If you’re an expat working in China, chances are that you will come across some cultural differences with your Chinese colleagues. The workplace customs and office politics will be different to those you’re used to back home, but that shouldn’t stop you from having an overall positive experience. To help facilitate that end goal, here are five common grievances I hear from fellow expats regarding their Chinese colleagues, followed by advice on how to remedy them.
“My colleagues freak out when I give them constructive criticism”
The concept of “face” is extremely important in Asian culture. If you cause someone to lose face, for example by publicly calling them out for being wrong or even just offering what you think is constructive criticism, they will most certainly feel ashamed and possibly angry.
A good way to combat this is to refrain from commenting on your colleagues’ work in front of others, even if you are their superior. Sending emails with precise instructions usually works better as you are avoiding direct confrontation. If that doesn’t work, sit down with your colleague in private and say “management” would like them to try doing it this way instead of that way.
“They can’t handle compliments either!”
Just as Chinese people hate to be criticized in public, they can also be very passive and modest when it comes to taking compliments. While many take a lot of pride in their work, they don’t necessarily want to be praised in front of their colleagues for a job well done. The ethos in China is that the collective, not the individual, is what matters.
If one of your colleagues deserves recognition from you, take them aside and thank them. Just be aware they may accept the compliment in silence with their head down. Alternately, you could send them an email so they can avoid the embarrassment all together.
“My coworkers don’t include me”
There could be a million reasons for this, but in most cases it’s probably just that your Chinese colleagues are shy, not very confident with their English and think you probably don’t want to hang out with them anyway.
If you really want to be included, your best course of action is to go on a full-on charm offensive. Learn everyone’s names, ask about their kids/pets, add them on WeChat (where you can send them funny - but appropriate - stickers) and use what Chinese you have as much as possible. If you start inviting them to lunch and other activities, they’ll also be duty bound by the rules of Chinese etiquette to return the favor.
It’s also a good idea to talk a lot about how much you love China and Chinese food and refrain from criticizing the Motherland. It's often all too easy for expats to fall into the trap of groaning about the annoyances of life in China, such as the pollution, the spitting, the shouting and the censorship. Your local coworkers don’t want to hear it. Would you want them to do the same in your country?
“My boss is totally unapproachable"
Firstly, don’t worry. Even my local friends complain about their Chinese bosses. The stereotypical Chinese boss is pretty intimidating and unapproachable due to the hierarchical structure of Chinese society and, therefore, the Chinese workplace. Bosses here are usually pretty overbearing and always right.
The best way to enjoy a peaceful relationship with your Chinese boss is to fly under the radar, do what he/she says and don’t ask too many questions. Given what I explained above about the concept of face, it goes without saying to never, under any circumstance, criticize your boss, especially in front of subordinates. If there’s something eating away at you about the way the company’s run that you really can’t live with, put it in an email and present it as an “idea” you’ve seen work elsewhere as opposed to a direct criticism of your superior.
"I just really don’t have much in common with the local staff”
This might be true, but have you ever considered that you probably wouldn’t get along with every single person in an office in your home country either? Yes, there are cultural differences at play here in China, but don’t blame everything on that. At the end of the day, we’re all people, and people can be very different, regardless of race, religion and nationality.
So, stop putting pressure on yourself to connect with every single person. It’s just not going to happen. That said, remember that a sunny disposition and a smile for all your co-workers will go a long way towards ingratiating yourself to them. At the very least, it will keep things civil and perhaps save you from hating your job!
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