What To Expect of Chinese Business Culture: East vs. West

Liz Smith
Liz Smith

Liz Smith left the daily grind in the States to travel the world with her husband. Eventually teaching English in China & loving it, she began sharing her experience with others who are interested in embarking on this new adventure!

 / Mar 15, 2017

If you are like lots of people from Western nations, you might be thinking of travelling to China to do business, such as teaching English or other professional jobs that will enable you take advantage of the country’s rapidly growing global business presence. 


But regardless of whether you are looking forward to working in China or considering doing business there, it is worth noting that Chinese business culture is quite different from doing business or working in any other Western country. As such, it is extremely important you learn about Chinese business culture prior to making your trip.


Understanding Chinese Business Culture


Culture in China influences all areas of daily life, including business. Chinese business culture is totally different from Western culture, even though some business practices in China have now evolved to align with other global practices. Still, the country boasts a unique business culture owing to its unique history and background.


When doing business in China, a simple cultural misunderstanding can potentially scuttle a good working relationship. Therefore, people from western nations ought to understand the Chinese business culture in and out. This will help them avoid any cultural misunderstandings that can make it difficult to do business or work in China.


Here are some of the common aspects of the Chinese culture you need to be well-versed with prior to embarking to China either for business or other work-related purposes.


Chinese Put a Lot of Emphasis on Relationships


Depending on your professional personality, this concept of Chinese business culture may be quite enjoyable…or it can be a bit uncomfortable. In the Chinese context, business relationships inevitably become social relationships with time. But in Western nations however, business relationships tend to remain professional. 


Regardless of the type of business you are doing in China, you can create a strong business relationship between your clients and partners by sharing your personal life, including hobbies, aspirations, political views and family. In Chinese business context, plenty of time is normally spent discussing issues that are outside of business. In fact, a large part of your success when doing business in the world’s most populous nation will depend largely on your personal relationship with the parties involved. 


For some foreigners who do business in China, this is a welcomed difference. They may thoroughly enjoy chatting about their personal lives and forming close relationships with those they work with. However, for other people who prefer to keep their work and professional lives private, this can be a difficult aspect to get used to. Further, if you have a high regard for efficiency and getting to the point during a meeting, then you could become a little frustrated. 


Hierarchy Matters a Lot in China


China is traditionally a hierarchical society. So in China, the levels within the societal heirarchy matter a great deal; especially in government or state-owned institutions. While working or doing business in China, you can’t just call anyone Mr. or Mrs. like it is normally the case in Western nations. In China, every person in a business setting is address by their designation i.e. Manager [name] Director [name], etc.


This hierarchy should also be kept in mind in the order which you greet, serve, or interact with people professionally and even socially. For example, if you are offering to serve a drink, you should always remember to serve the most senior persons first prior to serving other ordinary persons. 


The Concept of Saving Fact / Image is Important in China


The idea of “saving face” is that you don’t do things that will embarrass another person. The face-saving concept is a crucial part of Chinese culture in general, and this extends into business culture. If you want a place where you can do business or work without facing much criticism, then China is ultimately the best place for you.


The Chinese business culture discourages criticism (whether intentional or non-intentional), public disapproval and jeopardizing prestige. Here, they believe that the face/image should be protected all the time no matter what.


Generally, Chinese take things personally and the last thing they would want is to lose face. This is also why some people prefer keeping their personal opinions to themselves, and the reason why your Chinese boss may desist from pointing out your flaws.


While there are some positives that come from this concept, the idea of “saving face” can be a problem in business, especially for foreign employees. It may be difficult to get the true opinion of others, and even more difficult when it comes to the job performance of other people. Careful of being critical, especially if it isn’t your place (remember the hierarchy).


Key Differences to Keep in Mind About Chinese and Western Business Cultures


As mentioned earlier, there are significant differences between the Chinese and Western Business cultures. Here is a quick rundown of things you should consider.


Style of communication


Chinese (and to a larger extent people from Eastern cultures) view their Western counterparts as quite upfront in their way of speaking. As a result, this may create misunderstanding between the two groups of people, sometimes inadvertently hurting people’s feelings.


People of western origin are taught to express and even defend their ideas, sometimes turning to debates just to prove their point or get the other party to agree with them. But this is perceived as rude and humiliating in China. When working in China, be careful to avoid being too upfront or strongly opinionated in your way of speaking. Don’t argue to prove your point (especially if it isn’t critical). Just nod along with other people’s ideas, even when you don’t necessarily agree with them.

Keep in mind that this could vary depending on the company you are working with. Chinese companies are becoming more Westernized in some ways, as many of their employees may have studied abroad or worked in other international companies. So you could find that the communication style could vary.


Titles are More Important in China


As a result of the importance of hierarchy in China, job titles are much more important. This is a key difference between the Chinese and modern Western business culture. In the West, there has been a trend toward having less emphasis on job titles. Many modern companies want their teams to seem like they are all on the same level, even managers, so it is more like a peer atmosphere. There are even some CEOs and high level VPs that sit at desks among their staff, rather than in a private office. 


This level of openness in Western business leads to teams that interact freely at their respective workplaces, without placing so much importance on titles or positions. However, titles are greatly respected in China. This is evident even from the way of greetings, whereby one has to start greeting the senior most person first and then move down the line of hierarchy. In fact, in many Chinese events / meetings you may notice that the level and titles of each person determine who speaks first, and so on.


Professional life vs. personal life 


In Western business culture, professional and personal lives are two completely different things. In fact, privacy is a very important concept in American culture and workers in the USA are most comfortable keeping their personal lives private from their employers. Colleagues may go out for parties, lunch or dinner events, but only during office-sponsored functions (and typically, only during work hours). 



In fact, coworkers in the States may not know each other too much on a personal level. But in Chinese business culture, the emphasis is on building strong social networks. So personal relationships play a crucial role in professional lives as well.


You will discover that when working in China, coworkers are encouraged to know each other personally. They will ask questions and engage in conversations that may seem intrusive to foreign employees, or even inappropriate. Even your Chinese boss may ask personal details about your family or private life. This is quite normal.

In Chinese business culture, colleagues tend to see each other like a family. This is also why in China, professional and personal lives and time tend to be very blurred. At most Chinese companies, it is perfectly acceptable for your boss to contact you outside of working hours. It is also common for Chinese workers to spend a great deal of time with their colleagues outside of working hours, going to dinner or even having team building events on their days off. 


This blending of personal / professional lives is something that many foreign workers from Western countries can have a difficult time accepting. But it is a critical part of Chinese business culture, and something that foreigners who want to succeed in China will need to be open to accepting.


Punctuality 


The concept of time is more concrete in most Western societies, and it is expected that people always show up on time for meetings and important appointments. Simply put, Westerners tend to take punctuality very seriously, and being tardy is frowned upon and even seen as rude. However, in China lateness is excusable depending on the prevailing circumstances.



When working in China, no one will condemn you for being late for work (remember the “saving face concept”). Instead, they will assume you had genuine reasons for being late. While this seems like a godsend to those who have trouble being punctual, you can also expect that your co-workers and boss will inquire as to why you are late, and want to talk about it with you. If you are often late, your colleagues may even joke with you about it and come up with ways to encourage punctuality, like a humorous “penalty” of some kind.


Openness is Key When Doing Business in China


Both Western and Chinese business cultures are beautiful and unique in their own ways. While it is sometimes normal for misunderstandings and friction to occur when the two meet, this can be avoided by understanding each culture in and out. And for those from Western countries, the key to being successful at doing in business in China is to understand these differences, and being open to the fact that things will be done quite differently than you may be used to.


Overall, Chinese has plenty to offer those willing to conform with the country’s business culture. If you are interested in working in China or doing business there, having a solid understanding of their business culture is vital for it can dramatically set you up for success. 

 

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Liz Smith

Liz Smith left the daily grind in the States to travel the world with her husband. Eventually teaching English in China & loving it, she began sharing her experience with others who are interested in embarking on this new adventure!