Article By Martin Zhao
In August, we published Bridging the Gap, Part 1, in August’s issue of XIANEASE, and so we’re back with another installment of our guide on how to get fit in with your Chinese colleagues at work. If you have any further questions about the ins and outs of working in a company in China, let us know through our official WeChat account or by email at email@example.com.
- Why are there so many office meals and dinners? Do I have to attend them?
A common Chinese saying goes like this: “Food is the paramount necessity of the people”.
There is no problem or issue that cannot be resolved over a meal or dinner in China.
Meals or dinners are the venue by which Chinese businesspeople find a way to cooperate that cannot be found in an office or meeting room. Restaurants are places where old friends or classmates can talk about their old days and reconnect and where coworkers can clear up possible misunderstandings and enhance trust. Why is this? Because this is the place where they feel relaxed and will be more talkative, especially with a bit of Bai Jiu in them. As another Chinese saying goes “In wine, there is truth”.
It will be certainly be beneficial for you to attend these meals, in order to build up your work relationships. If you for some reason dislike the food or the restaurants that is selected, instead of complaining or dodging, offer to take your coworkers out for a meal of your choosing. The word will spread about your choices and you might just find yourself more often in places of your liking.
While it is common in the West for each person to pay their own share, this is not a common behavior in China. It is most common for the person who invited the others out to pay for the meal. If you are out with coworkers, you can offer to pay for your own share, and offer that will most likely be denied. Next time, you should be the one to pay. If you’re out with your boss, they will pick up the bill and all you need to do is say thank you. Trying to pay for a meal where your boss is in attendance will most likely make them angry and will cause them to lose face. Don’t do that.
- There is a lot of drinking at these dinners. Do I have to drink so much?
Alcohol and food go hand-in-hand in China, and it is common for dinners especially to be a bit booze soaked. Many Chinese will feel proud when they can get their foreigner coworker drunk, and will be in awe if you’re able to hold your own. There is a feeling that drunk people are less guarded and more honest, and so often this will be a litmus test to see what kind of person you really are.
Women are almost always given a pass when it comes to this, but male workers will tend to be more pressured into drinking. If you do not want to drink, you can insist upon not drinking, most likely to the disappointment of your coworkers, but a short-lived one. If you have a particular reason for not drinking, such as a religious or cultural reason, you may tell them so and they will most likely not ask again. If you simply don’t want to drink that day for whatever reason, you can come up with a health-related excuse, such as that you are currently taking medicine, or getting over a cold. People will most likely understand, take pity on you, and order you some hot water.
- My coworkers often bring me gifts and other presents. Should I be doing the same? If so, what should I give them?
Chinese people believe courtesy demands reciprocity, or one good turns deserve another. If one of your Chinese coworkers brings a gift to you, it may mean he/she has something that you can help them with. Or they may have a crush on you. Either way, try to figure out if there is something that you can do in return. If you have already done someone a favor, then you probably won’t need to seek further. They are just trying to make sure that the scales are balanced.
It is also common that when someone goes on a trip, especially if they’ve travelled abroad, that they will bring back some kind of snack or trinkets that are easily shared with larger numbers of people. Likewise, if you travel to another place or even if you travel back home, it is advisable to grab a collection of small local snacks to bring back and share amongst your coworkers.
- Is it ok to express my opinions freely, or do I need to be more careful about what I say in the office?
In general, it is ok to express some of your ideas and opinions relatively freely, though you must keep in mind that some topics are more sensitive than others. Religion, local politics, and other similar topics are typically only discussed with close friends, and are not the subjects to be bringing up in groups of acquaintances. Some people may have a certain curiosity regarding these topics, but typically these conversations should be reserved for outside of work.
When it comes to topics regarding your work, helpful and constructive comments are usually welcome, but no one enjoys someone who simply complains about problems without offering solutions. Commiserating with colleagues about the difficulties of the job or frustrations with clunky bureaucracy is one thing, but simply complaining for the sake of it is not likely to garner you any support or help develop your relationships.
On this note, never make derogatory comments about your boss or coworkers, especially while in your office, as word of your comments will eventually make it back to the boss, either through rumor or direct reporting (snitching). Such opinions should only be shared with those that you trust implicitly, or better yet, someone who doesn’t work for your company at all.
- Many of my coworkers are very direct when commenting about my health, body, and country. Why is that?
While these comments may definitely come across as rude, offensive, or impolite, it is important to consider the intent behind the comment. Consider why the person might have started off a conversation this way. Many locals simply don’t know how start talking with a foreigner, so they will default to the Chinese way, making a comment about a common or easily observable talking point. Being a foreigner, the obvious talking point would be what’s different about you, i.e. where you are from, or how you are physically different from others. It is very common amongst a group of Chinese friends and even acquaintances for them to poke fun at people for being outside the concept of normal. Even Jackie Chan gets made fun of for his large nose.
It is also very common within Chinese culture to talk about or make suggestions for someone’s health, as it plays an important role in the day-to-day concerns of people. There is generally no ill-intent behind these comments, it is just that they want to appear to be concerned about you. Generally, if they knew that they had offended you, they would be mortified.
Lastly, sometimes it is simply curiosity that leads to the awkward questions. The ways and habits of foreigners are still unknown to many local Chinese people and they want to know if the commonly spread rumors about them are true. So, in order to satisfy this curiosity, they will ask the questions directly, usually unaware of the awkward situation that this might put you in. in all of these situations, it is not a bad idea to gently point out that you are uncomfortable with these questions and you would rather not answer, or not have them make such comments.
Getting used to how things are done in China can be a challenge. We hope that this has made it a little bit easier. If you have any questions regarding office life in China, send them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or through our official WeChat account.