Western work culture in the eyes of the Chinese: everything is unusual

Western work culture in the eyes of the Chinese: everything is unusual

  • Lennox Morrison
  • BBC Capital

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Photographer, iStock

Much has been said about how Westerners have adapted to Chinese work culture. A columnist at BBC Capital tried to find out how strong the culture shock felt for Chinese who went to work abroad.

Five years ago, Shanshan Zhou moved from Kunming, China, to the Netherlands to experience Western culture.

She knew that working life in Europe was arranged differently than in her homeland, but one thing shocked her in particular.

At lunchtime, office workers in China might spend 1-2 hours going out to a restaurant together or sneaking home for a nap.

In the Netherlands it is customary to spend no more than half an hour for lunch, during which the employee only managed to intercept a sandwich.

Zhu works as a call center operator and translator for an international information company. She was able to adapt quickly to the shorter lunch break and is happy with her job.

At the same time, she says, “I have friends at home who can’t live without sleep during the day. I think it would be difficult for them to get used to this work culture.”

English-language media often warn of a culture shock awaiting Westerners in China, but almost no one talks about the opposite situation.

Photographer, Shanshan Chu

Illustrative image,

Shanshan Chu in Lisbon, Portugal in 2016

However, more and more Chinese come to the West to study and work, and they find much unusual here.

More and more Chinese companies are moving abroad and with them their management. Perhaps Westerners should be more attentive to foreign cultures.

In the United States alone, four times as many visas were issued to Chinese workers and their families in 2015 compared to a decade earlier.

“Chinese companies are interested in overseas assets and are buying them up at a rapid pace,” says Eric Tong, associate professor of Chinese entrepreneurship at Oxford University’s Said Business School, Eric Tong.

“That is why it is so important to understand the work culture and work organization that is specific to this country,” he explains.

Reset the pace

Coming to the West, many Chinese realize that the first thing they have to do is get used to the slow pace of work.

Yifeng Li, who grew up in northern China and now lives in Birmingham, England, agrees.

“The only thing that might shock the Chinese in the UK is how long it takes to get things done,” he says.

“For example, in China, you don’t have to wait to open a bank account – you just have to come to the bank.”

After working briefly at a real estate agency, 32-year-old Lee founded his own company called Essence Property Investment and Management. He regularly travels to China to deal with business matters.

“In China, when you see a place that suits you, you can immediately go to the sales office and say you need the keys tomorrow, that’s not a problem. Business is done very quickly,” he says.

Tong says many Chinese businessmen have been surprised by how measured the daily routine is in Europe.

Photographer, Jack Chen

Illustrative image,

Lawyer Jack Chen, who fled his homeland 12 years ago, says overtime is the norm in China

“In China, an employee is expected to work non-stop until he has done what needs to be done,” he says.

According to attorney Jack Chen, work in the evenings and nights, as well as on weekends, is considered a norm in China.

Chen himself left his homeland 12 years ago and now runs the Chinese business at DBB Law in Brussels, Belgium.

“If I ask my Belgian colleague to work with me over the weekend to meet a Chinese customer, he may agree, but that’s not the norm. In Belgium, the weekend is a time for family and friends.”

Express your opinion

Office rules are simpler in Europe, Chen says, in part because the hierarchy is not as strict as in China, where “the boss is really the boss, the social situation in the office is very clear and important, and when you talk to the boss, you have to show your respect.” .

According to him, this leads to the fact that in China, employees think very well about how to present their opinions and ideas. It seems to him that in the West they can express their opinions more freely.

“If I don’t get along with the boss, I just say what I think, even in front of all my colleagues. They won’t see anything wrong with that. You can even joke the manager here,” he said.

“In China, you have to think carefully about everything you’re going to say to make it sound acceptable. In Europe, you can say whatever you want,” Chen adds.

Prior to moving to Brussels, Chen worked in France, England, the Netherlands and Germany.

“When I arrive at a new office during a meeting, I see colleagues and partners exchanging opinions. I notice differences and get used to the new style of communication,” he says.

Desmond Su is the founder of the Hong Kong-based East-West Institute of Applied Etiquette, which offers courses in business etiquette and communication skills for executives from Greater China. He says most Chinese find it difficult to express their point of view at work.

He says, “In China, I have often seen competent employees who simply cannot take the floor and share their ideas. Worse, sometimes they worry because they are not to be taken lightly. But in Western business culture, everything is very different.”

“We teach people to defend their ideas without hesitation, as well as to recognize their merits with dignity … because in the Western business environment you need to try to promote yourself.”

Photographer, Thinkstock

Illustrative image,

Many overseas Chinese are planning to return home after gaining work experience abroad

This is exactly what Cindy Yen encountered when she moved to North America, leaving her job as a teacher in Guangzhou.

She is 47, lives in New York and owns Rosypad, an online real estate platform. She remembers the first time she got a job as a real estate agent: her employer constantly encouraged her to have her say and not be shy about it.

“I really liked it, and tried to talk a lot. I just had to get used to it. In China at that time it was customary to obey the president without a doubt, and we were not used to expressing our thoughts.”


Sharon Jean was born in Beijing, moved to the United States 20 years ago and received the citizenship of this country. She is 47 years old, lives in suburban Chicago and works as a software developer.

She says that the Chinese who have come to the United States lately are very different in their worldview from previous generations.

Jin also serves as Consul for the InterNations expatriate community and organizes events for expats from many countries, including newcomers from China in their twenties and forties.

“Sometimes they say they miss the luxury and comfort they have in China,” she says. “One girl said she misses Shanghai because there are so many cafes and the city is cleaner than Chicago.”

“They compare the material wealth of the United States and China, and the United States does not always win. Twenty years ago it was the other way around,” Jin said.

Photographer, Sharon Jane

Illustrative image,

Sharon Jane moved to the United States 20 years ago. It helps Chinese youth integrate into a new place

“Nearly 100% of my generation who moved to the United States, including myself, came here with the idea that you need to get a green card and stay here,” she says.

Today, she said, young Chinese plan to work in the United States for ten years and then return to China to buy a house or take care of their parents.

In 2015, 523,700 Chinese students left to study abroad, a record number.

However, according to the Chinese Ministry of Education, in recent years, approximately 70-80% of them have returned to their homeland due to the favorable situation in the local labor market.

As Jin says, “Going back to China is becoming more and more popular.”

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