If you are like Jack, or if you are curious about our experiences and opinions having lived and worked in both countries, please read on to see if you agree.
It’s over-promising to conclude American v.s. Chinese culture or American v.s. Chinese business culture in one article. In fact, how one individual follows and practices the mainstream “culture” of the bigger environment depends on their own beliefs and choices, among other things. Business culture also varies by industry and the company itself, sometimes even more so than the company’s place of registration, or “nationality.” How a foreign individual experiences and perceives the so-called culture through interaction or observation is also unique and limited to the foreign person’s own background and perception.
That said, we can get a glimpse of the culture through small details. For instance, people usually go by their first names at workplaces in America, though it’s not necessarily the case in China except in foreign companies. In schools, government entities, and state-owned companies, the default is Last Name + Title, because workplaces are meant to be hierarchical, respectful, and collective. The title 老师 is also commonly used even though the person is not actually working as a teacher, but is like a mentor to you or a more senior member of the team. To address an “inferior,” one has the liberty to say 小 + Last Name, first name, or their full name.
Jack has noted that in America, it’s “everyone fending for themselves,” versus in China, there’s a community spirit. He often goes to play badminton with his co-workers after work in Beijing, and the office feels like a big family. I, on the other hand, find the separation of professional life and private life in the U.S. liberating. I don’t have to add my co-workers on Facebook or Instagram unless we both want to, and one is not obliged to reply to work emails or Slack messages on the weekend, barring certain professions. The default communication application in China, WeChat, also functions like social media, and so it’s hard to draw a line between your office identity and private life. It has become a burden (or maybe an opportunity) so much so that some take a step further to categorize all their WeChat contacts into groups and curate different updates for each group!
Last but not least, young working professionals in the U.S. value opportunity and personal growth over stability. My friend Victoria has changed four jobs in the short span of six years since university graduation, and she’s not alone. Employments are also largely “at-will,” meaning either the employer or the employee can terminate the labor agreement at any time. In China, however, civil servant jobs, among other public institution posts where one can stay for a lifetime, are still sought after. Hundreds of thousands of people from each province sign up for the civil service exam, which has a lower-than-5% passing rate each year. Such jobs are called 铁饭碗, which literally translates to iron rice bowl, meaning that such jobs are so secure even through crises that you would never go hungry. A term labor contract is also usually signed at the time of hiring, one that makes breaking employment from either side a little trickier.
In summary, the workplace culture is more collectivist in China, versus individualist in America, and the transition from job to job is relatively more fluid in the U.S. There are tons of articles online teaching people how to ask for a raise or negotiate for a better package, while the “ask” or “fight for myself” mindset is not as common in China, and certain things are more set in place. What do you think? Have you noticed any similarities or differences in business culture between the two largest economies in the world, or between two very different cultures? Please feel free to share in the comments below.