Cultural differences, even more than language barriers, can make talking shop in Chinese offices tricky business. For Leanne Krinker, international department project manager for Beijing June First Middle School, this has meant minimal contact with her boss, who doesn't speak English.
Although she studied Mandarin for two years, Krinker admits she lacks fluency and doesn't know the language's nuances well enough to properly address a Chinese superior.
Tomas Gustafsson, managing director and trainer of cross-cultural management firm Conchius (Shanghai), said a strong top-down hierarchy is ingrained in Chinese company culture and shapes every relationship in an office.
Instead of speaking directly, Krinker and her boss usually communicate through colleagues who serve as "middlemen" by relaying messages between them.
"The biggest change for me was the information flow, as far as what I know and don't know. It's a hierarchical system, which makes it more difficult to know what's going on around you," Krinker said. "It's frustrating to not know what's going on."
Like many other expatriates working in China, Krinker said the slower information-flow in her office meant she received less feedback than Western bosses offered back home.
"I just assume I'm doing a good job, and if I wasn't, they'd say something. But I don't know," she said.
Asking for this feedback might not be appropriate.
Peter Karlsson, managing director and trainer of Conchius, said it was usually improper to ask a Chinese boss too many questions.
"A Western employee who does not confirm understanding with his boss by asking, 'why, what and when' will be perceived to be lacking common sense or not caring for the outcome," he explained. "A Chinese employee, on the other hand, will be considered lacking common sense and questioning the manager's authority."
Abinash Gongadin, of Mauritius, said his Chinese colleagues at Beijing's Yifeng Clinic didn't understand this when he became the clinic's administrative assistant in 2006.
"They asked me, 'why do Europeans always ask, why, why, why,' because Chinese don't," said Abinash, who is the only foreigner on a team of six.
Australian Lindsey Furness, who has worked on and off in China for a decade as an advisor for city and county water resource bureaus, was baffled when a senior manager invited him to dinner. He said this was usually only a courteous formality, and the employee should decline with a polite excuse.
"At the beginning, about 95 percent of the time, it's just being friendly. But after some time, it's not. I don't think a foreigner can pick up on that at first," he said.
What is being said is often as telling as how it is said, Karlsson explained.
"There is confusion, because most Chinese don't want to say something negative," said Bronwyn Broekmann, director of academic recruitment and administration at the private education firm English First.
"If something was wrong, I can't imagine a Chinese employee telling me."
When Broekmann came to Beijing a year ago, she found she had to adjust the way she spoke to her Chinese officemates, who make up about two-thirds of the staff.
"With Western people, it's, 'You should do this and this.' It is A, B and C. But with Chinese people, it's more diplomatic, more polite," said the 30-year-old South African.
She could tell a Western employee directly, whereas she would wait until the right moment to tell a Chinese employee privately and indirectly.
Although miscommunication can be frustrating, she constantly reminded herself to be respectful of the culture in which she worked and was a "guest."
The key, she believes, is cultural understanding. "It's only for a good reason, because they want to be polite and respectful. You have to keep that in mind," Broekmann said.
And that respect, she said, is one of her favorite things about working with Chinese.
The willingness of Chinese to forgive cross-cultural miscommunications offers a ray of hope for foreigners struggling to get along in Chinese workplaces.
"In most countries like this, you're taken to be a foreigner, you're presumed to be rude and ignorant, and other things. And you are well and truly excused for making an error, because you are a foreigner; you are an exception to the rule," Furness said.
Abinash said that while Chinese will often forgive communicative faux pas, it's still important to be sensitive but not too sensitive. "You have to put forth a conscious effort to understand, or not offend them. It's quite hard at times, but you have to," he said. "I try to understand, but there are so many differences, you can't understand them all, so you have to just go along."
Krinker said that she and other expatriates adjusting to Chinese office culture must subscribe to cultural understanding.
"Especially in this global world we're living in, it's especially important to understand what differences make things frustrating," she said. "Obviously, they do these things for a reason."
According to Connie Baques, regional academic manager at English First, the company uses training and stages social events such as monthly staff birthday parties and KTV nights to reduce cross-cultural confusion.
"When people get to know one another, you see their approach to problems and frustrations at work changes," Baques said.
However, as Furness pointed out, becoming comfortable with each other can take time.
"I think that often, the Chinese we work with are comfortable with foreigners at the banquet level, but are often uncomfortable with foreigners when it comes to, say, inviting them back home," Furness said. "There's a social structure that foreigners don't fit into that well. The Chinese might not be so comfortable with dealing with someone who doesn't have a status."
Consequently, he said, some Chinese will often either put foreigners on a pedestal, "which is more than you'd want" or "sort of dismiss" them.
Abinash said while miscommunications are inevitable, working in a cross-cultural workplace is rewarding.
"Chinese are becoming more open to having foreigners around, and it's getting to a point where Chinese and foreigners will blend, and foreigners will become part of the crowd."
(China Daily May 11, 2007)