Mainland Moments: Business Etiquette


Workplaces in China might be quieter than their western counterparts, but in some respects they are also friendlier, writes Karen Tye from Shanghai.

When it comes to office and business culture in China, most of us have advanced beyond the point of being advised to always present business cards with both hands, turning up on time, or even early, for meetings (isn’t that the case in any culture?) and the like.
To date, my husband and I have accumulated over a decade of work experience in China and have spent countless hours comparing and contrasting the workplace culture in China to that of Australia. Despite being of Chinese descent, I’ve often been baffled by the culture in Chinese offices and have really made an effort to understand and assimilate myself into the workplace here in China. Below are my top four Chinese office culture “must-knows”.
To speak or not to speak Chinese
When I first moved to China, I didn’t speak a word of Chinese and for the longest time, resisted learning. Hence, at my first job, I mainly spoke English with my colleagues. My Chinese listening skills improved rapidly as all I ever heard them speak to each other was Chinese and by the end of my three years at that company, I could manage to string a couple of business Chinese sentences together if I really tried.
After a year and a half of learning Chinese full-time, I began work at my current company, which like my previous employer, is a foreign company that hires many local and talented Chinese with excellent English skills. Now, armed with the ability to either speak Chinese or English during work or during lunch, I noticed that generally, people were more communicative or there was a deeper exchange in communication when I began the conversation in Chinese. This extended to typing chat messages in Chinese and small group emails that are not entirely related to work-specific issues.
“Speaking in Chinese in the workplace is much easier for Chinese people and there is a sense that the conversation is more natural. If two Shanghainese people are having a work-related conversation in the office, they sometimes even speak Shanghainese with each other,” Abigail Huang, who works at a multinational company in Shanghai, says.
For me, I’m constantly concerned that my non-native use of words and phrasing could come off as rude, when I certainly don’t mean to be, but friends and colleagues have assured me that being a laowai, my Chinese colleagues won’t take offense to the less-than-perfect Chinese expressions.
Furthermore, I’ve always rationalized that I should use English if I wanted to get my message across clearly or if it was slightly complicated for me to verbalize certain concepts in Chinese but I’ve learnt from the daunting “Oh my gosh, another meeting in English” looks of my colleagues when I’ve started speaking English and the instant relief on their faces when I reverted to speaking Chinese that the message actually gets across better when the attempt of speaking Chinese is made.
Of course, I’m also aware of the fact that my Chinese colleagues are not my personal Chinese tutors and the occasional English conversation and break from my broken Chinese is definitely welcomed at times.
Lunchtime siestas are all good
Until recently, it surprised me to see an entire office of Chinese white-collar workers taking post-prandial naps at their desk at around noon (because lunch starts as early as 11 am). In Western culture, this is usually frowned upon as we view napping at work unprofessional and slack.
But in China, Chinese managers won’t raise an eyebrow if they happen to see workers dozing off in front of their computers.
As Huang explains it: “An after-lunch nap is necessary. It’s just like you have to eat at lunch, some people also have to sleep after eating lunch. In some smaller cities in China, employers let workers go home during the day to take a nap. We believe it makes you work more efficiently in the afternoon,” she says.
Being quiet in the workplace
The golden rule of no talking in libraries sometimes seems to extend to Chinese workplaces. At my previous workplace, a news agency, it often struck me how little speaking or noise there was, compared to my days at a bustling Murdoch-owned newsroom where editors yelled out orders or talked (or even cursed) openly.
I am highly aware of the noise that I make at work because no one else around me seems to make as much of it. There’s the pronounced rap-tap-tapping on my keyboard, I count out loud if I need to get figures correct and I often berate myself for making a stupid mistake, none of which my colleagues surrounding my cubicle seem to do.
“I think it comes down to a cultural issue that Chinese people are more conservative and don’t express as much emotion, especially in the workplace, whereas foreigners tend to have more exaggerated mannerisms,” says Lily Zhao, a colleague of Abigail Huang.
“In schools in China, students can speak only when they raise their hand and the teacher calls on them. This has been ingrained in us over the years so we don’t speak unless it’s our turn to or it’s absolutely necessary to at work.”
Another friend mentioned to me that Westerners tend to close doors loudly, which can come across as rude, perhaps even hostile. During that conversation, I ascertained that what I thought as closing the door normally, was what my friend perceived as slamming the door in Chinese culture. This made me recall the numerous times I noticed my colleagues closing the meeting room door extra slowly and carefully and cringe at the many times I probably “slammed” the door with my boss in the room.
Friends, not just colleagues
It’s needless to say that one way to better integrate into the Chinese workplace is to develop friendships by having lunch with local colleagues. That said, how many times do we see local Chinese colleagues heading off to the canteen for lunch together and the laowais splitting off to enjoy their more expensive pasta or salad lunches?
Another way to break down the barriers is to remember to bring some snacks to share with colleagues by putting them in the pantry/lunchroom following a trip back home or to a different country or even a different Chinese city. 


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