6 Things to be Aware of When Working with Chinese Colleagues

May 23, 2022 By Mike Cormack , eChinacities.com 


I’ve had seven different jobs during my time in China and so encountered a wide variety of local colleagues. The majority have been affable, diligent and helpful. However, there are some differences in approach and behaviour that failed to span the cultural bridge and reminded me that China is indeed a very unique country. Here are six things to be aware of when working with Chinese colleagues.


Sarcasm and banter doesn’t often land

Many people in the West like to lighten the work day with some jokes and bantering with their colleagues. It helps to develop team spirit and dissipate the ennui that can come creeping in after lunch. But humor is a highly subjective thing, especially when there are language and cultural barriers in place.

Even if you can speak pretty good Mandarin, don’t expect your Chinese colleagues to be amused by sarcastic and negging comments. They might detect that it’s a joke and smile, but in a culture where “face” is so important, it’s best to steer clear of taking the micky, even if it’s meant affectionately.

Staff socialising can be awkward

Westerners are often keen for staff nights out; they can be good fun, especially when copious amounts of alcohol are involved. Don’t expect anything similar if you’re invited out with your Chinese colleagues. The main staff socialising I’ve encountered are company-organised staff dinners and team-building events.

Despite China’s reputation for boozy business banquets, I’ve found that these days, such events tend to be light on the alcohol but heavy on the “comical” activities that foreigners usually shy away from (unless uninhibited by alcohol, of course).

For example, I was once invited to dinner with an adult class I’d taught English to. At the well-received request of one of my students, each person at the table performed a little song, poem or routine. I must admit that I was caught by surprise and a little embarrassed having only had a few tiny glasses of the world’s weakest beer by this point.

Destructive criticism

Say there’s a problem of some kind in your workplace. You may find the issue is not directly addressed among your Chinese colleagues, no matter how obvious it is. The concept of face, while admirable in its consideration of the feelings of others, sometimes prevents Chinese coworkers from getting to the root of the matter.

For example, when I first arrived in China, I started out as a university ESL teacher, having only ever worked as 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.

While my teacher-sense picked up that something wasn’t right fairly quickly, neither my colleagues, my boss nor my students told me what I was doing wrong as they didn’t want to embarrass me. Thankfully, I figured it out for myself some weeks later, but it rather spoiled my and my students’ first semester.

Forewarning is a luxury

I’ve sometimes found that my Chinese colleagues aren’t so hot at giving me a heads up when something is afoot. Perhaps this is a function of China’s top-down political system — where information is only passed on when and if you need it — but it can be agitating.

For example, one time when I was teaching English at a learning centre, I went to my usual classroom only to find it had been turned into a building site. This was puzzling, as I’d just picked up the key for the room’s audio-visual cabinet from a colleague who didn’t think to tell me that a massive refurbishment was taking place there. I eventually found the classroom where my students had been redirected. Clearly someone saw fit to tell them, but not me!

Another time, I received a phone call on my way home from my boss who said a photographer was going to take some pictures of me for publicity purposes. “When?” I asked. “Now. Can you come back to campus please?” And on another occasion when copyediting for a publication, my boss sent me 19 articles to work on “By tomorrow, thanks.”

Even after you’ve left work, be prepared for sudden changes to your plans.

Ask about the money

Don’t expect anything to be handed to you on the plate when it comes to money in China.

Let me give you an example: You’ve gone for a job interview. You’re in your smartest clothes, have prepared well and answered all the questions put to you. It seems to be going well. Then the question: “What are your salary expectations?” You’ve done some research and talked to friends in the industry, so suggest X RMB a month. The HR guy across from you frowns. “Oh, we can only offer Y RMB a month,” he says.

Why not just say that then? The answer: If a Chinese company can save a few bob on your salary, you can bet your life they will. The same goes for pay rises. You’ll probably have to hold someone over a flaming barrel if you want one. If you think your starting salary is too low or you’re due a raise, therefore, you need to pipe up.

Face-melting meetings

Chinese companies, like the country, tend to be rather top-down. While Western managers usually try to show that they’re “just like you,” and therefore encourage a collaborative approach in meetings, the Chinese version is prone to overlong speeches by executives and managers, all sharing tedious information as though it were the lifeblood of the company.

Even if you escape these weekly assaults on your will to live, you’re unlikely to avoid the annual company conference, a ghastly enactment of corporate group-think. Expect to hear the organisation insisting “We are your family” while executives give self-congratulatory speeches exuding an air of noblesse oblige. Also prepare to be baffled by how this seems to be the social highlight of the year for your Chinese colleagues.

Seven jobs and counting, there are still some things I will never understand.


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