7 Tips for Surviving the Chinese Workplace

7 Tips for Surviving the Chinese Workplace
May 15, 2017 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.

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: Surviving the Chinese Workplace Surviving Chinese Workplace Surviving Chinese Workplace


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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



More ECC articles telling foreigners that insecure, incompetent, inept, and borderline dictatorial morons are better than you. I love #1, #2, #3, #4. #1 says being a micromanager will illict respect and dedication. #2 says it's okay to be belittled by people who are less than you rather than them using you as a valuable resource, because #3, you foreigners suck at your job anyway and we're going to tell you how bad you are at it simply because, #4, praising a job well done is for weenies. Then these idiots wonder why most foreigners are one and done at jobs in China. It isn't the stupid ideas of backwards people. It's the foreigner who can't/won't/unable to adjust from going from an educated, skilled person to a useless cog that needs to be micromanaged, insulted, and belittled at every step of the way. And let's not forget stabbed in the back as well by the Chinese co-workers, since #6 says that's okay to do because everyone does it.

May 15, 2017 03:51 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



There are some obnoxious ones, that's for sure. Petty, concerned with face and totally losing sight of the Big Picture: Getting things done well and efficiently. For example, last year I went to work in a training school with a high salary and low, low classes, like 5 to 7 a week. 35 hours altogether, mostly sitting looking up pictures to make a PPT. I had never done this before and there was no instruction as to games that might be based on a PPT... So the product was pretty mediocre, both from me and the other foreign teachers,so much so that I suggested I just use flash cards as I could do a lot more with them. And why pay someone five or six times what you are paying the Chinese teacher to sit around and look up pics on the net to stick on a PPT? And then, what was dumber, was that wanting a Chinese teaching assistant in the room, which I had always had before, was seen as an imposition. So the high paid teacher would spend his precious time with the students telling them to sit well...

Now backtrack to the interview. I met the manager or whatever who initially told me in no uncertain terms that "We know the Chinese kids better than you do" and "I hope you will obey the Chinese teacher." He went on to tell me they did not want just a foreign face and the literally hissed "I hate foreign face." Yeah... So I took this job bc the pay was high and teaching hours low, though I spent all of my time surfing the internet looking for pics and surfing the internet. I was hired before the term started so for one month I did just a bit of training and then sat around collecting my pay.

What I discovered was this: The chip on the shoulder that I saw with this manager was this branch office's ethos. The Chinese staff simply would not accept ideas from the foreign staff or do much of anything collaboratively, even to the point that during a demo the Chinese teacher would just there and not play her part. So of course it went badly. In essence, this chip on the shoulder had articulated itself into a teaching method and management style. A few times I saw exactly the things described here: Being upbraided over nothing for some exercise of authority... It was obvious, annoying...

So, after sitting there a month doing the very little I was asked I taught for about a month and having had enough and being at odds with the staff, I found a convenient time to exit and left, with the good excuse that they though this was a branch of a large teaching company, which curiously was doing business under three different names, they were unable to provide a working visa in spite of the fact there CEO, who claimed to have Ph.D from a British university had assured me, while literally sweating profusely, that this was no problem. The manager's response as to why he had not replied to my repeated e-mails about this? "I am not the personnel person." Yeah...

So I basically chewed him out in front of the other foreign staff who had gotten a similar line, took my pay and a much need break from China. I think this is a pretty typical experience. Small mindedness and this type of focus on petty matters is bad business. I took their money for doing very very very little and then I left them to make up whatever face saving lie they were going to tell the parents. And yes, some people will lie a lot when it comes to business BUT they aren't very good at it jaja So if you have any sense about you can see right through it, for just what it is and navigate around it.

Since this and other experiences in China, I wised up and have done much better this year, finding jobs I like and that pay well. My income has kept rising and I like the people I work with. There are just a few rules everyone should know and apply:


Yeah, it is still a an employee's market. Reliable teachers with any experience are golden. Don't put up with BS. ie Cancelled classes at the last minute, late pay... If you tolerate last minutre cancelled classes and do not demand payment, have fun being an on call teacher for less than serious students and the only loser (your time) on the whole transaction. And good idea, keep personal contact info for adult students and parents. If they like you and the school alienates you, they may want to continue studying with you directly and will be happy to pay you the rate you were making plus some as it is less than what they were paying the school. And if you get to them early you can foil the school from delivering whatever face saving lie they have in mind that will also contain a disparagement of your good name. All is fair...


While singing happily, "We only live to kiss your A**"

Like it or not, the schools and the jobs for Chinese staff are there bc of the foreign teachers. You are an asset who can find another job anywhere, usually for better money.

3) SOME OF THE FOREIGNERS YOU WORK WITH ARE WILL BE SCUMBAGS. Just as bad or worse than the worst of you employers. ie If you have been in China for seven years and you are working as a teacher in a mediocre training school... what is wrong with you? You will meet all kinds. Some cool people but don't expect the best or think anything is wrong with you. Some may even be such *holes that they think it is funny to mislead those who are "fresh off the boat" and then gloat at how smart they can pretend they are.

Work is work anywhere and will always have its issues. I have two great jobs and private students now, good living, several times what I started making last year, fun, no pressure, time off.. An almost ideal life. Finding it came after the frustratiion of learnign these things and navigating these situations. I love my life in China and everyone can and should. And it is best for expats to mind these rules. Or **** rises to the top and we end up being subjected to BS by managers who forget they have their jobs, whether it be in schools or companies focused on foreign markets because of us. They are there for us. We are not there for them. And if they don't like it, walk out the door and go to someplace where they understand it and do the best job you can for them.

Dec 04, 2012 23:38 Report Abuse



Well written article. Having worked in a Chinese culture (not in china, but in another place) I have a good understanding of it. Stealing idea is a very common thing, and it's often done very blatantly. You are not expected to come up with an idea, unless you are asked for it. And if you create a tiny bit of insecurity in your supervisor's mind, you would be bullied. Workplace bullying is very common.

To summarize, don't care much about what you have achieved, but care only about if your superiors are happy with your achievement, even if it's underachievement. That's how it works.

Dec 04, 2012 05:01 Report Abuse



Never in my life have I seen a work place as awful as China. People are selfish and liars they only care about their own personal interests rather than the wellbeing of the company. They would never be honest (with you) what problems they had. If they said "no problem", expect some. If they said it's only a small problem, expect a huge one. They are pretty clever in "transferring" jobs and responsibilities ( particularly when the project is pretty much doomed ) so be prepared to take the blame.

Oct 16, 2012 19:54 Report Abuse



I wish I had known this 8.5 years ago - this knowledge would have avoided sleepless nights and angst.

Oct 05, 2012 08:00 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



After living in China for more than 4 years, I've about had it with the "hierarchy" and "leaders." A Chinese friend explained to me that in China there is not "the rule of law," but "the rule of leaders." Some bizarre behavior from "leaders" which seemed extremely petty and immature to me, has suddenly become clear after I had the realization that exercise of power is not truly powerful unless it is unfair and ridiculous.

At the school I work for we receive our schedules, any and all critical information, and anything essential we need, at the last possible minute, or not at all. This even happens if they are fully aware in advance that we'd like the information as soon as possible.

Finally I realized this was about control. If you have the information you need to do your job, you can control your own life. Oddly, the biggest concerns were actually about needed the essential information to do my job for them properly. If they withhold this information, it's impossible for you to be in control of your own life. They should control it, and this is more important than you doing a good job, because for them to control you substantiates the hierarchy and the underlying system of, well, corrupt power. Only it is not seen as corrupt.

Oddly, the more unfair or ridiculous the exercise of power by the "leader" in question, the more obsequious and fawning should by our response. It is impossible for them to understand that we, as Westerners, will lose respect for them because they don't appear able to perform their managerial task with any competence, and act like elementary school hall monitors with a power kick.

They believe that "knowledge is power," but here it doesn't mean the kind of knowledge that is "wisdom" but rather "information." Access to information is power, and lack of access is powerlessness. Hence, withholding information from foreign employees reduces their power, and increases that of the leader over them, in his own limited imagination, if you can call it that.

This kind of behavior from "leaders" is quite annoying and counterproductive.

I also find that the best way to function in China, in work environments, is to consider it as a game of Chess or Poker. You don't reveal your hand, you never even suggest that you have a strategy at all, and create a false impression to go along with whatever they want. Meanwhile one must be slippery as an eel, because there are always little traps set for one.

Overall I've been able to spot most the traps and evade them without anyone even knowing I saw them in the first place (claim to be sick in advance of a last minute notification of some event you are going to be asked to officiate, for free, for example).

As I say, it's really taken me a long time to understand the primacy of "hierarchy" here, and that arbitrary and capricious exercise of power is considered more powerful than judicious and proper productive use of power. In other words, an asshole boss is strong and important. A good boos is weak and a failure.

Bit tired of it all, and the evidence that this actually goes against nature can be seen in the cement colored skies above.

Jun 25, 2012 18:23 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


Idea, now steal me.

Theft (ideas or otherwise) is not considered bad here.
Getting caught is almost bad, but then try to lie your way out of it.
Getting exposed for stealing is the real crime, closely followed by whistle blowing.

Apr 08, 2012 07:33 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 very sorry to sound negative, but it is all a sack of bull... Chinese are friendly and don't want you to lose face... blah-blah-blah... Try to turn shitty Chinese mentality into better looking stuff. Have been in China for over 3 years and money is the only thing keeping me here. People won't blink at idea stealing and cheating ("it's the Chinese way", they say), but every one of them likes to say how amazing China is and how it is better that all the west put together. I am saying it from experiencing Chinese medical system, useless organisational blunders that were then blamed on me, poor quality everything....

Apr 03, 2012 02:53 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



In our company the chinese staff have No creativity, accept no responsibility, not willing to make decisions. And keep using the excuse we dont have experience. You have been here for 7yrs!! And the solution to a problem is add more staff. This is why expats have jobs and head office keeps sending us

Apr 02, 2012 06:31 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