WeChat blurs work and life in China

Michelle Zhang
Apr 6, 2018 · 6 min read

For anyone working with people in China, you will inevitably encounter WeChat. It has taken over so many facets of China’s culture.

Surprised that a mobile app can represent culture? It’s true though, WeChat fundamentally changed my mindset and behavior on how I interact with the people around me.

The Western work culture puts boundaries on work vs. personal interactions

Coming from North America, there is an unwritten code of conduct for what is appropriate in professional vs. personal interactions. Let’s call it the “Pro-code.” It looks something like this:

When you meet someone in a work context, you mentally route them to the professional realm. Get introduced to a new colleague? Okay to add them on LinkedIn and write to their work email. Not okay to add them on Facebook or text their personal number. Must respect the boundaries, must respect the “Pro-code.”

Of course, there are ways to cross-over to the personal realm, but it’s a delicate process that takes months or years to nurture. With a co-worker, maybe a couple of months after you engage in some office social gatherings and offline heart-to-hearts. With a boss, maybe never… Even today, when I see some previous managers pop up on my Facebook recommendations, I shudder and ignore. My point is: in North America we tend to compartmentalize the professional and personal worlds as separate.

China’s WeChat combines work and personal interactions

In China however, it’s a brave new world thanks to WeChat. The “Pro-code” does not exist. Instead it’s a fusion of everything that matters in life. Here is a helpful slideshare deck to see what that means. WeChat has monopolized how Chinese interact with technology and people. It has superseded email, phone, social media, and more! This simple snapshot of my WeChat homepage should be telling:

Back in the States, my primary use case for WeChat was to communicate with my parents. They live in Canada, and it was a simple way to stay in touch and call each other for free. For years, my benchmark for using WeChat was in the most personal of realms.

The moment I started working on the China team, my perceptions of WeChat imploded. I got pulled into a WeChat group for our work team. I was instantly connected to colleagues who I had yet to meet. Even more bizarre, I could immediately see into snippets their personal world. This is made possible by a WeChat feature called Moments, which is like a Facebook feed where users can share pictures, articles, and status updates. For example, before I met our Head of Sales in person, I already knew that she had a young son because it was on her profile picture and her Moments feed. My “Pro-code” trained mind was blown to pieces. Should I be allowed to see this? This feels overwhelmingly inappropriate!

Imagine my gnawing dissonance as I continued to reconcile with this new reality. Suddenly, my WeChat notifications were not of my Mom tenderly checking in on my well-being, it was someone on my team asking me to explain a data point on a slide. These work requests didn’t always happen during work hours either. But because it was camouflaged as text messaging, my brain was conditioned to respond. Yet, other times the notifications were of teammates sharing useful articles and news relevant to our jobs, or sending cute emoji stickers to each other to celebrate small wins. In those moments, I felt like I was part of a tight-knit family. Should I think of these people as friends or colleagues? As time went on, I couldn’t categorize anymore.

Is WeChat’s impact on work culture positive or negative?

Initially, I struggled with my professional and personal worlds collapsing together. Now that I have had time to adjust, I believe that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. First, WeChat’s product design encourages users to curate a more holistic digital identity, which in turn feels more authentic. It is a fascinating hybrid between LinkedIn and Facebook. The product allows me to humanize an acquaintance without intruding on their privacy. The net impact is that it expedites bonding and relationship-building internally. It facilitates trust externally as well, especially in China where personal relationships (“guanxi”) make all the difference. When I see my sales colleagues in action with customers, they connect first on WeChat and use that as their primary communication tool.

Second, instant messaging gets things done faster. Why send emails when some questions can be resolved over text in minutes? The casual-ness of texting also makes it feel less like work. I used to have a mental block against phone texting at work. In North America it’s either a sign that you’re slacking off, or a warning that your manager is hunting you down for an emergency. But in China, this kind of stigma does not apply.

On the other hand, the drawback is that going offline is no longer an option. I can attest that China’s work culture doesn’t give as much attention to work-life balance. People work late hours and on weekends, and it’s seen as normal. Ironically, it’s a testament to the hardworking spirit that the Chinese are so proud of. It’s the very quality that drives China’s rapid economic growth. They don’t see it as detractor; they see it as a motivator. Not to say that it’s an entirely healthy lifestyle, but it wouldn’t induce the same level of fervent protest as it would in the West. I’ve personally managed to find a new balance in this integrated world. Yes I do answer messages after work, but I don’t think it’s disrupting my personal life. It just becomes a part of life, and my happiness level is no less than before.

Does technology shape culture? Or does culture shape technology?

Some of you may wonder, perhaps WeChat is merely a digital reflection of what Chinese people already do? If you ask me, I don’t think so. WeChat transformed behavior. Five years ago when I first worked in China for a tech company, WeChat was not a thing. The work culture back then followed the “Pro-code.” When meeting someone at work, you start in the professional realm, and gradually upgrade to personal realm after gaining mutual consent. No one gets automatic access into another’s personal world. Granted, I do remember cross-overs in China happening much faster and more often, but there was a line nonetheless. Since then, the rise of mobile and WeChat has disintegrated this line.

Could a product like WeChat change behavior in North America? If we can go back in time, I’m inclined to believe that it could have. Cultural differences aside, I think the curiosity to understand someone’s holistic identity is universal. Western companies acknowledge that facilitating personally meaningful relationships is powerful. Why else would job interviews include questions on hobbies and interests? Why else would companies fund social events to help employees get to know each other? But the reality is that there are competing products like Facebook, LinkedIn, Hangouts, iMessage, Whatsapp, Slack, etc, each vying for slightly different use cases. Digital identities are fragmented, and it throws the effort back on the real-life users to piece things together. Technology has shaped Western work culture in a completely different way. Trying to change this now would be extremely difficult.

Is one work culture better than the other? I don’t think there’s an objectively conclusive answer. Although having experienced both sides, I must say that WeChat is winning.

WeChat — the app to rule them all!

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Michelle Zhang

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Lived in China, Canada, USA, Singapore. Writing on cross-cultural awareness and effective communication.