Familiarity with Chinese cultural norms can help prevent you from making mistakes in your host company. As you read this article, bear in mind the following saying: “to understand how other cultures are similar to or different from one’s own, it is necessary first to examine and understand your own culture.” -Professor W. Tim G.
As visitors in China, we should do our best to understand the cultural practices as they differ from Western models. Examining the local business and social environment is key to minimizing potential issues that may arise regarding both daily life and special events in China.
In this article I will address some of the most common cultural differences you may witness while working in a Chinese office. In order to successfully complete an internship in any Chinese company, you must take into serious consideration the cultural disparities between China and the West.
Chinese culture, history, and traditions are without a doubt truly
fascinating, but there is another side to that coin. Napoleon referred to China as a “sleeping dragon” and warned that there would be woe to the world when it awakens. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the dragon has certainly awakened! It has been growing steadily, and in some instances morphs into a serious threat to the king of the jungle… During my first month learning Chinese, I heard a word whose meaning I did not understand until my teacher later explained it. The word was 坚持 (jiānchí), which means: repetition, tenacity, and perseverance. Soon after arriving in Chengdu, I went to visit the tallest building in Asia. I asked a Chinese friend how it is that five years ago Chengdu was still an under-developed city, while now the biggest business center in the world is about to open, and two subway lines are already in operation, not to mention that a high percentage of the Fortune 500 companies have representation in Chengdu? My friend answered me with a big smile and a single word, “jiānchí….” This is what I love about Chengdu. Every day we witness history in the making in the form of this rapidly developing city. On one hand, the traditional Chinese culture is still highly visible, but on the other hand, Chengdu wholly embodies the modern world.
Five Tips for Working in a Chinese Company
Build relationships with your Chinese colleagues. Do not try to work alone, but rather share your ideas and consult your coworkers often. You will soon discover that many workplace dilemmas will be solved by your colleagues, who in turn may enlist all of their own contacts for assistance. In China it is all about 关系 (guānxì): relationships/network.
At company meetings, the leader of the group will first present all of the points to be discussed. They might spend a bit more time doing this and we would expect. It is common for the group leader to describe the entire background of any given point or situation. At times, these explications might seem long and even redundant, but never interrupt them, even if you believe you have something useful to contribute. Instead, write down your point and patiently wait for your turn to speak. Intelligence is valued very highly in China, but modesty and respect are valued no less.
In some companies, you may find that the boss is younger than many of his employees. At work, all employees are subordinate to the boss, but in social situations, the older employees should be treated with elevated respect due to their age. This Chinese phenomenon is called 长辈 zhǎngbèi.
When chatting with your Chinese colleagues, the conversation is often steered towards personal affairs. The act of answering these personal questions will indicate to your colleagues that you trust them, and as a result, your relationship will develop more quickly. If you do not wish to answer personal questions, you should remain polite and respond with a very general answer; it is best not to express that discussing those issues makes you uncomfortable. For example, many new acquaintances will ask “are you married? “ and in some cases, they will ask with a bit more subtlety by saying “is your family with you here in China?” – meaning, are you married? Do not even be surprised if someone asks details about your salary.
The small talk that occurs while in an elevator or waiting for a meeting to begin can be very important. I recommend that you talk about Chinese culture, food, weather, travels overseas, good experiences while traveling in China, sports, etc. It’s not a bad idea to do a bit of research on Chinese culture, history, and geography before arriving in China. Avoid talking about sensitive topics, such as Tiananmen Square, human rights issues, and Tibet. If you wish to discuss something related to Taiwan, please refer to Taiwan as part of the People’s Republic of China, the Taiwan Province, or simply as Taiwan.
Do not be late for meetings. Being punctual is of crucial importance in China, while being tardy is considered an insult. There are several modes of transportation accessible in Chengdu. Oftentimes, taking the subway is the best choice. Being late due to traffic delays may serve as an acceptable excuse on the first incident, but if it happens again, your colleagues will begin to develop an unfavorable impression of you. Plan your route and timing well in advance.
Never brag about how much you can drink. During dinner, Chinese colleagues may ask you “how much can you drink [referring to alcohol]?” Do not brag about the amount of alcohol you can drink because they will never stop toasting you. I am not talking about just one person toasting you, but rather the entire table, or if you are in a large event hall, then possibly the entire room toasting you. If you do not want to drink alcohol, the following is a useful Chinese saying that will enable you to replace your glass of wine for tea: 以茶代酒yǐ chá dài jiǔ. Your colleagues will respect this wish and will toast you with a glass of tea instead.
Making an effort to understand some of the most glaring cultural differences is an important first step. Internalizing and implementing this knowledge is a whole different ball game. Some people over-emphasize cultural differences while working in Chinese companies, while others tend ignore them completely. Neither of these approaches are recommended. As foreigners, we must respect thousands of years of historical Chinese traditions by accepting and respecting social and workplace customs.