Thursday, June 30, 2011

Crossing the line of openness

Sharing food -fine! Sharing salary info... I don't think so!

Back in a hot and humid Shanghai. I would lie if I said I don’t miss Sweden’s blue skies, green fields and fresh air, but then again, I only have another 2 or so weeks at work, then I’m going back to Scandinavia on a holiday, so I’ll manage! In fact, it’s kind of nice to be back, especially since I’ve missed all the everyday craziness (or whatever you should call it? Charm?!) about China. Such as yesterday, when I went to the ladies room (which is located in our office building, rather than inside our actual office, so you have to head out to the elevators to visit the loos) at work.

While I was washing my hands, the ayi who cleans the toilets every day came in. We have a friendly kind of relationship: We greet each other with smiles, hold up doors for each others, small talk about the weather and so on. However, yesterday she took our “relationship” to a whole different level when she asked:

-So you work over there? (pointed towards where my office is located).


-I bet your salary is high.

-Excuse me?

-You salary.

-Eh, yes?

-How much do you make?

-Eh… you want to know how much people in my office… earn?


-It’s different… we all earn different salaries.

-So how much do YOU make?


-What’s your salary?

-Eh… actually… I don’t really want to tell you that. It’s kind of private.

-I bet it’s a lot.

-Eh… not really… eh… I’ve got to go. Bye!

Whoa! What’s that all about? Sure, I know that people in China are open about their salaries (in fact, soon after I started my job I found out that one of my Chinese workmates had gone to our accountant and asked to see my pay-slip. Right. As you normally do. Eh….), but to me, this is taking it a bit too far.


flyingfish said...

Haven't you been asked directly about your salary before now? Like, by cab drivers -- or really anyone else with whom you get chatting?

That was usually the first thing people asked me. (Well, after "why Latin?????") Sometimes they'd just be making small talk, sometimes they'd want to know the going rate, with a view to hiring tutors for their own kids.

I'm really sorry you had to suffer that kind of discomfort. I agree, it does feel like a major invasion of privacy. But I am sure I speak for all your enthusiastic readers when I say that I'm awfully glad you're back in China. We've missed you!

Jen Ambrose said...

One of my American friends was taking a bus in Shenzhen when a complete stranger asked him how much he made. He told him that it should be obvious that it wasn't that much because he was riding a bus, and not just any bus, but the 1 kuai bus (the cheapest public bus in SZ).

Gweipo said...

our teacher taught us to say "比 上 不足,比下有余“ to that question - works like a charm!

Jean said...

And did you ask yourself why does it feel so intrusive to you? Can you find a rational reason why one behavior is better or worse than the other?

I am just genuinely curious. I can understand that you don't want your coworkers to know, as they would compare to their own salary, etc. But in this case, what do you lose by telling her?

mantse said...

just say same as yours... then leave it...some still think a westerner will get much higher than local...

Tom said...

Agree with Jean- why are we so secretive about our salaries? Why is that an invasive? Taking it even further, what would be the problem with telling coworkers? Even if coworkers envy you for a higher salary, I wouldnt want to be around those types anyway.

Joyce Lau said...

I've been asked that so many times in China, and I always fudge it. Like, "Oh, salaries are so different in Hong Kong." Or, "Well, I make enough to stay comfortable." Or "Hey, you think it's going to rain?"

I'm asked less in HK -- usually just by family, like aunts. I still don't say anything. I'm not so nosy as to ask the salaries or my relatives or colleagues. I figure, if they want to tell me they will.

Sometimes HK cabbies will ask how much my flat costs, since everyone's real estate obsessed here. But, again, I fudge it by saying, "My, property's gone up this year, hasn't it?"

China seems obsessed with money. And there is a big difference in basic manners and etiquette.

Any random person will ask not only my salary, but will then go through a laundry list of comparative prices, HK vs. China. (This I don't mind so much).

Jean & Tom -- In most of the world, it's rude to ask someone's salary right out. It's like asking a stranger why they're fat, or how much they weigh, or why they don't have kids, or some other potentially uncomfortable personal thing.

If the person being asked looks uncomfortable or doesn't want to answer, it's even doubly rude to push.

It's such a private thing. I don't tell strangers my salary any more than I tell them my bank account balance, my mortgage payments, my credit card debt or anything else.

While I have a broad idea of what salaries are in my field, I don't know how much my colleagues make, and I think it would be awkward if I did. I've happily been 7 years at my company -- I've never been so rude as to inquire about the personal details of a workmate.

Anonymous said...

My favourite default answer in these situations is 还凑合 :-)

黃愛玲 said...

I think Joyce Lau said it best.

Jonna Wibelius said...

Hey guys, thanks for some interesting comments. I am with Joyce on this one: I think it's a bit rude to ask other people about money. I don't even ask my closest friends back home. If I do, I make sure to say that they don't have to answer first. Some things are just private and I believe things like: how much u make, exactly where u live, details about your sex life, family stuff, if you have a boyfriend/girlfriend, and weight are some things that u don't really ask others about -unless u are close friends. At least that is how I am brought up.

I don't mind sharing details about my private life to my close friends -but not to some cleaning lady that I don't even know the name of? If she would have asked me about how much I weigh I think I would have reacted the same way.

I've been asked about things I consider private by many people, such as teachers and Chinese friends, but never by a complete stranger. Not even by a taxi driver. I guess I've been lucky :)

Anonymous said...

This entry has me really confused.

I really don't find anything rude about asking what someone's salary is while doing small talk. Perhaps it's a distinctively Swedish / Scandinavian thing where it is considered impolite. From an American perspective, I didn't find anything rude in what was described.

Of course, it depends on the context. If a girl is out on a date with a guy, and she comes right out and asks what his salary is, that will be considered rude. If a car salesman asks you how much you make while trying to sell you a car, that's rude. (since it seems he wants to charge you more based on how much you make).

But in the context of small talk like this where it seems like the person is complimenting you, it doesn't seem wrong. She's not really judging you in any way.

Of course, it may be due to the fact that you are a westerner and she is curious because she thinks all westerners make a lot of money. It's a stereotype but at least it's a positive stereotype.

Anonymous said...

i think it's a cultural thing but not a really chinese thing. I had a polish worker who came to australia for three yrs now and was always elbowing me so she could get ahead in having the supervisor favour her more.Of course i've(i'm chinese) been in the company for 6 yrs so she got very competitive and jealous. Totally part of human nature... if you can come to think of it. She sees what other people want, so she wants it too. A spoiltbrat primitive mentality thing.!!

when you live in a foreign country and know that the locals with their menial job don't even barely enuff to survive, so it's understandable why they would ask but yes it is kinda "RUDE" in your standards ... i acknowledge your feelings in talking about this. i think it's also in their agenda to take advantage of you if they knew you were rich cos you earnt way more than them.

I like your response by ending the convo with her there and quickly leave. A most appropriate exit :)

It's rare that you'll encounter a chinese who wont ask about it cos they're not stressed about money or want others have more in life.

ordinary malaysian said...

I think the first Anonymous(is he/she the same person as the 2nd Anonymous?) has go a point. It depends on the situation. If the query is actually a part of friendly conversion, it may even sound rude not to answer. You don't have to say the actual amount you earn. Just mumble a vague figure by way of conversation. After all, most Chinese people ask the question not really to probe, but as part of how they talk to each other. Once you have answered they are not going to bother you again with the same question. Unless they are the kay po (busy body)type, in which case you will know who they are. I like what Gweipo suggested 比上不足, 比下有余(bi shang bu zu, bi xia you yu)i.e fall short of the best but better than the worst.

M J said...

i have just finished reading all the responses and i have to say, it really angers me at most to say...why people don't get it How much we earn in our salary is really solely our business. AND THIS IS NOT A WESTERN WAY OF THINKING OR ETIQUETTE. IT'S JUST GENERAL COMMON SENSE TO BE RESPECTFUL OF THE OTHER PERSON's privacy IN ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.

this question only gets asked if you're applying for a loan or filling out a taxation form or life insurance form.

I can't see how and why this should be part of making friendly PERSONAL convo with strangers/colleagues.

Yes, the chinese commenters would say here "well it's part of our culture!!! this is how we think and make FRIENDLY convo ???". That is so trite and totally bull. Are you so simple minded? Think outside of the box will ya? and stop using culture as an excuse for inappropriate ETIQUETTE in general.

I know this question has been asked of me before and i don't answer to it. Again it seems like it's Asian culture in general to consider it extremely rude when i don't answer their question. That's so stupid. Use your big brains and consider other people's feelings for once. If they don't feel answer straight away = IT MEANS THEY DON'T WANT TO ANSWER IT. YEAH SO DON'T EFFIN FORCE YOUR PERSONAL BELIEF on anybody THAT QUESTION SHOULD BE ANSWERED TILL YOU THINK YOU CAN GET AN ANSWER. RESPECT OTHER PEOPLE'S RIGHTS too?.

M J said...


it's human nature to be competitive and jealous too. Consider that agenda for asking the "how much you earn salary". and First of all, i reserve the right Not to effin answer it. Get it? You're not my mother or father or a close friend. and Why do you need to know in the first place? There are many other things that people can ask or talk about.


ordinary malaysian said...

@MJ, it is not a matter of being simple minded or not or a question of rights. Is it simple minded to ask if you have eaten? This is the Chinese way of greeting. And like it or not, the Chinese people also often ask how much you earn. I myself don't like it either, even though I am Chinese. You don't have to answer if you don't want to. But see, if you can understand that that is the way among the Chinese, you won't feel so offended. And like the wise say, or are they also simple minded?, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. At least, this way, you won't feel so stressed. Nobody's asking you to kill anybody. And what is Etiquette? Is it what the west dictate or is it something naturally universal? Etiquette is often distilled from culture and culture is not universally uniform and certainly not universally agreeable to everyone else. We just need to be a little more sensitive to the culture in which one is in. That said, I agree with you, I don't like to be asked how much I earn, but I understand and I play along. It won't kill me anyway and more importantly, I understand the Chinese people. If they ask you, I know they actually consider you well, notwithstanding that this may sound corny to you. If they don't ask you, rest assured they are not even interested in you. But of course, if you are talking about rights, the Chinese have no right to ask you about how much you earn, and you have the right to tell them off or snicker or remain silent or do whatever you like. But don't talk Etiquette. It sounds so beyond many people. And I am not saying this in anger. I appreciate what you say and despite the fact that I ACTUALLY AGREE you, Chinese people do ask you how much you earn, in China at least, though it doesn't happen so often among the Malaysian Chinese here, it is still part of the way the Chinese talk and behave and operate and a wise person won't try to sound so self-righteous. The other way is just tell off the guy/gal: You are so lacking in etiquette and I won't have anything to do with you! Then just see how uncomprehending the guy/gal would look back at you like as if you are a barbarian which was once how they Chinese people viewed the foreign devils, no offence meant.

M J said...

I have tried several ways of approaching this question. First i bluffed. But they still kept asking or take it as a big insult to their face and use it as an excuse to treat me rudely again and again. My rights as an individual was not respected. These people are from work you know? we have work side by side 5 days out of a week. we did not all surfaced from the jungle civilisation yesterday still living on basic means so they 're not stupid either but just too lazy minded to think better.

You say Do as the romans do in ROme. Empires like rome as great as it was - never lasted, their systems and culture degraded to pillaging other land resources and bashing more skulls to declare the power of the army and invasion of more land and women were treated like they're worth nothing :-P so what is there to say China won't change dramatically? their culture is decadent and stale. THe family /tribe unit is seen as the pillar of existence and as the most functional? this existence will not last as if we're all to act like mindless drones copying what the old ways of the prev. generations to preserve their "identity". this family unit will disintegrate. What about consideration for individuality and freedom of choice? But this soon will change with the younger generation overriding the traditional ways of life.

i do not agree that asking someone what they earn is like asking what they've eaten. When this question is asked out of the blue like that - it indicates superficiality and simple-mindedness and poor conversation starters

ordinary malaysian said...

@MJ, AGREED, your office mates are pests. Tell them off,ignore them or move away. AGREED TOO, empires don't last forever, civilisations longer perhaps. Things change, and it is good they do. And in time too, people may not bother you about your wage. But you are dealing with an extant culture or way of intercourse, or lack of, if you prefer, so what are you going to do? Fight, shout, scream, yell, tell people "you sob!" or go crazy? Relax man/ma'am, or move to another country to earn your wage quietly. Right now nobody can help you as long as you are China, unless of course you have a magic wane. And I wish you had one, seriously, so that magically I too will have less of a problem to deal with even here in Malaysia. And as to your rejoinder that asking whether you have eaten or not is different and not simple minded, well, it is offensive to me and very simple minded. What the B...DY concern is it to you whether I have eaten or not? See, it's one man's meat and another man's poison and how one looks at things. Of course I AM NOT bothered. I know it is part of the way Chinese people greet you, whether you like it or not or whether is is agreeable to you or not. Ditto asking how much you earn, however disagreeable, or uncivilised, or lacking in etiquette it may be to you. You just have to learn to cope. And if you can't then for the sake of your own sanity, don't you think it would be wiser and less maddening to remove yourself from the source of so much sorrow and repugnance? Of course, this is drastic and silly. Why run away from a problem or some disagreement every time one faces difficulties? So let's just pray that the Chinese learn etiquette and match up to civilised ways fast. I sincerely wish it too. But until then I face the same problem as you, only that I try to deal with is a little differently and I hope I won't go crazy.

Alan Yang said...

Chinese are in general more open to matters private to Westerners.
Most Chinese boys don't mind their genitals to each others when going to restrooms. They like to hold their arms on each others' shoulders. They get physically closely all the time growing up.
Asking someone's salary is often done by curious people who know they have no positions in regard to you, in other words, small talks. If they ask you this, it means they like to and want to be friends with you. More educated people are less likely to ask your salary however, they will just be more superficial about things like the Westerners. They want to have their own lives, and not worrying about getting to know you that much.

Anonymous said...

Alan - i don't think that's a making friends convo starter. it's more like "let me find how much money you earn and then i'll be your friend and we'll scratch each other's back, shall we????!". :-P

Malaysian - Not asking for your advice at all. i'm just stating an opinion here...sharing what i resonate with jonna's experiences in this post.

Since She wrote it and i'm taking the opportunity to express myself on this issue. Of course i'm not white. I'm chinese by appearance but not from China.

You're getting too cerebral about this. It is my pain not being able to express what i feel and because the majority think like that... No i don't talk to them that much other than work. We are fully aware of our differences and they can't always step the line with me because that's not the usual asian etiquette to display in the presence of other white people.

it's very hard to read your post completely cos you did not break it in little paragraphs.

Joyce Lau said...

Sorry Anonymous. I have to disagree with you that it's socially acceptable to grill someone on his or her salary in America. It's just not considered a small-talk-type conversation.

I grew up in America, in Connecticut, and it would have been totally rude for a stranger or casual acquaintance to come up to you and ask your salary. If a faux pas like that did happen, it would be double rude to continue to press when the issue clearly made the other person uncomfortable.

I work in an office of expats, mostly Americans, with a few Brits, Canadians, etc. thrown in. And it would be rude for anyone to discuss either their own or anyone else's salary too.

So, no. Not a Swedish thing.

I would say that the same rules apply for my husband's family, who are European.

I only discuss my salary with very close friends and family.

ordinary malaysian said...

@MJ, have you morphed into Anonymous? Or vice versa. Because I certainly wasn't responding to Anonymous. If you are one and the same, although there appears to be more than one Anonymous. Never mind. Don't take it to heart. Cerebral? I don't know. Advice? No, it was more a rebuke. Ah, relax. No point over-flogging a horse.

nausea said...

I've got to agree with MJ on this. I'll also say that the Chinese have no real culture to speak of, so this excuse of "it's just their culture" is just b.s.