You’re always going to come across cultural differences when working in any foreign country.
Some of these are obvious, while others are so subtle you might not even realize you screwed up.
Below is an overview of some of the most common and innocuous mistakes foreigners make when working in China.
1. Contradicting your boss in front of others
While modern managers and bosses in the West often encourage open discussions and constructive criticism, this is not commonly accepted in China.
Contradicting or criticizing your superior in a meeting, in the office, or even just in a casual group chat can be a serious matter.
It will be seen as an affront to your superior, who will in turn feel pressure to reassert him/herself.
The original point you made may very well be valid, but once you make it, the focus will be on the incident rather than what you said.
Instead, try sending your superior a private email or request a one-on-one meeting.
Furthermore, if your goal is to see some solid change, consider presenting your point in a way that doesn’t outright contradict them.
Give them a way out of the situation without having to explicitly backtrack and you’re much more likely to have your proposal granted.
2. Not reciprocating treats
Colleagues may treat you to lunch or even dinner every so often when you’re working in China. If they invited you, they’ll probably refuse any money for the bill.
Offer a few times to be sure and then allow them to pay. In a more casual setting colleagues may bring snacks into the office or even just share fruit on a break.
The key here is not to forget to return the favor. There’s an expectation for the kindness to be returned at some point, so it’s worth keeping a note of the treats you receive so you can be sure to repay them in a timely manner.
Also equally important is to make sure you reciprocate in the proper fashion. For example, make sure to treat them to a meal of similar value.
Spend too little, and they may think you’re cheap. But spend too much, and you’re creating pressure for them to further reciprocate with an expensive meal that they may not be able to afford.
Note that these rules do not apply if your boss treats you.
As your superior, he/she will expect to pay every time, and it would be weird for you to offer.
3. Not drinking/getting too drunk with colleagues
Drinking is a big part of the work culture in some Chinese companies. Whether it’s welcoming suppliers or visiting customers or a staff bonding session, boozy banquet dinners and KTV sessions can be a regular occurrence.
While drinking with colleagues in the West tends to be more relaxed, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface in China.
There are certain rules of engagement, such as an order of who to toast (the most senior person first), how to position your glass when toasting a superior (try to get yours lower), and a number of sneaky tactics to target individuals and get them heavily drunk.
Fundamentally, it’s important to drink a bit if you can, as your colleagues will consider you honest.
The idea is that if you can open yourself up to colleagues and bosses, it shows you can be trusted.
But while drinking can be fun, never forget that you’re still technically at work. One wrong action or word might have long-term consequences for your job or even a career.
So, do drink (if you do drink), but always remember it’s a game you don’t want to lose. At least, not as much as everyone else.
4. Disrespecting nap time
How foreigners and locals spend their lunch breaks is one of the biggest cultural differences you’ll come across when working in China.
While locals tend to use the time to catch up on much-needed sleep, foreigners usually find it very hard to adjust to such a concept.
If you’re found sleeping in the workplace in the West, colleges will assume you had a late night at the bar or at the very least have sleeping problems. It’s considered very unprofessional and a little undignified.
In China, there are no such negative connotations. Sleeping at lunch is just seen as practical use of the time.
Although it may seem very strange to you, don’t point it out to your colleagues. It’s their time and they’re entitled to do whatever they want with it.
Furthermore, while you don’t need to join in, be considerate of your sleeping colleagues.
If you need to talk on the phone, go somewhere else. If you’re watching some videos or listening to music, use headphones.
You may not agree with it or fully understand it, but whatever you do, make sure to respect nap time.
5. Being inflexible with overtime
I should clarify that I am not recommending a 996 workweek like Jack Ma. Just that when a colleague needs your help or is under pressure to finish a project, you should be willing to work a bit later on occasion.
Chinese colleagues typically work long hours, while foreigners working in China are often spared the same fate.
If a colleague asks for your help at 5:50 pm and you say, “Sorry, I’m clocking off at 6 pm,” it’ll undermine the sense of camaraderie and teamwork.
If you’re willing to stay an extra 15 or 30 minutes to help them finish, it’ll go a long way in developing your guanxi.
What other office faux pars have you come across while working in China?
Tell us in the comments box below.