5 tips for studying in China or working with Chinese colleagues

On the last day of our China Week we have some tips for you: What do you need to know if you plan an exchange semester in China or work in intercultural teams with Chinese colleagues? 5 recommendations from Dr. Xinhua Wittmann, our expert for intercultural management topics at the Department of Business Administration and Director of the MAS in European and Chinese Business Management:

Tip 1: Working in cross-cultural teams: The stronger helps the weaker.

Be aware that group dynamics is generally higher in Swiss teams, because everyone is expected to contribute. Equality among team members and competitiveness play an important role. By contrast, Chinese have a collectivist culture in which the stronger is expected to help the weaker. It is therefore perfectly accepted if the stronger takes more work load. Also note that the Chinese don’t have a clear border between private and school/business life, while the Swiss may well be able to be tough in work, while being friends in private.

Tip 2: Studying in China: Less interaction, more learning by heart.

In China professors are in the center and it is their role to provide answers. There is generally less interaction and more learning by heart. In Switzerland, however, students are in the center, and they are encouraged to not only know the answers, but to find new questions. Professors are expected to inspire. Important in China: Critical questions or disagreement with professors’ opinions are usually not discussed in public, but rather dealt with in a one-to-one meeting.

Xinhua Wittmann
"In today’s business world, you need not only analytical, emotional, social and strategic intelligence, but also cultural intelligence." Xinhua Wittmann

Tip 3: Prepare yourself for an exchange semester: Test and improve your cultural intelligence.

It is completely normal that you will experience a culture shock when moving to China for an exchange semester. 4 factors help you to make it a success: be aware that there are differences, know the differences, be open and motivated to learn about a new culture and also use your knowledge (e.g. body language). In the course “Intercultural Management” you can test your intercultural intelligence and learn how to improve it.

Tip 4: Know the differences but stay authentic: More hierarchies, more loyalty, more risk.

There are three important differences you should know about. First, hierarchies and centralized decision structures are more pronounced in China than here. Second, as mentioned, the Chinese are a collectivist society and people are integrated in groups which provide members with protection in exchange for loyalty. Harmony should always be maintained and confrontation avoided. Third and in contrast to the Swiss, Chinese are high risk-takers, they consider uncertainty as something normal. Therefore, they are generally more flexible and need less regulation and structure than the Swiss are used to. Know about these differences and be respectful, but stay true to yourself - nobody expects you to become a perfect Chinese!

Tip 5: Go abroad!

Spending a semester abroad is a highly valuable experience: personally, but also professionally. In today’s business world, you need not only analytical, emotional, social and strategic intelligence, but also cultural intelligence, which can be enhanced through studying in different cultural environments. Use your chance to go abroad!

How is it for Xinhua Wittmann herself to move between the two cultures?

“I live in Zurich for 29 years now and have being trying to adapt to the local habits. I would say I am bi-cultural. But still today, when I travel to China or when I return to Zurich, I need a day or two to switch myself again. As such our horizon becomes broader and enriching.”