How to Make Small Talk with Your Chinese Colleagues

How to Make Small Talk with Your Chinese Colleagues
Mar 16, 2018 By Alistair Baker-Brian ,

Small talk is an important skill to master in the Chinese workplace. On the one hand, it may simply help you overcome awkwardness with Chinese colleagues and make those moments when you're alone together a little less stilted. On the other, it may help you build a relationship with a potential business partner. Chinese people value guānxi, which roughly translates as relationships, very highly, especially in business. The better your guānxi, the more chance you have of striking a deal and working with someone productively.

A Chinese friend once explained to me that food is to Chinese people what the weather is to British people; they love talking about it. I haven't failed to notice this during my time in China.

In a typical day in China I usually lose count of the number of times someone asks me, “Did you eat yet?” I began to wonder what the obsession was with my diet. I later figured out that they weren't so much interested in the food itself, but would rather ask the question as a way to make small talk. This is similar to how British people comment on the weather to break the ice with a stranger.

With this in mind, below are three topics you can use to make small talk with your Chinese colleagues. In my experience of working in China, small talk about work itself tends to be kept to a minimum. The topics below, therefore, are non-work related.


A recent BBC documentary about food in China used an old Chinese expression as its title: “míng shí wéi tiān”. This translates to “food is heaven”, which says a lot about the passion Chinese people have for good grub.

In the programme a famous chef from the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou explained that Chinese people no longer eat just to appease hunger. “Those days are long gone,” he told the interviewer. In short, many modern Chinese people eat for pleasure rather than necessity, enabled by the affluent lifestyle led in China's cosmopolitan cities.

Phrases like “Nǐ chīle ma”? (have you eaten yet?) and “Nǐ xǐhuān chī shénme”? (What do you like to eat?) can help to break the ice with your colleagues. You will also likely be invited out for lunch by your boss and colleagues on a regular basis. Eating together is seen as a way get to know each other better.

Asking your Chinese colleagues what kind of food they like can be a great conversation starter. Their answers may be in part determined by where in China they come from. Those from central and northern provinces tend to prefer spicy food, whereas those from southern provinces tend to like lighter dishes.

I often get asked if I can handle spice and am sometimes met with a look of surprise when I answer affirmatively. Numerous taxi drivers and waitresses have told me how few foreigners they've met with a taste for spicy dishes.


Far from being a homogenous country, China is a melting pot of different languages, cultures and ethnicities. This is most obvious in the big cities, as many rural folk migrate in search of a more prosperous life.

Many migrant workers still have strong affectations for their home towns, so this can serve as a good small talk topic in the workplace. You may want to start by asking them “Nǐ cóng nǎlǐ lái?”(where are you from?). If you feel adventurous, ask them what there is to see and do in their home cities. They may offer, if only as a polite gesture, to show you around if you ever go and visit.

Living in China's Xinjiang province really illustrated the “melting pot” metaphor for me. On the one hand, there are those who have come from outside the province, mainly ethnically Han Chinese people who have been ushered in as part of the government's Kāi fā xī bù or “develop the west,” initiative. On the other hand, there is the native population of Xinjiang made up of Han Chinese and Muslims, including those who are Uyghur, Hui and Kazakh.

Unlike in Western countries, however, talking about ethnicity and religion tends not to be taboo in China as long as such topics are discussed with appropriate respect. This can be a good way to make small talk with colleagues from different ethnic backgrounds. A Kazakh colleague of mine in Xinjiang taught our team basic phrases in his native language and was delighted to hear we'd not forgotten them many months later.


Increased affluence has brought not only a hunger for good food, but also an eagerness to travel to China's middle classes. As such, talking about your native country or your latest holiday can be a great way to make small talk with your Chinese colleagues. Many young Chinese people dream of studying at prestigious British and American universities, while others simply seek to travel for its own sake.

When I tell Chinese people I'm British they normally bring up the clichéd tourist attractions such as Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and Oxford, but occasionally their knowledge surprises me. One time I met man from Gansu province who asked about the channel tunnel between London and Paris.

And it's not only young cosmopolitan Chinese people who want to travel. Recently whilst travelling in Vietnam I met an elderly Chinese lady who said she was planning to travel to London. She spoke no English so said she would take a package tour with a Chinese-speaking guide. She explained that as she was retired and had a lot of time on her hands she was making a point of travelling to places she never got to see when she was younger.

Putting your small talk into action

Your use of small talk with Chinese colleagues may only extend to simple pleasantries whilst in the office. Perhaps you can ask your Sichuan colleague if she likes Sichuan spicy hotpot. Or perhaps you can ask your Uyghur workmate how to say hello in his native language. But one day, small talk might get you more than just five minutes of stuttering conversation.

Perhaps one day you'll return to China as a business owner, looking to make a deal with a potential Chinese partner. That is the time when your knowledge of Chinese small talk will really come into play.

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Keywords: Chinese colleagues


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