24 Sep 2014

Corporate Culture Shock: Working in China

As Chinese companies become leading players on the global stage, entering a number of markets such as technology, energy and utilities, financial services and transport – an increasing number of European and American citizens are being employed at Chinese firms.

There have been some high-profile moves recently. For instance, Hugo Barra, vice president of Android product management for Google, left the company for Xioami Global, a growing Chinese mobile phone manufacturer.

Baidu, China’s biggest search engine, recently hired Andrew Ng, a computer science professor at Stanford University, who founded the Google Brain project which involved developing large scale artificial neural networks.

But China’s distance from many western countries, along with complex administrative and legal requirements to secure long-term residency and work permits, makes relocation particularly challenging.

The main challenge with relocation is adapting to Chinese culture, to which there are two key elements – inside and outside the office.

Inside the office

Local ways of doing business are very different in China, so westerners working in the country must adapt fast.

There is a need to get things done quickly in Europe and the United States, meeting tight deadlines and the like. In China, however, things are a lot more relaxed and slow-paced, with an emphasis on patience.

The importance of building so-called ‘guanxi’ – pronounced ‘GWAN-she’ – cannot be underestimated. It means relationships, but has implications beyond the obligatory happy hour or networking lunches.

Workers are expected to become friends with their boss in China – a concept that seems alien to many in western countries. Socialising with them after work is very much part and parcel of the culture.

But that’s not all, far from it. Here we take a close look at business etiquette and protocol in the country.


  • Business relationships are built formally after the Chinese get to know you, so don’t feel pressured to rush into anything.
  • Rank is extremely important in business relationships. You must therefore keep rank differences in mind when communicating with colleagues, even if simply chatting by the water cooler.
  • The Chinese prefer face-to-face meetings rather than written or telephone communication.
  • Gender bias is non-existent in business.
  • There is a distinct line between business and socialising in China, so you should not discuss business at meals or any other type of social event.


  • Bowing or nodding is the common greeting. You should only shake hands if offered a handshake.
  • Introductions are formal, so you should use formal titles when addressing someone, along with their surname.
  • Applause is common when greeting a crowd; the same is expected in return.
  • Appointments are a must for business.
  • It is considered disrespectful to stare into another person’s eyes.


  • Punctuality is very important in China. Arriving late is an insult and could negatively affect your relationship.
  • Do not use large hand movements, as these may be distracting and offensive at the same time.
  • Do not point when speaking.
  • To point do not use your index finger, use an open palm.
  • Personal contact must be avoided, so you should avoid patting colleagues on the back when they do something good.


  • Business clothing is conservative and unpretentious in China.
  • Men should wear dark coloured business suits, while ties should also be dark and formal.
  • Women should wear business suits or dresses with a high neckline.
  • High heels are frowned upon, so women should stick to flat shoes or shoes with very low heels.
  • Bright colours should also be avoided.

All of the above are pointers that western workers should take on board if making the switch to China.

Outside the office

Things outside the office can also make adapting to life in China rather difficult.

The shock of the new environment, meeting lots of new people and learning the local customs can be overwhelming. Here we break down three of the most common factors that can cause culture shock away from work.


Food in China is extremely different to western countries. While workers will have probably tried Chinese food in their homeland, nothing can quite prepare them for having it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.


Weather conditions can be extreme in China. Shanghai, for instance, where a lot of European and American citizens head to work, has long, humid summers, short winters and moderate but chilly springs and autumns.

Rainy season starts late summer and there are sometimes typhoons, while torrential downpours are commonplace.


Chinese is a family of closely-related but mutually unintelligible languages. Mandarin and Cantonese are two of the most widely spoken languages in the country. English is recognised, but outside of work its use is limited.

Constantly listening and speaking in a foreign language can be tiring.

How to cope with corporate culture shock

People in China do not expect westerners to know all of their etiquette, so there are some allowances both inside and outside the office. But workers should not see this as an excuse to sit back and relax.

Learning the language is particularly important. The ability to communicate with colleagues in their mother tongue is regarded as essential, not to mention polite, and is something that can make the transition of upping sticks a lot smoother.

Companies usually provide language training for the entire length of the assignment, as well as in the weeks and months leading up to the big move, along with a host of other programs to help workers hit the ground running.

Coping with corporate culture shock essentially comes down to preparation.

An initial visit is always a good idea, so the worker can get a feel for China. Family members should also be part of the visit, looking at things like housing and schools, as how they settle will be paramount to a successful transition.

Cross-cultural training is also something companies should consider offering workers going on assignment for at least one year.


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