7 Tips for Surviving the Chinese Workplace

7 Tips for Surviving the Chinese Workplace
May 15, 2017 Translated by Sarah Meik , eChinacities.com

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.

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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Wow, soo fantatic article

Apr 20, 2020 02:47 Report Abuse



very good article thank ypu

Jun 09, 2017 01:02 Report Abuse



wow, good to know

May 19, 2017 09:29 Report Abuse



Good information

May 17, 2017 01:32 Report Abuse



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

May 15, 2017 07:09 Report Abuse



Haven't I read this article a month ago?

May 15, 2017 04:00 Report Abuse



Wow, eChinacities... this is like an 8 YEAR OLD POST. And it somewhat out of date now. Come on...

Mar 31, 2017 12:30 Report Abuse



chinese management: don't tell anyone anything then blame everything on everyone else

Jun 08, 2016 05:47 Report Abuse



Reading all your comments I take it China is not for the faint hearted. I need to strengthen up.

Nov 16, 2013 08:37 Report Abuse


the new foreign girl!!!

ohh boy, I wish i have read this very helpful article a week ago! I am the new foreign girl, brought here to help enhance the company, needless to say many of my new coworkers like things the way they were - it's the boss that want to change things, so i am doomed no matter what I do! lol

Sep 01, 2012 05:02 Report Abuse



Your article is decent in general but very lacking in truth at the conclusion. The Chinese LIE ,CHEAT, and STEAL with no accountability unless they are seen,almost ZERO inner code!!!! They are PARASITES in the world community! How much wildlife is there in China, HINT, virtually none. I wonder WHY!?

Apr 17, 2012 18:53 Report Abuse



Thank You for sharing some Key Points.. Em gona start My work In china It's really helpful for me.

Apr 06, 2012 04:11 Report Abuse



For what it's worth, LiNing makes a good pair of shoes.

See comment #13, good advice in my opinion.

Chinese people will steal ideas, time, everything and anything. What are you going to do about it? Yes, everyone steals, but it's different here.

Apr 03, 2012 06:10 Report Abuse



I am so fed up with my company for being so unorganized. I am trying to get it organized but the boss just doesn't smart enough to give me full support fast

Mar 30, 2017 22:28 Report Abuse



Soo trueee, they are like wind up toys. They are not mentally capable to accomoplish a task on their own. I deal with it on a daily basis.

May 06, 2012 23:33 Report Abuse



Lol I am the only creative Chinese in my company, the rest just don't take responsibility, not motivated to do a job, keep coming up with excuse.

Mar 30, 2017 22:26 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse


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 Report Abuse


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 Report Abuse



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 Report Abuse