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    To Boost Career, Young Chinese Focus on ‘Emotional Intelligence’

    In a tough job market, acquiring self-confidence and social skills can give workers a competitive edge.
    Feb 20, 2024#urban China

    Two years into his job in the appliance industry, Jiang Lei observed that his career was going nowhere, while co-workers seemed to be cashing in on promotions and recognition.

    “They don’t work as diligently as I do, but they excel in interpersonal relationships and seem to climb the career ladder faster,” the 28-year-old Jiang tells Sixth Tone. “That made me wonder if there were special skills or perhaps aspects of my mindset that I needed to address.”

    Jiang reflected on moments where he overlooked social nuances, such as missing the right moment to toast his boss or struggling to decline trivial requests from colleagues.

    As a result, he sought out what are called “emotional intelligence quotient” (EQ) courses on social media.

    In 2022, he found such courses offered by the Chinese celebrity talent agent and entrepreneur Yang Tianzhen on the Instagram-style social platform Xiaohongshu. Her classes aim to address challenges in the workplace.

    As he delved deeper into his studies, Jiang pursued more tailored courses on issues such as dinner socializing, business acumen, and interpersonal relations provided by other influencers, which carried fees ranging from 199 to 3,000 yuan ($28–$421) per course.

    In his spare time, Jiang now dedicates himself to studying everything from economics to psychology. He also shares his experience with friends, who he found encountered similar challenges and issues in their workplaces.

    Many young professionals globally are eager to improve their competitive advantage in labor markets suffering from massive layoffs and economic downturns. Some of the world’s biggest tech companies have collectively laid off over 150,000 workers by January 2023; large-scale layoffs within Chinese internet companies commenced in 2022.

    Online instructors proclaiming themselves to be “social-skills experts” use keywords like “involution,” “challenging job prospects,” and “intense industry competition” to entice young professionals into paying fees for their courses.

    Ma Caiying, an employee at a human resource services company in the southern city of Guangzhou, says many companies realize the importance of “emotional intelligence” and are trying to integrate it into their training courses, particularly focusing on areas such as team building and communications.

    Ma adds that she provides training tailored to the job, such as deploying different approaches in dealing with clients from state-owned and foreign companies. However, she says that most online emotional intelligence classes are targeted toward building utilitarian skills, such as communicating with bosses or getting along with co-workers.

    She also stresses the importance of “genuine interaction” with clients because customers prefer to view employees as individuals rather than purely business contacts.

    Meanwhile, Jiang says he thinks his work-related problems at the appliance company stem from a strict upbringing in the eastern province of Shandong, which left him introverted and uncomfortable in social settings.

    “I seem to have difficulty integrating into a group,” says Jiang, who describes himself as a loner outside of work. “I feel very constrained at banquets or drinking sessions. I don’t know what to say or do: Should I toast at this moment? How should I respond when my boss says something?”

    His EQ courses set him on a transformational journey. Among other things, he learned how to speak up more confidently when he had something to say, how to make eye contact during conversations with others, and how to deflect uncomfortable questions.

    Additionally, he learned to embrace the social rule of “catering to others’ preferences,” which allowed him to go from escaping into solitude to becoming more socially engaged.

    For instance, he was initially resistant to participating in group activities like drinking, smoking, and playing cards with colleagues. However, after mastering better social skills, he has been able to at least pretend that he enjoys such activities, gradually becoming part of a group. This closer association with co-workers gave him access to a lot of inside information that helped him navigate troubles at work.

    Jiang says the emotional intelligence courses also improved his self-confidence and articulation. He learned strategies to navigate potentially awkward situations, such as responding to colleagues who questioned his work habits. These newfound skills empowered him to be more assertive in his relations with others.

    “I’m no longer the person who can’t say no,” Jiang tells Sixth Tone.

    Qi Xingye, 24, has undertaken five internships in the financial industry since 2021. He no longer believes that social etiquette and the intricacies of interpersonal relations at work are irrelevant issues.

    Advice he received on social media platforms like Xiaohongshu woke him up to a different attitude toward his job and the people he worked with.

    “That’s just part of how the rules of the game work in this industry,” Qi says.

    Zhang Meng, 26, who works in China’s eastern tech hub Hangzhou, says she believes emotional intelligence in a job is something that can come naturally without structured training.

    “Once you’re hired, you will have to be familiar with a company’s culture and you naturally adapt to it,” she says.

    Zhang says practical experience and exposure to different environments can significantly contribute to one’s emotional intelligence. She has expanded her social circle and networking skills by attending offline courses on a variety of subjects.

    “You may be able to learn something in an emotional intelligence class,” she says. “In practice, though, only by learning a lesson you will know what to do next time.”

    Zhang admits she has explored courses by Yang Tianzhen, noting that many people are drawn to these lessons out of a personal longing to replicate the image presented by the popular influencer.

    “Everyone aspires to become someone like her,” Zhang says. “What she is selling is a lifestyle.”

    Yang, 39, was born to a working-class family in the eastern city of Nanjing and majored in directing at the Communication University of China before becoming a successful entrepreneur.

    First working as a talent agent, Yang established her own Beijing-based entertainment company, Easy Entertainment, at age 29. Six years later, she decided to make plus-size women’s clothing, which she found woefully lacking in shops, and began livestreaming to promote fashion lines that proved a splash in a relatively untapped market then.

    Once a rather plain-looking woman, Yang attributes her transformation into a flamboyant dresser and trend influencer through books and motivational talks. Her unflagging confidence and sheer drive made her an online icon.

    The influence of social media is important in the emotional intelligence trend. On platforms like Xiaohongshu, popular posts feature small quizzes raising issues that may arise in job interviews.

    For example: “If six bosses are attending a meeting but you’ve only set out five bottles of water for them, what would you do?” or “If you give your boss a box of tea, how would you tactfully explain that the tea is expensive?”

    While netizens enthusiastically discuss these tests, human resources professional Ma says that such questions don’t typically occur in job interviews. In her experience, they instead focus on determining an individual’s understanding and competence for a job.

    Gen-Z in China, Ma says, are seeking an egalitarian work environment and a balance between work and life.

    “If recruiters mention that the company might require ‘emotional intelligence skills’ or attention to communication with leaders, candidates might well ask if there are management issues within a company or if the corporate culture is too bureaucratic,” she explains.

    As a beneficiary of EQ courses, Jiang recognizes why young people may want to learn social rules and the logic behind them. Still, he suggests that people temper their enthusiasm on such online tests, contending that an optimistic attitude toward the workplace environment is what works best.

    “I believe that truly capable people can be flexible and deal with everything,” he said.

    Or as Yang Tianzhen famously advises millions of her followers: “Always respect your heart and use it against the world.”

    Contributions: Zhang Han.

    (Header image: Visuals from Sean Gladwell/VCG and Batshevs/VectorStock, reedited by Sixth Tone)