Culture clashes when working in China

Working with the Chinese. Photo: VTZ International, a consulting firm.

Working with the Chinese. Photo: VTZ International, a consulting firm.

More expats are moving to China, attracted by business opportunities and hopes of advancing their careers. However, working with the locals can be tricky, as illustrated by this New York Times article: For American workers in China, a culture clash.

The Chinese have a saying that captures this challenge neatly: “same bed, different dreams.”  Western expats might have goals like accessing a new market and increasing profits. Their Chinese colleagues, on the other hand, might have have far different goals. Examples could be learning trade secrets to start their own business, increasing China’s prestige, or maybe eventual relocation to a Western country.

The idea of what is most important can be vastly different.  Your Chinese partner may want to ask about your life, discuss your family, etc. before getting down to business. The Chinese businessperson would consider this essential to building a personal relationship.  An American businessperson might view this small talk as a waste of time and get impatient to start talking about the deal at hand.  When doing business in Asia, relationships are paramount. However, in the West–particularly America–results take more prominence.

Have you worked in China or elsewhere in Asia? What were your experiences when working with locals?  Please share your stories and advice.

Posted by | Comments (4)  | March 26, 2010
Category: Asia, Expat Life, Working Abroad

4 Responses to “Culture clashes when working in China”

  1. The Backpack Foodie Says:

    I worked for three years as a manager in a videogame company in Shanghai.

    The intricacies of working with the Chinese are many… I’d probably need to write a book to capture all that I learned, and the mistakes I’ve made.

    But for me, the essential truth I discovered is this: We’re all human after all.

    If you go into it with respect for your fellow workers, and a sense of humor, you’ll make mistakes, but they won’t matter. Your Chinese colleagues learn about you, as well, so it’s a two-way street. They don’t expect you to behave 100% like a Chinese, so the differences are more easily forgivable.

    The best illustration of this is ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. As a manager, the first time I said ‘please’ to a team member, he was quick to tell me ‘You’re my manager; you don’t say please to me, it’s my job to do what you ask!’ But I explained to him that I was Canadian, and that’s what Canadians do: we ask nicely, and we say thank you.

    After a while, the team got used to me being overly polite. They liked it. It was our inside joke. I’d say thank you, and I’d see them smile. It made our work relationship special.

    Then there are times when you DO bend to adjust… And you go to the local restaurant with the guys, and they make you eat pig’s feet and chicken blood and bai jiu, and you smile… and say thank you. 🙂

    As a side-note: best book I ever read about how the Chinese think and work is ‘Getting along with the Chinese for fun and profit’. The author helped commercialize wheat in China, and his story of how pizza became absurdly popular after being considered a failure, is absolutely enlightening.

  2. Rebecca Travel-Writers-Exchange Says:

    What a great blog post! I met woman who taught English in China and she loved it and plans to go back. She’s taking more education courses so she can boost her earnings. She was making good money and saw first hand how the Chinese educational system tops the U.S.’s educational system. Education is highly important to the Chinese.

    In my MSM program, we had to role play and our country was China. It’s true that the Chinese are very big on relationship building where Americans like to “cut to the chase” and get down to business which can disrupt the flow of business.

  3. Felipe Cerda Says:

    Didn’t know this. Good to know!

  4. Vivian Says:

    I’m Chinese working in US. I agree with The Backpack Foodie, “We’re all human after all.” In a business setting, we all want to know who we work with, the whole person, not just a specific agenda or project. That’s why there is water cooler talk, ice breakers, networking. Chinese are not some kind of strange animals you have to get along with, just like not all Americans come from the same mold, we are all human. Get to know the person you are talking to, regardless of the color of his skin, nationality, or even the language he speaks. Think beyond business and profit.