As an expat working in China, you may find yourself being one of, if not the only foreigner working at your office or school.
Many foreign professionals mistakenly assume the work environment in China is the same as in their home country. While there definitely are similarities, there are also important differences you must take into consideration. I've worked with several Chinese companies and learned a little bit about what it is to be a 'fish out of water'. I urge you to prepare yourself for this unique circumstance. By understanding the nuances of Chinese work culture, you'll greatly improve your experience and progression as a professional.
Here are six tips for working in a Chinese company as a foreign worker:
As tempting as it may be to withdraw from the rest of the office due to nervousness or the language barrier, do whatever you can to collaborate with your colleagues. Ask them for advice. Contribute to discussions. Volunteer to help with projects or events. Eventually, you’ll see that many of your workplace dilemmas will be solved by your coworkers, who will in turn enlist all of their coworkers for assistance. This is the central concept of 关系 (guanxi), the Chinese word which represents the power of relationships and networking.
During staff meetings in a Chinese company, the leader or team lead will be the first to present all the talking points on the agenda. Depending on your boss, he or she may tend to describe the entire background of the main topics being discussed. This explanation may be lengthy or even repetitive, but it is important that you do not interject, even if you feel you have something important to say. Write down your ideas and patiently wait for your turn to share. Intellect is a very important attribute in China, but humility, modesty, and respect are equally important.
You may also observe that at your company, the boss is much younger than many of the employees. In this work environment, the boss is still the utmost authority. In situations outside of work, the older employees should be shown a higher level of respect due to their age. Respect for elders, or 长辈 (zhangbei), is an essential part of social custom in China.
In my experience, and in the experience of many of my former colleagues, conversations with Chinese coworkers can often be about our personal lives. Answering their personal questions will show your coworkers that you trust them with information about your private life, and your relationship will grow quickly. Some foreign workers may not be comfortable with sharing their personal lives. In that case, respond with general answers, but avoid displaying any discomfort with their inquisitions.
For example, a Chinese coworker may ask you, “Do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend?” or “Are you married?” in a workplace conversation. Don’t be alarmed, they are not trying to pry into your private life, they are simply trying to get to know you. Chinese colleagues also often make comments about body weight. One time, I had just come back from a vacation where I ate particularly well. One of my colleagues saw me and said, “Ted! You look a little fatter!”
As much as this comment about my waistline or questions about my love life may be inappropriate in my home country, it’s all fair game in the Chinese workplace. Embrace it!
Every country has a different cultural standard of punctuality. Being on time is an important part of Chinese workplace culture. Being late is considered to be outright disrespectful, even more so than in a western workplace. Being late due to traffic or uncontrollable circumstances can be accepted on the first offense but being repeatedly tardy will cause your colleagues to think unfavorably of you. Consider the length of your commute and arrive on schedule.
This is a tip I wish someone had given me before I took a job at a Chinese company and attended my first company dinner. You NEVER want to boast about how much you can drink. Especially as a male, the men of the company will probably ask. If you boast about your ability to drink, you’ll be expected to put your money where your mouth is. You’ll soon find yourself individually toasting with everyone at the table, and if you’re at a larger function, everyone in the event hall. No bueno.
If you’re not interested in drinking alcohol, you can let your colleagues know that you would rather drink tea. Simply say 以茶代酒 (yi cha dai jiu). Your colleagues will then respectfully cheers you with a small glass of tea instead of an alcoholic beverage.
If you’re not from a country that has a siesta culture, you might be surprised the first time your co-workers all go for a noonday nap. Many Chinese workers have a snooze right after eating lunch and this practice is completely normal. Some employers even provide facilities such as nap rooms full of bunk beds for just this purpose. If not, Chinese workers will roll out a mattress under their desks, crash out on the office couches, or simply put their heads down on their desks for a little shuteye. If you’re used to powering through the whole day without a nap, this custom may seem odd and even like a waste of work time, but it is deeply ingrained and perfectly normal.
While striving to understand the biggest cultural differences is a good way to begin your time working abroad, taking this understanding and putting it into practice can be a little more complicated. I’ve seen people go way over the top in emphasizing these workplace customs, and I have seen people ignore them entirely. Both approaches can be problematic.
As foreign professionals, it’s important that we acknowledge, accept, and respect China’s social and workplace customs, but remember, you’re new here. Your colleagues know that too. Don’t get too stressed and go with the flow, you’ll pick up the important points as you go.
(By Ted Salonek)