the boss, even in friendly gatherings. I accept in some western countries the difference is not as bluntly obvious as in others but it is always there in one way or another. The only companies, I have not come across that hierarquical issue are the very, very few so called Teal companies and few others that are trying very hard to xhange their culture, but that is still very hard work in progress. I've also disagree that humor is used in Western working environments to disipate tensions. In fact, I can only think one Western European country where humour is commonly used. But it is not commonly accepted in many other Western countries. In fact, in many of them it is a sign of bad taste not focusing on the problem at hand but instead coming out with what it will be consider like a bad and tasless joke.
Jun 13, 2022 22:18 Report Abuse
I would disagree about "westerners" being keen on staff nights out. The opposite is more correct. Foreigners (any that i have met) would prefer NOT to socialise too much with staff, unless it is based on a good personal relationship. And the suggestion that foreign staff drink more is also incorrect. Chinese tolerance of alcohol is a lot lower and they appear to get drunk sooner. And there is nothing i would dislike more than spending time socialising with people with whom i have little in common, especially the childish activities they seem to enjoy on such occasions. Forcing staff to endure such things is culturally insulting, akin to try to force a Muslim to drink or a Jewish person to eat pork. Saying that people should 'respect the culture' works both ways. Yes, learn about local culture, but don't coerce people to violate their cultural norms for your entertainment.
May 29, 2022 15:02 Report Abuse