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Lao wai kan shanghai – 1

H E A D L I N E – lao wai he lai nei yiqi gongzuo

By Graham Earnshaw

A whole new wave of foreigners have started to arrive in Shanghai, and this time they are often not the laoban, they are just ordinary employees working along Chinese staff. It is all part of the process of Shanghai recovering its birthright of being a truly international city. In other similar cities around the world, probably 15 percent of all employed staff are from somewhere else, which adds competition and expertise to an economy. And makes the workplace far more interesting.

For a Chinese person in Shanghai, it is one thing to see a foreigner on the street, and another to have a foreigner as a distant boss. But to have a foreigner as your colleague provides an opportunity for both sides to interact in ways that fully exposes the similarities and the differences, the cultural gulfs that separate and the bridges of humanity that link.

So what is the main difference between the way Chinese people and western people handle an office environment? The answer, in my opinion, is hierarchy. China, in spite of all the changes of recent decades, remains a very hierarchical culture.

In this hierarchical world of China, there are several important distinctions to be made between different people. First, there are “insiders” and “outsiders”. A foreigner on the street is an “outsider”. So is a salesman who walks through the office main door unbidden, or the woman in front of you in the supermarket queue. Anyone who is a member of the company staff, on the other hand, is an “insider”. In China (also in the West, but not as much), a completely different set of moral and social rules apply to “insiders” and “outsiders”. “Outsiders” in China can be ignored or treated coldly. But “insiders” enjoy a feeling of warmth and belonging – I am a member of the group and I have status and respect within the group, as long as I follow the rules of my place in the hierarchy.

“Insiders” are further divided into different levels by status and position, salary and responsibility, age and experience. And you must always – virtually no exceptions are allowed in this Chinese hierarchical world – remember your position and follow the rules that apply to that position.

Here’s an example. In a Chinese office, the boss is called “Chen Zong”, or “Chen Zhuran” or “Chen Laoshi”. If you are below him in the office hierarchy, you cannot call Chen Zong anything but Chen Zong in any circumstance at all. Inside or outside the office, work time or weekend – he is always Chen Zong.

Chen Zong has the same problem. When he is interacting with the staff below him, he must always act the part of “Chen Zong” – it very difficult for him to play any other, more normal or equal role. Certain things are expected of Chen Zong by the whole office. He must be distant and aloof. He must shout at someone once in a while to remind himself and everyone else of his position and authority.

Now let’s look at it from a Western perspective.

The West has a vision of itself based on the fundamental concept not of hierarchy, but of equality. The theory is that everyone is on the same level, it is just that the responsibilities and salary levels are different. It’s not always true, but that is the way a western office culture likes to see view itself.

Let us say there is an office party in our western office. Attending the office party are the Western equivalent of Chen Zong – the general manager of the company, John Smith. Also attending the office party is the young messenger boy, David Jones, who is 18 years old and has worked for the company for six months. They are standing next to each other in the line for the buffet. David is ambitious and determined to find something to say to his boss, so he says: “The office is getting really crowded, Mr Smith. Business is good, right?” Culturally, he wants to emphasise that he is on the level as Mr Smith by speaking first (In China, the messenger boy would never speak first. He would wait for Chen Zong to say the first word).

“Call me John,” Mr Smith tells the messenger boy. He wants to pretend that he’s just an ordinary guy and that at this office party, there is no difference between big boss and little staff member. Any suggestion by John Smith of a difference in level in this social context would be considered to be a sign of arrogance by both the messenger boy and anyone else close by, listening to the conversation.

That is just a small example. But the point is that westerners and Chinese bring a whole different range of cultural habits and assumptions to work with them every day. If the foreigner is the boss, it is okay, because he is distant, and the easiest way of dealing with the potential embarrassment of social interaction is ?not to interact at all.

But if the foreigner is on the same level in the hierarchical structure of a Chinese office – ah, that is interesting.

The first issue, if you put foreigners and Chinese together in the same office and on the same level, is language. Language is a tool. But language can also be a battleground. In any cross-cultural relationship, there is one language that will be the basis of communication. Not two, only one.

Sally is a foreign girl who already speaks pretty good Chinese and she wants to speak Chinese with her Shanghai colleagues. This is China, after all, right? But many of her Chinese colleagues want to talk English with her, because it’s a great opportunity to practice English (of course, they feel no sense of embarrassment about still talking Shanghainese with their other colleagues while Sally is right there and doesn’t understand a word they are saying). So it is a psychological tug-of-war. Eventually, it will settled down to either everyone else talking Chinese to Sally, or Sally talking English to everyone else.

This topic of foreigners and Chinese interacting is huge and fascinating and I could continue like this for a long time. But the page is running out of space, so let me just mention two other basic differences which present themselves when foreigners and Chinese are working together: food and sound.

Lunchtime is a key time in any office around the world and there is a wide range of traditions and habits and assumptions that surround the ceremony of “lunch”. For deep cultural, historical and physiological reasons, Chinese people and westerners treat lunch differently in a number of ways, the most basic being timing.

A Chinese stomach is ready for lunch for about 11am, and by 12am that Chinese stomach is complaining vigorously if it is not fed (bei wei). But a western stomach, at 11am, is really not yet interested in food, it is resting peacefully in the memory of the breakfast it digested three hours before. It will be 12.30pm at least before the western stomach starts to protest.

The result is a tendency towards separation of the two groups at lunchtime, not just because food tastes are different, but also because the timing of hunger is not synchronized.

And noise – it is a clich? but I think there is some truth to it – that Chinese people are less sensitive to, or concerned about, cacophony, than westerners. Music is also something that is something to be treated by Chinese with a greater degree of passivity, while westerners interact with music in a more active way. The result is that if you put 10 Chinese staff people in an office, each with their own PC equipped with a CD-ROM drive, MP3 player and speakers, I predict that within one week you will find that three of them at least are playing their own and different music simultaneously. And the others basically don’t mind. Then if you put a westerner in the office as well, he or she will feel very uncomfortable by the noise of three different songs playing at the same time.

Active-passive listening habits is one reason. Another is that Westerners are much more aware than Chinese of their own personal space, and the mix of music is viewed as an invasion of privacy.

These are all generalizations, and generalizations are of course very dangerous. In the mid-1990s, I used to often hear Shanghai people say: “German people are xxx”, or “Americans are yyy”, and I always reacted against this line, saying: You can’t make generalizations based on nationality? There are good people and bad people in every country.”

But of course, there are certain trends of behavior in different cultures which are more or less marked and obvious. And I have been focussing here on the general trends.

There are exceptions of every comment I have made. But that’s okay. Watching people and behavior is the most interesting of sciences and life would be no fun without hyperbole.


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