Working in China – What You Should Know about the Cultural Differences

Beijing Central Business District

Most foreigners come to China for work. Many Westerners are sent by their company on an expat assignment for a few years or sometimes only a few months. Others come to find work on their own. Some even start their own business in China or expand their business into China. Many are accompanied by a trailing spouse and sometimes kids.

And almost no-one of them has prior experience working with Chinese people or Chinese companies.

How to get prepared for working in China

Here I am not talking about finding a job in China or getting the right visa. I am focusing on the cultural aspects of working in China.

Some companies offer culture training to expat employees and their families when sending them to China. But there is only so much that a one or two day classroom training can really convey about a very different culture. Still, it is better than nothing.

Cultural differences are big

The Chinese culture is still strongly influenced by the teachings of Confucius, which is also evident in the workplace. Respect and seniority play important roles in everyday interactions.

Most foreigners have heard about two important concepts: Face and Guanxi. Gaining at least a basic understanding of those two concepts will help you be better prepared recognizing and dealing with them.

Saving face or avoiding losing face influences the Chinese communication style in many situations. The Chinese thinking here can be very complex and not easy to understand for Westerners. Therefore this can be a potential minefield for Western expats.

Guanxi, often translated as connections or network, is the grease that makes things happen in China. Entire books have been written about Guanxi. While the concept is easier to understand, actually building Guanxi as an outsider can be very difficult.

Communication styles couldn’t be more different

Americans can be blunt, unless they have to give negative feedback. French have no problem with providing negative feedback but get miffed if social pleasantries are omitted (never enter or leave a French store without greetings and thanks). Germans can live without the pleasantries and small talk but hate ambiguity. So every culture seems to have their preferences and inconsistencies in how they communicate. It takes a while to figure out those nuances.

Well, there’s a lot to figure out in China. The Chinese communication style is very different from the (North)Western style. Conflicts are usually avoided at all cost to save face. Unlike in the West, there is not just black and white, but a whole lot of gray in between. Chinese are comfortable with a great degree of ambiguity. Truth is often not absolute but dependent on the specific situation. … All this sets the Chinese apart from many Western office cultures.

This Business Week article compares different aspects office cultures across a handful of countries, including China.

Generational changes

China is developing and changing at an amazing pace, and with it are the people. The younger generation naturally has a different attitude than the older generation. Younger people tend to be more confident and individualistic, but also more capitalistic. Family and traditions still play a much bigger role than in most of the West, but less than they did a generation ago.

Because of this generational shifting, it is almost impossible to describe the Chinese working style in a general way without oversimplifying. Regional differences in this huge country also make it harder to generalize. Our experiences are based on Beijing but it may be quite different in the South or in smaller cities.

Practical aspects of working in China

In China, Western managers often find themselves micro-managing much more than they would do in the West. Chinese workers are used to be told exactly what to do, and that is usually what they will do, no more, no less. Any problems or unpleasant news may be ignored and swept under the rug. The attention to details can also be very different from some Western countries. Therefore, managers have to be much more in the details to stay on top of things. They can delegate less and have to control more.

Especially in the beginning, you have to spend time to understand how things are being done and where they are at. Never assume anything. No negative news does not necessarily mean everything is on track.

Another note of caution: The best solution for a specific problem in the West may not be the best solution for the same problem in China. Cultural context is very important, so you should resist the temptation to try the Western approach to everything you encounter in China.

To be successful as a Western professional working in China, a positive mindset, patience and an open mind are key.

If you want to read more about the people and culture element of working in China, check out this Expat Guide – Managing in China. The Practical Guide describes many typical work situations and provides real life examples to illustrate the cultural differences in the workplace. It also gives practical tips and insights to help Western professionals be successful when working in China.


Work — 6 Comments

    • I would try Beijing and China expat groups on Facebook. If you are looking or people already in China, WeChat groups are a good place to post openings.

  1. You’re information I found to be really helpful was wondering if you would mind if I picked you’re brain about some other questions I have

    • You are very welcome Ellie, I’m glad you liked it. Please let me know if you have specific questions or topics you would like to read more about.

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