Working with Chinese Staff: 6 Points to Look Out For

Working with Chinese Staff: 6 Points to Look Out For
Mar 31, 2011 By Mike Cormac ,

In my time in China, I have had seven different jobs and so encountered a wide variety of colleagues. Working with Chinese staff has, on the whole, been a pleasurable experience; nearly all have been affable, diligent and helpful. However, there are some differences in approach and behaviour which can fail to span the cultural bridge, reminding you that this is indeed a different country. Here are some of the pointers I have picked up in my time here:

Working with Chinese Staff: 6 Points to Look Out For

1) Humour

Most people like to lighten work with some jokes and bantering. It helps to develop team spirit, and dissipates the post-lunch ennui that can come creeping in. But humour is a highly subjective thing, and if you are part of a group of foreigners joking about Western music, film, TV or sports, don’t expect your Chinese colleagues to be amused. They might be smiling, but they’re not laughing with you. Similarly, punning bantering is an acquired taste, and one which might go over their heads entirely.

2) Socialising

We foreigners are often keen to have staff nights out – they’re good fun, help you to get to know your workmates, break cultural barriers and all that jazz. But mostly we suggest activities which revolve around alcohol – KTV perhaps, or just going to a bar, which tends to pare Chinese participation down to roughly zero. The main staff socialising I have encountered have been company organised staff dinners, team-building events etc. Such events tend to involve comical activities and events which we foreigners shy away from (unless uninhibited by alcohol, of course). For example, I once was invited to dinner by an adult class I had taught; each person in the table performed a little song, poem or routine, where most waiguoren would shy away from such an exhibition. These may be fun for some people, but on the whole they’re just not what we’re generally used to!

3) Forewarning

I have sometimes found that Chinese colleagues aren’t so hot at giving notice when events are afoot. Perhaps this is a function of the top-down economy where information is passed down when you need it, but it can be agitating. For example, when I was a university English teacher, I went to the classroom as usual only to find it had become a building site. This was puzzling, as I had already picked up the key for the computer and the microphone at the audio-visual room, but no-one told me that room was being refurbished. I eventually found the classroom where my students had been redirected – they had been told, but no-one had thought to inform me! Another time, I received a phone call saying that a photographer was going to take some pictures of me for publicity purposes. “When?” I asked. “Now, can you come back to campus now please?” And on another occasion, when copyediting for a publication, they sent me 19 articles to work on “by tomorrow, thanks”. So be prepared for sudden changes to your own plans!

4) Interviews

So you’ve gone for a job interview. The manager is Chinese. You’re in your smartest clothes, have prepared well and answered with some fluency; it seems to be going well. Then the question: “What are your salary expectations?” You don’t know what to say (online research failed to give any specific figures for similar jobs; they all said “Salary dependent on experience”), but suggest X RMB a month. She frowns. “Oh, we can only offer Y RMB a month,” she says. Why not just say what the salary is, then?

5) Matters of Delicacy

Say there’s a problem of some kind which needs to be addressed. With Chinese workmates, you tend to find that these matters are not addressed directly, leaving you uncomfortably aware that things aren’t quite right but not much clearer on what exactly the problem is. The concept of “face”, while admirable in its consideration of the feelings of others, sometimes prevents you from getting to the root of the matter. For example, when I first arrived in China and was teaching at a university, I had never taught ESL before, having been 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. But while my teacher-sense picked up that something wasn’t right, no-one told me what I was doing wrong. I ended up stumbling onto the right approach some weeks later, but it rather spoiled my first semester.

6) Meetings and Conferences

Chinese organisations are rather top-down, whereas Western managers usually try to show that they just like you, the worker - even if it’s just an act. So meetings are prone to overlong speeches by executives and managers, sharing information as though it is a gift from them rather than the lifeblood of a company. Meanwhile conferences are ghastly enactments of corporate group-think, the organisation insisting “We are your family” while executives give self-congratulatory speeches and exuding an air of noblesse oblige. And this seems to be the social highlight of the year for your Chinese colleagues!

Related links
Working in a Chinese Office: Five Keys to Success
7 Tips for Surviving the Chinese Workplace
Chinese Business Practices – 3 of the Biggest Cultural Differences

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Keywords: working with Chinese Chinese office tips Working with chinese staff


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It is hard to say what development is. Most people equate it with economic development. It would be nice if you could have a society with well developed infrastructure and social services and everybody's basic needs guaranteed, but without mass consumerism, but that doesn't seem to have happened anywhere.

I visited Brazil and Cuba, but never lived in Latin America. The people there are charming, to be sure. Brazil has frightening levels of poverty in the slums, and the big cities are quite dangerous after nightfall. However in many ways the economy is quite well developed, and there is a big modern sector.

Cuba is a very particular place. I went hoping to get a good impression of the system there. Unfortunately I didn't. It is true that they have free social services, and indeed literacy rates, child mortality rates, life expectancy etc,.. are all much better in Cuba than in other Latin American countries, and the child mortality rates are actually better than in the US. They don't have terrible slumes and poverty either, and it is very safe.
However, if you speak to the people you don't get the feeling that they are happy. Salaries are extremely low, and most people struggle to get by. The country is also noticeably falling to pieces, and the internet is almost non-existent. You can blame it on the embargo if you like....

Dec 29, 2011 16:28 Report Abuse



This has descended into a futile trading back and forth of insults, and you are now being openly racist when you say that the Chinese "have an innate criminal proclivity", I will not stoop down to the same level and start insulting Africans, although it would be very easy, given the obvious state of both material and intellectual backwardness of the continent as a whole.

I will say one thing though: when I lived in a dorm for foreign students in Beijing, I found that all the assorted Arabs, Asians and Westerners who lived there all disliked the African students and found them difficult to get along with. Most of them were loud, arrogant and obnoxious.

Instead of insulting others, why don't you go and take a nice long look in the mirror a second?

Let me just give you some advice: why don't you go and look at how long

Dec 28, 2011 06:40 Report Abuse



"I can't take anything you say seriously because you already have an obvious bias towards anything that has to do with Africa."

Well, I said that most of the African students I met in my dorm where loud, arrogant and obnoxious. People say much worse stuff about the Chinese on sites like this the whole day long, and nobody even notices. If someone comes and says "the Chinese are dirty, close-minded and can only copy" no one bats an eyelid. Never mind that I am limiting myself to the Africans I actually lived with, while lots of commenters (including the guys I was arguing with) feel quite happy to slander all the Chinese, all 1.5 billion of them. Let's just say that a certain level of anti-Chinese racism is accepted among expats in China, and passes unnoticed.

I did indeed risk stooping down to that guys level (though I don't think I did), and in future I had better not reply to such unreasonable posts.

Dec 28, 2011 16:41 Report Abuse



I am not "clueless about world history" at all. When it comes to colonialism, China was essentially colonized as well by the way.

The point I am making is that China has managed to develop while not just blindly imitating Western methods of government, laws and educational systems which, while perhaps the best in the world in principle, are not suitable for the needs of relatively backward countries like China (look how far another colonized country, India, has got by copying British institutions to the letter. This is perhaps a better examle than Africa).
While in the eighties other developing countries were listening to IMF and World Bank diktats and following the free market ideology they put forward, the Chinese government was steadfastly clinging to its own way of managing the economy, maintaining all sorts of controls on the financial sector which according to the ideologues of the IMF would bring a country to its ruin. In fact, China's method allowed it to avoid getting entangled in the financial crises of 1997 and 2008, and the GDP has continued growing like mad.

The truth is that living conditions for most Chinese people, while far from ideal, are considerably better than what you find in all the other countries I mentioned. Even public services are better and exist even for the poor, which is more than you can say for places like India, Egypt or Brazil.
That is why I say that China is more advanced. And as for scientific discoveries, Chinese universitites, while lagging far behind US or British ones, still have much higher standards of reasearch than all the other countries I cited, which often hardly even have laboratories.

It is true that protection of intellectual property rights in China is very weak, although it has improved a bit in the last few years. But again, you can't accuse China of copying just because skyscrapers have replaced hutongs. Of course any kind of modernity will be a copy of Western modernity at some level. You can however accuse the Chinese of copying because of specific violations of intellectual property.

Dec 24, 2011 20:03 Report Abuse



It seems you are confusing the topic, are talking about asia or china?If its china, we are talking about a population of about 1.3 billion people,if with population you cant do anything in this world than to copy then its very sad.
Africa may not be rich in infrastructure but they are wise ,educated ,civilised and openminded than the chinese by all standards.If by all the achievements you are talking about , a chinese can not have the independence to discuss a problem without looking behind him or herself, then its serious.
In asia you are a super power but seriously speaking i will go for a korean ,Japanese,philippine, thailand brain to your so call imitational achievements.
This is a country of copy cuts, from your dressing to thinking.
Accept the fact that you are lacking behind intellitually.

Dec 24, 2011 20:06 Report Abuse



"Africa may not be rich in infrastructure but they are wise ,educated ,civilised and openminded than the chinese by all standards."

What the hell is this supposed to mean? If you are going to generalize, then I will do some generalization of my own, and I will say that stating that Africans are more educated than the Chinese is ridicolous. African countries have much higher illiteracy rates, and anyone who knows anything about Africa can tell you how most of the population of Sub-Saharan countries is still mired in absolute superstition, sexist and racial prejudices, and ignorance of the world which goes beyond what you get in any Chinese small town. By the way, in what continent does the atrocity of female circumcision still take place in some areas?

Have you actually been to Africa, or are you just judging by a few really cool Africans you met in Beijing or somewhere? Because that is hardly a way to judge.

As for them being more "wise" or "civilized", these words are too subjective and culturally biased to be able to say. However, I can't help pointing out that most big cities in sub-Saharan African are far more dangerous than Chinese ones, so clearly there must be some uncivilized people there too! As for "open-mindedness", most Africans students I have met in China are in many ways a paragon of closed mindedness, refusing to eat Chinese food even after being here a while, being utterly astonished when I told them that I was an atheist, being uninterested in visiting famous historical sites in Beijing, refusing to find out even the most basic facts about Chinese history and culture (who is this Chairman Mao guy?) etc... I am not saying they are all like that, but most of the ones I met are.

And as for not looking behind your back, isn't African still full of authoritarian governments (perhaps holding sham elections) and repression?

Dec 25, 2011 20:01 Report Abuse



in fact it is quite easy to work together with chinese. Everyone should find his way to cooperate with chiese.
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Apr 14, 2011 19:46 Report Abuse



Mac, you are fool! Go back to where YOU came from! If the foreigners leave China, how are the Chinese ever going to learn anything?

Apr 06, 2011 21:36 Report Abuse



I would have to disagree Rose. If you are working three days a week at a university for 4500 a month I don't think that is slave labor. I only work 10 hours a week at my uni, have three bedroom apartment with totally free utilities. A good deal, but still not good enough to impress a Chinese woman, even if you have a house and asests back in your own country like myself.

I get sick of some Chinese women who tell me to "get a better job". Guess I can just ignore golddiggers like that.

Apr 05, 2011 19:03 Report Abuse



are u saying that u r trying impressing Chinese women with ur asset? LOL,then i guess u r quite poor in ur mind no matter how much material u own.then better u go to buy some *** at some speical places,instead of complaining about Chinese women.

May 26, 2011 19:51 Report Abuse



i'm a chinese , but i feel the same way as you , particularly, the salsary question(and actually the general salaries in china are kind of lowpaid facing to the prices) ,the group-think,meetings and yes, the "so important face" porblems.....sometimes you just can't find yourself up , and no one cares what you really think ! i'm trying not to become one of them. i prefer the western culture in daily life ,so i will seize the opportunity to go aboard.maybe i will find some pionts to look out in west countries and then write an article here :)

Apr 01, 2011 07:52 Report Abuse



excuse me , i think i did't get what u said ....chian.. china? mo cra cy ..democracy ?
but i could understand that world ,,, don't know what u meant , but tell me , how to be less selfish facing the problems like these..
i feel like i'm not much suitable to some chinese lifeways ..i just i love the western culture, i don't know if i would enjoy living in other countries , i need to try ,u know, i want to go after what i want , at least figure out what i reeally want ... that sounds selfish? ,,, then ,,,i'm fine with it...

Apr 24, 2011 18:51 Report Abuse



I think another thing that's majorly different here in China is dress code. At first I used to be totally shocked seeing young women in tiny hot pants and high heels heading to the office. And not just women, men in ridiculous outfits too. In general, there's a lack of dress code (of course there are exceptions). Having worn a school uniform most of my life, I've actually come to enjoy the freedom of wearing what you like. But from an outsider's point of view, it can be surprising at the start.

Apr 01, 2011 01:32 Report Abuse



Working for others in China wont make you rich no matter where you are from.

Mar 31, 2011 22:41 Report Abuse



I was unable to sign an agreement to teach only at the university. Some colleagues told me that teachers ignore this rule and teach outside anyway, but I couldn’t say one thing and do another. I honor my Chinese colleagues, students, parents, and friends like I do my family and close friends in the USA. My time in China has been a lifetime memorable experience.

Mar 31, 2011 21:51 Report Abuse



In Chinese compay , the HR extremely like to ask people "What your salary expectation?". because if you expectation salary below the company offer, they would likely give your prices. just like bargaining with a vendor.

Mar 31, 2011 18:56 Report Abuse



Of course they're going to say, "Oh, we can only offer you [Y amount]." They think everyone should work for 1000RMB per year and not complain.

Mar 31, 2011 17:39 Report Abuse



agreed..these chinese so called enrepreneurs have been broke the records of indian BANIYAS in terms of lack of morality..

Mar 31, 2011 23:45 Report Abuse



of course as some of the bosses or hr or whatever,no matter Chinese or other race,they think everyoone shoudl work for Y money while u asking for X money.NOT to mention only Chinese.I've met some people from other countries,when I asked for example 5000,they said they can only offer 1000...what a joke!

May 26, 2011 19:41 Report Abuse