What will happen for Chinese after works?
Few US traditions are as likable and marketable as the modern-day after work. While the rest of the anglosphere, and much of Europe in general, will simply say “let’s grab a beer after work”, the Americans have cleverly packaged it into a what might be best described as an alcohol-infused Happy Meal on steroids.
China, itself being no slouch when it comes to consuming alcoholic beverages in a social context, has quickly picked up on the American tradition of “after work:ing”, but with a few uniquely Chinese traits thrown in for good measure.
If you’ve ever worked a day in your life, regardless of country and sector, you have undoubtedly experienced an after work. If you haven’t, you’re either lying to yourself, or can’t remember it. Not that there’s anything wrong with a blackout (or two). And just as after works are now an integral part of the work culture in all of the Western hemisphere, so is it in China.
Working in China is a challenge in and of itself, and has been the topic of many articles and books already. But far less has been written about after works in the country, and especially when comparing how a Chinese boss might differ from a foreign boss, even if both are physically in China.
Let’s dive in!
Chinese after works: Hatching the plan
At 4 p.m. you will see a rather straightforward message from your boss on DingTalk, addressed to everyone in your team in the obligatory group chat. “After work today at 6 p.m.! Everyone must attend, or else they’re fired”. It’s supposed to be interpreted as a joke, but rest assured that any stragglers and no-shows will be ridiculed all night long in that very group chat.
Assuming you have a boss willing to socialize with his or her subjects at all, you can safely assume that it will be planned at least one week in advance. Probably by someone appointed by the boss as a party planner of sorts. Expect to be expected to attend, although no one will know how to stop you from not attending, since you’re a foreigner and all.
Chinese after works: the pre-party, or lack thereof
Staying sober for more than eight hours straight can be a challenge for some (foreign) bosses. Which is why it’s not all-too unlikely to see a bottle of whisky, or a six-pack of beer cans safely stowed away in the drawer or backpack of a foreign manager.
However, this serves a very useful purpose. Chugging alcohol when walking from the office premises to the chosen drinking establishment is more of a sport than an art form. Because the sooner the numbing sensation of the alcohol kicks in, the sooner everyone can forget about the unpaid overtime, the abysmal KPI-performance for this quarter, and the feelings of impending doom.
If cheap alcohol is the life-blood of a foreign boss in a Chinese office, then spending 15 minutes in the toilet, smoking two cigarettes and watching a dozen of 抖音 (that’s TikTok for you) videos on full volume is the equivalent for a Chinese boss. Once finished with this revered ritual, the boss will solemnly exit the makeshift smoking room to find the entire team waiting for the official “走吧”.
This is when the appointed party planner will lead the way to the restaurant. The most important feature of a Chinese after work-friendly restaurant is that they have round tables with lazy Susans, and alcohol. Expect additional cigarettes to be smoked during the trek, regardless if it’s on foot or by DiDi. Alcohol, on the other hand, will not be consumed. And don’t expect to see any of it until the food is served.
Chinese after works: arriving at the place
Since no planning preceded the after work, and no calls were made prior to arriving at the restaurant, you can expect to have to wait to get a table. If there’s a supermarket or convenience store nearby, you can also expect more alcohol to be purchased and consumed while waiting.
Once inside the restaurant, the seating position is anything but arranged. Office hierarchies were thrown out of the window the same second the first beer was cracked open. However, covertly arranging the seating so that the two (badly) concealed office love birds will sit next to each other is just considered good manners.
Arriving at the restaurant is a no-nonsense affair. The restaurant staff will know what’s up, as will your Chinese colleagues. You, and your foreign colleagues (if any), just have to play along and not break anything, and given your sad, sober state, shouldn’t be all that difficult.
Seating, on the other hand, might pose a slightly trickier challenge. Traditionally, the boss (also known as “the person who pays”), would sit so that they faced the door, in case a warring clan decided to crash the party. Also, the most important person should sit on their right side. If you happen to notice that the seat to the right of your Chinese boss is free, do not sit there unless explicitly told by the boss to do so. Concealed love birds are, surprisingly enough, openly ridiculed and teased, much to the surprise of even the most outgoing Westerners.
Chinese after works: the after work itself
As the evening slowly succumbs into a blurry haze, you will be reminded that no topic is too raunchy or inappropriate to discuss with a foreign boss. Your hollow-eyed colleague from rural Oklahoma will happily admit that he’s got yellow fever. The Danish lady with blue hair sporting an undersized XXL Doctor Who T-shirt will admit she actually does prefer tall guys with well-defined jawlines.
Given the immense peer pressure from the Western-styled after work culture, your Chinese colleagues might eventually admit things they would normally never openly disclose, such as their preference for Sailor Moon over the Calabash Brothers. And worse.
For your own sake, but more so for your Chinese colleagues’ sake, do your best to steer the conversation away from politics, because you know that topic will eventually be covered. And that’s an unnecessary risk in every sense of the word.
Even though your colleagues seem completely flustered after slowly sipping on a Yanjing beer for the past couple of hours, they soldier on. Topics may include which type of mooncake is the best one, the latest celebrity gossip on Weibo, and office gossip. Discussions might even slip into the dangerous territory of foreign movies, and especially the Marvel universe if there are enough bespectacled young Chinese guys in sweatpants present.
Some rebellious fools who spiked their own beers with baijiu might try to instigate some more risque topics to discuss, but will most likely be ignored, or simply forced away from the table. If you have enough foreigners attending the after work, you can safely assume you will all find yourself eventually sitting together and re-enact the type of after work you secretly wish you had attended.
Your Chinese boss is likely to keep a low profile for most of the time. Unless they decide to say something, at which point you will listen. Everyone will. Never interrupt your Chinese boss. Also, expect there to be a lot of toasting. Therefore, it’s wise to make sure you never sit around with an empty glass.
Chinese after works: the day after
Setting aside the pounding headache and the call you made on the porcelain telephone late last night, you will (probably) be forgiven for not being at the top of your game in the office the day after. Your colleagues will all be in the same boat.
Anything and everything disclosed the night before will either be forgotten or forgiven the day after. This also means that the new project you talked about last night – the one that would save the company billions of dollars is also, sadly, missing from the minds of everyone who was unfortunate enough to have listened to your drunken ramblings.
Traditionally, business in China was always conducted while the stakeholders were in a varying state of intoxication. That’s probably how they ended up with the CCTV headquarters in Beijing, but I digress…
While you might be spared the pounding headache of a foreign boss-led after work, you will also quickly realize that you will be (to a much higher degree) be held liable for any word(s) uttered the night before. This might be a good thing if you really do have an idea on how to save the company billions of dollars, just make sure your boss was at the table when you held your improvised meeting.
All in all, after works are a nice way to unwind after work (hence the name). Having a team lead by a foreigner will usually yield a very different experience compared to a team lead by a Chinese boss. Both have their pros and cons.
Related: FAQs of Foreigners Working in China
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