Manners in the Chinese Workplace

My first day of work at a Chinese tech company came with many surprises. When I arrived in a collared shirt and jeans, I was puzzled to see my boss dressed in sweatpants and slippers. My attempts to be polite and use “honorific” Chinese made him feel awkward. Were my years of learning how to properly rest chopsticks at a dinner table and how to give gifts all in vain? My early stumbles left me baffled in understanding the office culture. I realized that in this new workplace, I had to learn a new set of Chinese business manners. I even signed up for a class on professionalism in the Chinese workplace. I learned plenty about the culture at traditional enterprises, but I didn’t learn much about the norms in my industry. I was not expecting tech offices to be so laid-back, and I would not have anticipated how casual the culture was without being there.

Dress Code

Usually, programmers in Chinese tech companies aren’t customer facing so the dress code tends to be casual. I was expecting t-shirts and Allbirds, but casual dress seems to have a more flexible meaning in Beijing. Nobody blinks an eye when a programmer rolls into work in pajama pants or slippers. On occasion, VPs come into work wearing hoodies and sweatpants.

I discovered that formal dress doesn’t seem to vary that much across the US and China. In non-tech companies, collared shirts, suits and ties are the go-to. Because tech workers dress so casually compared to their non-tech counterparts, embarrassing moments arise when engineers meet customers onsite, especially at traditional Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) or 国企. One too many awkward incidents prompted a business etiquette training session for engineers at work. We covered many Western dress codes, explaining the rule to always dress one “level” above your client as a sign of respect. For example, if the customer dresses in suit and shirt but without a tie, then you should dress in a suit, shirt and tie. Most business formal dress norms seem to hold true inside and outside of China.

There's also a stereotype that programmers wear flannel shirts.

There’s also a stereotype that programmers wear flannel shirts.

Addressing co-workers

In school, I learned the importance of titles early. Mr. X (X先生) is the standard address when meeting someone new, just like in the US. But at tech companies, everyone goes by their first name, including the CEO. This effort to be more casual and “global” requires deliberate practice. Addressing your company’s CEO on a first name basis is common practice in Silicon Valley (think Mark, Larry, Elon, Jack), but addressing a superior by first name can feel weird in China. Once at my company’s all-hands meeting, a new employee began her question addressing Mr. Zhang politely, “您好张CEO, …“. The CEO, after listening to the entire question, responded (in Chinese) “Hi, first of all my name is Yiming. We don’t use titles at this company.” That would explain why, on everyone’s first day of work, HR tells new employees that we cannot use titles when addressing work colleagues. In my office, honorific titles like 总 zong3, 姐 jie3, or 您 nin2 are explicitly forbidden.

Despite the office policy, I still hear titles used jokingly every now and then. Some coworkers have endearing nicknames like X老师 (Teacher X), 大哥 (bro) or X博士 (Doctor X).

Handshaking

In our etiquette training, I was initially skeptical of dedicating 30 minutes to handshaking. Shake with your right hand and look the other person in the eye. What else is to it?

Lo and behold, I discovered that order matters. It is a sin not to first shake the hand of the highest ranking guest. If the hierarchy is unclear, the protocol is to shake hands from left to your right. Shaking hands doesn’t just involve your arm. You are to lean into the handshake, as if making a subtle bow. With larger groups, be sure never to cross arms. Shake hands one hand at a time.

Even more surprising was learning that handshakes come with explicit gender roles too. If both sides are male, either party can initiate the handshake. However, if the other person is female, you may not shake her hand unless her hand is extended. If the woman does not extend her hand, you absolutely do not initiate the handshake, otherwise you will appear aggressive. When shaking a woman’s hand, use a softer grip and shake only the fingers. Do not grab the palm. We were told a fuller handshake could come off as inappropriate. We didn’t go into female:female handshakes. I thought these rules were so archaic that I later asked by workers about these rules. Younger female colleagues didn’t seem to care as much about these rules, but did recommend to lean on the side of caution with middle-aged and older women. I was surprised there could be so many particulars about handshaking.

A "Western" handshake. Neither person is bowing.

A “Western” handshake. Neither person is bowing.

Exchanging Business cards

In China today, WeChat is you organize, tag and save notes about your business contacts. As a result, WeChat has replaced phone numbers for texting and calling. I did not expect our etiquette class to cover how to exchange business cards. When finding a tech job in China, I never was in a situation where I needed to give or receive a business card.

I had a lot to learn when it came to sharing and receiving business cards outside of tech. WeChat QR codes commonly appear on Chinese business cards but it is poor form to take out your phone and add their WeChat when meeting someone. Like handshakes, business cards are received with both hands and with a light bow from the hips as a sign of respect. Exchanging business cards is the key moment during introductions. It is the only opportunity you have to read the other person’s name. This is especially important when you don’t know the characters of someone’s name. When giving someone your business card, how you hold your card (with both hands) also matters. When you receive a card, you can’t just stuff it into your pocket either–you would disrespect the other person. You’d also better be ready to exchange card. If caught off-guard without a business card, you had better save face with an excuse like “I’m so sorry. I just used my last card”.

Coming to China, I was shocked by how casual the tech industry was. I had taken college classes learning how to be polite but my studies left me feeling very unprepared for my first steps in the Chinese workplace. This was because I was joining a very new industry in China, not a decades-old company. For example, many SOEs care very much about traditional etiquette, but tech companies, or at least the ones I visited, were quite different. Business etiquette can be hard to anticipate unless you are there in person.

I found this “culture gap” between tech and non-tech very relatable to the US having worked on the West Coast and grown up on the East Coast. Office culture varies wildly from city to city, and company to company. In Silicon Valley, more tech employees are coming to work without collared shirts, and it would be career suicide to wear a suit to work. Emails are getting shorter and more to the point. More business introductions are happening over iMessage. In my case, I only learned these norms by working in the industry, but I appreciated the differences because I know the norms working outside of the Valley. Likewise, learning the traditional business manners in China allowed me to appreciate just how laid back the culture is in the Beijing tech industry.

Roger Zurawicki

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