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Differences & Similarities Between Eastern and Western Work Cultures

In the summer after high school, I was provided a rare opportunity to work as a part-time accounting assistant for a Chinese company in California. For a fresh high school grad, an office job behind a desk and making above minimum wage was almost a dream come true at the time. To this day, I am grateful for the experience, as it helped me prepare for decades of fruitful careers.

After a summer keying data entries of accounts payable records, the general manager recruited me to work full-time in their Product Management dept managing events and trade marketing while I was attending college. The job not only provided me with functional business training and sharpened my time management skill, but it also taught me great discipline around work ethics. Back in the day, working till 8 pm was considered normal (office hours are 8 am – 5 pm.) I recall one time I was scheduled to meet with my study group at 6 pm, and I ran into my boss just as I was walking out the door; she said to me, “Hey, so why are you leaving early today? What do you have going on?” I didn’t think much of it at the time and shared that I was late for my study group. The interaction later left a notable impression on me, especially after I started to work in mainstream American companies.

I worked at that Chinese company on and off for about four years throughout my college days, and I never once heard anyone talk about work/life balance at the company. Instead, I often heard people talk about when they came into the office over the weekend or how late they stayed the night before. All of this seemed to reflect it was a “badge of honor” or some type of proof that they were more devoted and successful than those that didn’t work a significant amount of overtime.

Even though I’ve not worked for a Chinese company since then, I’ve often thought about the contrasting work culture between the East and the West. Work culture is an integral part of every society, and it can vary significantly across different regions of the world. The differences and similarities between Eastern and Western work cultures are insightful to explore. In today’s blog, we will delve into the details of the work culture in both regions, highlighting specific examples of their practices.

Eastern Work Culture

The Eastern work culture is primarily associated with countries in Asia, such as Japan, China, and South Korea. These countries are known for their collective culture, which prioritizes group harmony over individual goals. Eastern work culture is deeply ingrained in the traditions, customs, and values of these societies, and it influences how people interact with each other and conduct business.

One of the essential aspects of Eastern work culture is the hierarchy. In these societies, seniority and age play a significant role in determining the pecking order in the workplace. The older and more experienced employees are given greater respect and authority rather than their actual performance contribution. For example, in Japan, it is customary for the junior staff to serve the senior staff tea. Or in Hong Kong, associates that are most junior are to head to restaurants to hold seating until more senior colleagues arrive for lunch. Both gestures may seem outrageous in the Western world but are customary in the East.

Another characteristic of Eastern work culture is the emphasis on group collaboration. In these societies, teamwork and consensus-building are highly valued, and employees are expected to work together to achieve shared goals. The collective approach to work is evident in the decision-making process, where decisions are made by consensus rather than by an individual.

Additionally, Eastern work culture places a high value on hard work, dedication, and discipline. In Japan, for example, it is customary for employees to work long hours, and taking a vacation or sick leave is seen as a sign of weakness. In China, diligence is regarded as a core virtue, and there is a saying that goes, "No pains, no gains."

Western Work Culture

Western work cultures are known for their individualistic culture, which places greater emphasis on personal achievement and success than on group harmony. Western work culture is influenced by the capitalist system, and it values competition, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

One of the essential aspects of Western work culture is merits. In these societies, promotion and advancement are based on accomplishments and performance rather than on seniority or age. Employees are expected to take initiative, demonstrate their abilities, and produce results. For example, in the United States, it is common for more employees to be rewarded for their achievements through promotions, bonuses, and stock options, and those rewards are seldom provided with consideration to the employee’s seniority.

Another characteristic of Western work culture is the emphasis on individual achievement. In these societies, success is often measured by personal accomplishments, such as earning a degree or starting a business. The individualistic approach to work is evident in the decision-making process, where decisions are often made by an individual rather than by consensus.

Additionally, Western work culture places a high value on work-life balance. In these societies, employees are encouraged to take time off, pursue hobbies and interests, and maintain a healthy lifestyle. In the Netherlands, for example, working moms often work less than 35 hours per week, and they are still entitled to almost four weeks of paid vacation per year.

Similarities and Difference

Despite the fundamental differences between Eastern and Western work cultures, there are also some similarities. For example, both cultures place a high value on professionalism, punctuality, and communication.

In both societies, it is essential to dress appropriately, arrive on time for meetings, and communicate effectively with colleagues and clients.

Another similarity is the importance of networking. In both Eastern and Western societies, building relationships is universal for career advancement and success.

However, the approach to networking differs between the two cultures. In the East, networking is often based on personal connections and mutual obligations. Therefore, professional networking is often done in the evening, after work hours, or on the weekends, which ultimately takes away from personal rest and family time. While in the West, professional networking is done through business breakfasts or lunches. Often, companies will host team-building events during work hours to promote social collaboration among co-workers.

As someone who has lived through both work cultures, I’d say it is difficult to pick a side. When I worked for a Chinese company, I didn’t enjoy much of my work-life balance. In exchange, I learned a lot about business, marketing, and developing sales channels. I didn’t care about working a lot of overtime because I was also single and didn’t have many life obligations as a working mother has. However, as I’ve gotten older and started to carry on more life responsibilities as a wife and daughter to aging parents, that’s when I value my work-life balance significantly. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer to whether the Eastern or Western work culture is better, but there is only the right work culture based on what the employee values.


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