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Photo Credit: Li Si
SOCIAL CHINESE

How to Navigate the Jargon of a Chinese Job Interview

Learn to decipher the opaque language of interviewers and use wordplay to land a dream job

It’s the job-hunting season. The New Year holiday is over, work plans for 2024 have just begun, and workers have received their year-end bonus—it’s time to find new opportunities. But even in this golden period for job openings, it’s not easy to find a dream position, especially not while China’s economy continues to recover from the pandemic.

The biggest hurdle for job hunters though, is the interview process. These intense Q&A sessions are further complicated by the use of 面试黑话 (miànshì hēihuà), interview jargon employed by both interviewers and prospective employees to hide their true colors and intentions. Decoding the hidden meanings behind such expressions (and using some of them at the proper moment) is vital for mastering interviews and bagging the ideal job.

Recruiters have a range of phrases to entice the best candidates to their organization, exaggerating the company’s strengths while hiding its shortcomings. For example, when the interviewer says “There is a lot of room for development in this job (工作有很大发展空间 Gōngzuò yǒu hěn dà fāzhǎn kōngjiān”), the truth is that they are offering a low-level position. Similarly, “there are many training opportunities (有很多锻炼机会 yǒu hěn duō duànliàn jīhuì)” generally means the workload is excessive.

When it comes to specific matters such as salary and benefits, the interviewer’s main aim is to avoid important details:

The salary is not lower than the industry average.

Xīnzī bù dīyú hángyè píngjūn shuǐpíng.

薪资不低于行业平均水平。

The trick here is that though the interviewer reveals nothing, the job seeker often won’t probe further for fear of seeming ignorant. Companies will also often avoid guarantees:

The salary will be adjusted annually based on personal performance.

Měinián xīnzī huì gēnjù gōngzuò yèjì tiáozhěng.

每年薪资会根据工作业绩调整。

The subtext is that there is no guarantee of a regular salary increase.

Such language skills run throughout the entire interview. If the team is a small start-up, interviewers may say: “The team members are young and energetic (团队年轻有活力 Tuánduì niánqīng yǒu huólì)”; a department that has just been set up and has an uncertain future will be described as having “huge potential in this business direction (业务方向有潜力 yèwù fāngxiàng yǒu qiánlì).” On the other hand, a company with redundant personnel and rigid rules will boast about its “complete organizational structure and mature management system (完善的组织结构和成熟的管理制度 wánshàn de zǔzhī jiégòu hé chéngshú de guǎnlǐ zhìdù).”

Meaning often lies not in what is said, but in the hidden information behind it. A “daily shuttle bus (班车接送 bānchē jiēsòng)” means that the office is located in some remote area where there is no public transportation. “Three free meals a day (免费三餐 miǎnfèi sān cān)” means that there will be late-night overtime.

Interviewers use a range of language to disguise the truth of overtime work:

We adopt flexible working hours.

Wǒmen cǎiqǔ tánxìng gōngzuòzhì.

我们采取弹性工作制.

Naturally, these flexible working hours refer only to the leaving time, not the start. Besides, with no fixed clocking-off time, employers hope to avoid overtime pay no matter how long workers stay after 5 p.m.

Of course, job seekers also have their own jargon system to extract the best offer. The most basic strategy is to magnify their strengths and downplay weaknesses in the interview. For example, having worked on a few documents and slides becomes “proficient in Microsoft Office software (精通办公软件操作 jīngtōng bàngōng ruǎnjiàn cāozuò).” Previous positions they barely held become ones where they were “deeply involved in the project and accumulated rich experience (深度参与该项目,积累了丰富经验 shēndù cānyù gāi xiàngmù, jīlěile fēngfù jīngyàn).”

If prospective employees have no experience to embellish, there’s always the all-purpose response:

I am a fast learner.

Wǒ xuéxí nénglì hěn qiáng.

我学习能力很强。

While employers may say they value honesty, tough questions require delicate handling. For example, when responding to the question “What are your weaknesses?” most job-seekers will avoid describing how they struggle with time management or often argue with colleagues and instead resort to humble bragging:

I am too much of a perfectionist.

Wǒ zài gōngzuò zhōng tài wánměizhǔyì le.

我在工作中太完美主义了。

Another tricky question is about the reason for leaving a previous job. Employees may have hated their boss or lost motivation but should be tactful in an interview. If the reason was low salary and no room for promotion, one can use:

I have accumulated experience, and my work results have been recognized, so I want to try something more challenging.

Wǒ jīlěile yídìng de jīngyàn, gōngzuò chéngjì yě shòudàole rènkě, suǒyǐ xiǎng chángshì gèng yǒu tiǎozhàn de gōngzuò.

我积累了一定的经验,工作成绩也受到了认可,所以想尝试更有挑战性的工作.

If corporate culture got them down, they might say:

The humanized management style of your company is very attractive to me. I believe I can further exert my abilities here.

Gùì gōngsī rénxìnghuà de guǎnlǐ fēnggé hěn xīyǐn wǒ, xiāngxìn zài zhèlǐ gèng néng fāhuī wǒ de nénglì.

贵公司人性化的管理风格很吸引我,相信在这里更能发挥我的能力。

One former taboo is becoming more accepted nowadays though. China’s spluttering economy means it’s no longer a disaster to admit being laid off. Interviewees can put on a smile and say:

Some personnel changes have been made in my department. So, you know...

Wǒ suǒ zài de bùmén zuòle yìxiē rénshì tiáozhěng. Suǒyǐ nǐ dǒng de...

我所在的部门做了一些人事调整。所以,你懂的……

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How to Navigate the Jargon of a Chinese Job Interview is a story from our issue, “Education Nation.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine.

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