22 Feb East VS. West: 10 Corporate Cultural Differences
A boxing ring lights up, the lurid crowd lowers their voices to a dull murmur as a man walks to the middle of the ring. As he approaches the centre a microphone is lowered from the rafters above. He grabs the microphone with a single hand and the crowd falls silent.
“Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the main event!”
The crowd explodes with cheers, stamping their feet and clapping their hands in a desperate attempt to see how much noise one individual can possibly make.
“Tonight you will witness the ultimate showdown between East and West in the office showdown!”
When the Eastern and Western office environments clash who will be the victor? I believe both sides have their strengths and there are many solid arguments for either one being better. Below I have constructed a list of 10 cultural differences I have observed from my internship in Shanghai, China and Melbourne, Australia.
- 1. Slowly Entering the Water VS. Jumping In
When I first started here I spent a great deal of time sitting at my desk trying to find work. When I asked around the office I would be given small, non-challenging, tasks taking me no more than half an hour. I finally spoke to someone in the office about it and was told that usually they try not to give new interns too much work for the first week so they have time to settle in.
At my internship in Melbourne I was given a tour of the office and introduced to everybody in the morning. Soon after projects started falling on me like I was stuck in an avalanche. I was given multiple projects and prioritisation soon became a skill I was familiar with.
2. Horizontal VS. Vertical Work Environments
With an open workspace free from the constraints of walls, cubicles and offices (with the exception of the bosses’ offices) the office in Shanghai offered a very horizontal work environment. Even though the bosses had their own rooms anyone could step in and chat with them and they would often walk around the office doing the same. When you wanted to have a meeting you would just call it, the lowest person in the office was free to organise a meeting with the highest member if they wanted to. Another common practice was for the bosses to walk up to your desk and just sit there chatting with you about anything and everything.
Melbourne is known for having horizontal work environments, especially in comparison to American firms, yet when I compare my internship there to my internship in Shanghai I feel something different. When I imagine myself trying to organise a meeting with my superiors it feels a little taboo but it still could happen. Perhaps you could say that the office I worked in had a slanted work environment for Melbourne’s standards but in comparison to the one in Shanghai it was rather vertical.
Note: This point is usually the other way around in the majority of offices. Melbourne is seen as offering more of a horizontal workplace and China as offering a vertical one.
3. Indirect VS. Direct Contact for Negative Feedback
I did not receive any negative feedback during my time in Shanghai but I know from conversations with people I met that this is not usually done directly. The concept of ‘saving face’ is very important in China and, while it is recognised that negative feedback is important for self-improvement, you will not be told directly. Instead your superior will tell someone else in the office and they will bring it up with you later, in private, so you do not ‘lose face’ in the office.
At my internship in Melbourne I can recall a report I put together during my first days there. I created the research report as a word document containing all the data in a sequence I created. I did not realise that there was already a set template I needed to follow and when I showed my progress to my supervisor I was told, while still sitting at my desk, that they want documents to be written according to the templates. Though this was minor feedback it was delivered to me as soon as my mistake was noticed rather than passed down to me through a game of Chinese whispers.
4. Censorship VS. Social Media
At the firm in Shanghai there are only two computers with access to the Internet. Both of these computers have China’s censorship still in place and all social media sites are banned. This is to ensure that employees do not get distracted with things such as social media and media monitoring. Luckily my laptop still had access to the Internet, putting me in a position to help other staff members with their research projects.
In Melbourne I was actively encouraged by other staff members to spend more time on the web, especially on social media sites. The firm put so much emphasis on social media that I took an internal social media training course during my internship. It felt naughty at first performing so much research on social media but it did reveal what and how people were feeling about issues in real time.
5. Sharing VS. Ownership of Project
When I first came here I would help out on projects by giving a list of corrections and recommendations I would see as being applicable to the project. If they asked me to help out with a section of a report I would hand in a separate document outlining detailing what I would put in with justifications and research. The longer I worked here the more they would just ask me to input sections in reports and leave me free to make changes to the final copies as I deemed necessary.
In Melbourne when I was asked to help out on a project it was still the work of the person who asked for my help. Proposal documents included short biographies of the team members who were responsible for them at the end and I was not in them. I would prepare documents that were used as a reference for staff members who were responsible for the projects.
Following on from the last point, documents at my internship in Shanghai did not contain any sign offs from the team members. There was the feeling that everyone would help out on a project and create a final report together. I would finalise English documents for clients as it was a strength of mine with English as my native tongue. It was as though everyone had their own strengths and they would apply them to a project then let it go for the next person.
At my previous internship a few people in the office would work on projects together. Of course I would help out on these projects with research and generating sections but they would only be used as a guide. In Melbourne I was like a nurse helping the doctor perform a surgery rather than making incisions next to him.
7. Heads Down VS. Heads Up
No, I am not referring to the stereotype of Asians sleeping at their desk, although I did occasionally witness this during lunch breaks. I am referring to office politics. The culture at the office in Shanghai is for staff members to focus on completing their work during business hours and save horseplay for outside of office hours. There is still a lot of social interactions during the day but they are generally of a less jovial nature than they ones I witnessed outside of the office.
At the firm in Melbourne, while it was very serious about its business, the serious conversations were saved for meetings. At the workstations there were jokes and discussions about the weekends. If there was the need to talk about work relating to a project it was almost a necessity to book a meeting room to talk about it.
8. Tentative VS. Fixed Meetings
“Let’s discuss it in a meeting tomorrow,” translates to, “maybe we can have a meeting about this tomorrow”. There is no guarantee of the meeting taking place the next day as something else may come up or it may be forgotten.
“Let’s discuss it in a meeting tomorrow,” translates to, “When you get back to your desk there will be an invitation to have a meeting in your emails. You should accept and make space in your schedule to attend”. Meetings are a place to discuss and designate time to a project. If there is a meeting, or even if someone suggests that there might be a meeting, it will take place and you will need to be there.
9. Unconditional Stewardship VS. Client Care
I was in a meeting with a man looking to do business by setting up trade agreements between Chinese and American companies. The meeting was mainly contributed to by the owner of my firm who took an hour out of his day to put this man in touch with as many companies as possible. At the end of the meeting I asked one of the staff members what benefit the firm got out of the meeting with this man to which he replied, “maybe one day we will get to do some work with someone he meets”. In this instance the firm acted selflessly and were just trying to help this man improve his business.
Stewardship was also an important attribute for the firm I worked for in Melbourne, it was just reserved for stakeholders. At events and in the office there was a strategy behind every guest being invited. I could not imagine that they would put a random person in touch with their contacts if there were no business for them to be made from this process. If they were to do this it would certainly not be the CEO dealing with this person.
There is networking and then there is networking. In China there is the concept of ‘Guanxi’ referring to your network of connections which allows things to get done and doors to be opened. When you need something to be done or want to get somewhere here you will need to know a guy who will help you. To get a job you can’t just send in your resume, and to do business with someone you can’t just call them, it is important that the proper introductions are made first.
Networking is still a crucial element in Melbourne but only to help get your foot in the door. Once you have your foot in the door it is up to you to open it yourself through extensive interviewing, reference checks and testing. Networks are a great way to capitalise on new opportunities and to constantly develop your professional self.
I would like to make it clear that these observations are from what I have experienced during my time in Shanghai and Melbourne. I do not believe them to be absolute truths as every company has a different corporate culture and I have worked at some unique companies on both sides of the world. So who is the winner from tonight’s match?
From what I have observed both sides can swing some haymakers. I have found there to be many aspects on either side which work and can also hinder progress. Realistically a corporate culture landing somewhere in the middle may be the best competitor, yet I am not sure if East and West would work as a hybrid.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it looks like tonight we have a draw!”
Scholarship recipient for Public Relations Internship in Shanghai, China