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Do's and Don'ts of Interviewing in China

This guide to interviewing in China describes how Chinese business culture affects the interview process, and suggests how you can prepare.

If you are looking to further your career in China, it is really important to learn how to put your best foot forward during an interview. In China, the concept of face (面子 miànzi) defines all business relations, making the in-person interview (面试 miànshì) the most important factor in landing a job. China is a high-context culture, and while the same standards of interviewing in the West still apply, you need to keep your case relevant to your interviewer's cultural perspective. Making sure that you address the company’s main hiring concerns – cultural differences, commitment, and growth potential– is the best way to come across as professional. There are several do’s and don’ts that will help you see eye-to-eye with your Chinese interviewer.

Related: How To Find A Job In China

Do: Research the Company and its activities

One of the most common concerns Chinese companies have in hiring foreigners is whether the candidate will fit in well with the company culture. In my experience, the best way to address this concern is to talk about specific company projects and mention how your skills would help the company reach its goals. If you are able to describe how you can bring growth potential to similar projects, you will have an immediate common ground of interest to relate to your interviewer. Do thorough research on the company, its activities, the overall state of the industry, and think about how your skillset applies to different company projects. You might also want to do look up your interviewer and other company members on LinkedIn to look for other possible areas of common interest. If there is not much available information in English, you should try to see what you can find out in Chinese by doing a Baidu search. Researching the company's information in Chinese may give you a better idea of the company's vision, so it is something you should do anyway. If you are able to research information in Chinese, you will impress your interviewer with your preparedness to enter the Chinese corporate world. Chinese companies don’t generally require or expect you to write a cover letter as part of the application process, unless you are applying to a multinational corporation like Lenovo. Instead, during the interview, say what you would in your cover letter about why you are interested in the company and how your skills apply to company goals.

Don’t: Be late

In Chinese culture, it is disrespectful to be late. You should typically show up between 10 to 15 minutes before an interview starts. However, Chinese cities have notoriously bad traffic and Chinese addresses can be hard to find in a crowded, sprawling major Chinese city. In my experience interviewing at companies in Beijing, I found that it can be necessary to factor in an additional hour into the estimated time it takes you to get to the interview location, as you might run into traffic delays or get lost. If you get to the vicinity early, you might use the time to observe the working environment and get a glimpse at the company’s culture. It’s important to look calm and relaxed during an interview in China, so you don't want to be worried about running late on your way to an interview. Better safe than sorry!

Do: Print Bi-Lingual Business Cards

Business cards are very important in China. Chinese business professionals who pride themselves on their networking abilities use large binders to hold massive catalogs of business cards like collectibles. If you are going to China for work, you should have your own business cards made with one side written in English and the other side in Chinese. You might also include your WeChat ID or Weibo account information. Study abroad program directors often have their students make business cards for networking purposes, even though the students might not have official job titles yet. The point is, even if you don't think you are senior enough to necessitate having business cards, in China they are an essential part of relationships (关系 Guānxì). While not all interviews will call for an exchange of business cards, you will want to be prepared for a formal business card exchange. Business cards are always exchanged with two hands and usually a slight bow – both when giving and receiving. Carefully study the business card before placing it gingerly on the table in front of you as the interview begins. 

Don’t: Talk about salary or try to negotiate in the first interview

Business relationships in China are long-term and it generally takes a while to build up trust. When potential business partners meet, for instance, actual business details are usually not discussed, and it may be considered rude to do so. In the same way, interviews should be taken slowly, and you should not expect to talk about salary and benefits in the first interview. The first part of the interview will usually involve a self-introduction (自我介绍 zìwǒ jièshào) before specifics of the position get discussed. China is an indirect culture, so do not feel you need to rush things unless the interviewers themselves bring up salary and benefits, in which case they probably need someone very quickly. If the subject does come up, negotiations are quite common in China, but it is more likely you will discuss details with HR after having received an offer or during a final round of interviewing.

Do: Pay attention to detail and body language cues

China culture favors indirect communication in the interest of creating social harmony. Social interactions are "contemplative," meaning you will want to be aware of your effect on people around you and sensitive to detail. It doesn't hurt to speak slowly and deliberately, choosing your words carefully. Knowing how the interviewer is receiving what you are saying is crucial to interview success, and you should adjust the length and nature of your responses accordingly. Since expressions are a great deal more reserved than in the West, it takes a great deal of caution and awareness to pick up on the social cues that can help you better measure your responses. If you are able to gauge your responses accordingly, you have a better chance of relating to your interviewer on a cultural level and coming across as professional and circumspect. In your responses, it is also beneficial to demonstrate a high attention to detail. As a contemplative culture, Chinese society puts a large emphasis on observation of subtleties, so no matter how small the detail, try to be specific in your responses, without boring your audience. 

Don’t: Use overly exaggerated expressions or come on too strongly 

Body language is very important to the interview process. While Chinese people are very warm and expressive with people they are familiar with, when you meet someone for the first time, it is rude to come on too strongly or display too much emotion. Don’t gesticulate, make too much eye contact, shake hands too firmly, or be too affectionate towards your interviewer. Instead, focus on having good posture, speaking calmly, and keeping your hands close to your body. As in other high-context cultures, non-verbal communication is matters, and body language is important. While being an extrovert who loves talking to people is a positive trait, it is not good to be too aggressive in your approach. You don’t want to be too exuberant in the interview because Chinese relationships are again built slowly over time, and coming on too strong may arouse suspicion.

Do: Speak in Chinese and Express Interest in the Culture 

As business relationships in China are long-term, you should demonstrate you are making an effort to learn the language and the culture and want to stay in China. Recruiters who are concerned with the commitment of foreign candidates to staying in China will appreciate your effort to speak Mandarin. Job descriptions that list Mandarin fluency as a requirement are often open to foreigners who have Chinese skills, but who are not necessarily fluent. So prepare by learning vocabulary that is relevant to the company and the industry, and practice speaking slowly and not too colloquially with a tutor. Use 您 (nín) instead of 你 (nǐ) if you want to be more formal, and don’t be afraid to ask to have a question repeated (请再说一遍 qǐng zàishuō yībiàn), as you should be honest about your Chinese skills. If you are concerned about whether your Chinese level is up to the demands of the position, ask the interviewer how much Chinese you will need to use. The interviewer may ask questions about your personal life, which may seem intrusive at first, but do not be offended because these questions present an opportunity for you to express your interest in staying in China. If you have a pet, significant other, or a lot of friends around, the introduction stage of the interview is a good time to mention that. Being interested in staying in China for at least two to three years and being able to speak decent business Chinese are strong selling points with which you emphasize your investment in Chinese language and culture. 

Don’t: Be Brazen about Your Skills 

Modesty is an important cultural value in China, and an important part of business negotiations. If you end up talking too much about yourself, you might come across as disconnected from the interests of your interviewer, and harm the possibility of forming a trusting relationship. In Chinese negotiations, making a deal seem too good, or trying to push a win-win narrative might arouse suspicion. During an interview, try to understand what your interviewer is looking to hear. If the interviewer seems to have heard enough about any particular point you may be trying to make, move on. From the Chinese perspective, it is better to avoid the possibility of alienating your audience than to try and get across all the details of your skills and work history. Instead of extolling your qualifications, you might instead talk about how excited you are to take on the new and unique challenges the company offers. Due to the developing state of many Chinese companies, foreigners will often be hired because they are the right "attitude fit" for the company rather than the right fit in terms of qualifications. Balance being modest about your skills with an optimistic outlook on potential to grow within the company, and you should be well-positioned to land a great job opportunity.



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