News - April 14, 2015

Blog: My crisis of addressing colleagues

No kidding: the longer I’ve been in Beijing, the more troubles I have in addressing people at work.

In China there are certain rules for appellation. Often, you can formally address people by their profession. For instance, you can call all the teaching staff - lecturers or professors - 老师 (lao shi), which literally means old master. However, when it comes to colleagues, superiors or subordinates, things get more complicated: the thought of hierarchy is still heavily ingrained in Chinese society.

One typical example is 总 (zong4). This term is getting epidemically popular nowadays. The Chinese character means chief/general and is combined with other characters to describe many big titles, such as 总经理 (general manager) and 总裁 (president or director). Such a VIP would be mannerly addressed by his/her surname + 总. But nowadays its usage has been extensively expanded beyond its original meaning and it is widely abused to address anyone who you think maybe holds a relatively high rank at an organisation.

Every now and then I even receive cold calls and the strangers on the phone will refer to me as 盘总,Manager Pan. In fact, my real title is Technical Assistant, which is at the bottom of the pile at my company. I feel super uneasy being called that way: not only because I don't think I deserve it, but also because I think they use it because they want to sell me something. Hypocrites.

My biggest dilemma is how I should address my current supervisor. I came to know him via Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, before I started working with him. I addressed him with 老师, teacher, to show my respect. However, things have changed since my first day in the office. At work he wants to be addressed with 总. However, I am so opposed to hierarchy that initially I found it hard to say that to him. The more I call him 总, the less genuine respect I have for him, because I have to say it without sincerilly feeling that way. I wish he had an English name so that the invisible hierarchy between us could be eliminated.

If you have any smart solution for my trouble, please email me via 

After an MSc in Wageningen, a year in the Student Council and a year of working in the Netherlands, Derek is back in China. With his Wageningen diploma, he found a job in Beijing. And he's back blogging for Resource.