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back to index backGLOBALtalk May,  2007


In China's Offices, Foreign Colleagues Might Get an Earful

I was riding the elevator a few weeks ago with a Chinese colleague here in the Journal's Asian headquarters. I smiled and said, "Hi." She responded, "You've gained weight."

I might have been appalled, but at least three other Chinese co-workers also have told me I'm fat. I probably should cut back on the pork dumplings. In China, such an intimate observation from a colleague isn't necessarily an insult. It's probably just friendliness.

There's a lot that goes on in Chinese workplaces that mystifies -- and occasionally embarrasses -- the expatriates pouring into China. Chinese people draw the lines between personal and work space differently from Americans. Beyond weight and body shape, office small talk here often includes the size of your apartment and your salary. Sometimes, my Chinese colleagues nap at their desks during lunch.

Some Chinese office characteristics came about because corporations here embrace the idea of company as surrogate family. Many offices have a "tea lady," who spends all day making tea and heating lunches -- kind of an office nanny. For Lunar New Year, starting Feb. 18 this year, bosses give employees red envelopes filled with money, as family elders do, and host a banquet complete with games, prizes and karaoke.

Shoe habits suggest that Chinese women feel more at home in the office. Many female American executives commute to work in sneakers and put on professional shoes in the office. Chinese women are likely to do the opposite, slipping out of the Manolo Blahniks they wore to get to work and into slippers at their cubicles.

When American lawyer Jennifer Gallo moved to Beijing a few months ago, she had to go from her own office in San Francisco -- "my little haven," she called it -- into a shared room with another lawyer. After one day of polite silence in the new office, Ms. Gallo's Chinese office mate cried out, "Jennifer Gallo, you are incorrigible!"

Her co-worker's problem: too much quiet. "My Chinese colleagues seem to thrive on noise and community," says Ms. Gallo, 30. She's surrounded, she says, by loud phone talk, buzzing gadgets and a "concert of ring tones." Her office mate's phone blasts "Work It" by Missy Elliott.

But the lack of personal space goes beyond noise, she says. "It goes to the very heart of this American idea that certain things are better left unsaid." In recent months, Ms. Gallo has been given assessments of her wardrobe ("very nice, could be European"), muscle tone ("flabby," a translation settled on after consultation with a group of English speakers) and childbearing prospects ("certain to have many boys").

Of course, there's plenty about American office culture that confuses Chinese employees who join U.S. companies out here. They're baffled by "brown-bag lunch" conferences, during which junior staffers rudely chomp while somebody senior is giving a talk. It's rude because it mixes a social event with an official one.

"Chinese law firms would not have this kind of lunch," says Qian Wei, 26, who works at an American law firm in Beijing. "Maybe we would go outside to a really good restaurant to drink and chat for a while. But in the U.S., people pay much more attention to efficiency."

Also, Chinese offices tend to be hierarchical, and employees wouldn't think of calling their boss by his or her first name. So while there are often close relationships between Chinese co-workers, American managers' efforts to seem egalitarian can backfire.

Justine Lee, 35, who works for an American manufacturer in Hong Kong, says her boss caused havoc with an annual ritual of meeting with all his employees individually. "People tried to work out their 'smartest' question a month in advance. It became a big project for the Chinese staff every year," she says. After a couple years, her boss dropped the idea.

Most of the time, she adds, Chinese people do their best to avoid bumping into their American colleagues. "The Chinese staff don't know how to hold small talk with Americans," she says. Direct translations of Chinese chatter can come across as confusing or intrusive in English. One of the most common is, "Have you eaten?" which is less of an invitation to lunch and more of a "How are you?"

Food is a particularly useful social lubricant. In many offices, the most popular foreigner is the one who likes eating local delicacies, such as pig's blood and chicken feet.

Learning to navigate Chinese office culture is essential to ensuring you don't end up with a terrible nickname. Many Chinese office workers create nicknames for foreign colleagues. What's mine? My office manager refuses to say.

Ms. Gallo says that she and her office mate have become friends. When they work late, they sing the Carpenters' "Close To You" together to make it fun. At the Christmas party, they performed a choreographed routine to Abba's "Dancing Queen." And when her office mate went on vacation recently, Ms. Gallo says, she missed even the "Work It" ringtone.

So, how should a foreigner respond when he's told he's fat? My stock response is, "There's so much good food here."
 
Source: CRIEnglish.comGAI


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