The case of the effusive businessman – Succeeding in China with charm

For some reason, I’ve been brought to a number of business meetings even though I am in no way a businessman. Yet, I’ve been a part of making decisions related to hiring and forging partnerships. Today I thought I’d share a few cases that may prove of some use to those of you looking to succeed in China.

The case of the effusive businessman

An older white man sits down at a table full of Chinese faces. With a strong Aussie accent he manages to say in Chinese, “Hello, I’m very happy to be here with you today.” The meeting begins with laughter, and whispers of how good his Chinese is (even though it really isn’t). Over the course of the meetings and meals he shares his observations on the simple joys of Chinese life; things like seeing the elderly folk exercise in the park, the challenges of learning Chinese, and the wonderful flavors of Chinese food. The man extols the values of Chinese culture as he pushes new dishes on the other foreign delegates, and encourages them to speak a few basic phrases in Chinese (which were grammatically incorrect).

At the end of the day, he has secured an agreement to begin a 10 year research program that will require his partners to invest a large sum of money. In all honesty, his partner is gaining little more than face by entering such a deal (it tackles a problem that China doesn’t actually have), and yet his effusive spirit has convinced them that it is a worthwhile endeavor.

The man succeeded by showing a genuine interest in China which conveyed his level of commitment to the project. The Chinese delegation was surprised to see a foreign businessman who had bothered to learn more than just “Ni hao” and “Xiexie;” most potential partners apologize for their lack of language skills and claim that they are simply involved in too many countries to manage more. Moreover he didn’t stop at learning a bit of the language, but also read a few books on Chinese history, and quoted a famous saying from Mao Zedong to everyone’s delight.

All in all, his efforts probably took a little over 20 hours of study, or roughly the time it takes to fly from the East coast of the US to Beijing or Shanghai, but left a remarkable impression on the Chinese delegation (which I was a part of). As naive as he might have sounded with his sweeping claims that all elderly Chinese are happy, it played very well to his audience. I know this may seem like common sense, but you would be surprised by the number of people who undermine their own efforts by not taking time to learn about more than just China’s economy.

The case of the sickly teacher

Another time I was asked to attend a banquet for a prospective foreign teacher at my school in Guangxi. Bear in mind that it was a very low paying job in a remote town (2 hours away by bus from the nearest KFC), the school knew very few foreigners were willing to accept such a position and had decided they would hire virtually anyone who walked through the door.

Again, it was an elderly man, and he had just finished the long trip from Taiwan where he had met an agent to find him a job in the mainland. The man was sick and exhausted. At lunch he hardly talked, complained about the liquor, and didn’t eat much of anything without asking what exactly it was. He hadn’t bothered learning about China, and bumbled through lunch with comments about how the staff should know more about western customs to make their guests more comfortable. For the most part he only talked with me instead of engaging with the school’s vice-president and the dean of the English department; he left that to the agent assuming she would dispense pleasantries on his behalf.

When the meal ended he moved his suitcases into the apartment that had been set aside for the new teacher and headed to the supermarket to buy supplies. A moment after I got to my apartment, the head of foreign affairs called to ask me what I had thought of the new teacher. I flipped the question back on her before answering, and she replied that the leaders had some concerns about him – he wasn’t friendly. Within the hour the school had the man back on a bus to Nanning (4 1/2 hours away), wishing him good luck in finding a job somewhere else.

I’ve seen this several times – the expat that expects his/her future employer to bend to western culture and accept that anything they do should be excused because of their lack of understanding. Both businessmen and foreign teachers expressing surprise that “a sure thing” has suddenly slipped from their grasp due to a different kind of naivete than that displayed by the effusive businessman.

Again it seems like common sense, but in China, learning even a little about the culture, the language, and the history can be all it takes to quickly build friendships, and failing to do so can be all it takes to sour a deal.

18 responses to “The case of the effusive businessman – Succeeding in China with charm”

  1. Good idea, not just in China. I’m an instructor, and we have a saying: “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”. Nobody expects you to be perfect, but putting in the effort counts.

  2. Musta Lammas says:

    I think there is a point to be taken here, but in the case of the teacher, I think “beggars can’t be choosers” might reasonably apply. Neither party can reasonably expect jubilation from the other where there might be reluctance. Relocation from Taiwan to a town on the Mainland two hours away – by bus – from the nearest KFC? I can understand the teacher’s lack of enthusiasm. Few laowai are ready for that side of China IMO.

  3. Lorin Yochim says:

    Well said, Tom. I’m curious, after flipping the question, did you openly agree with the head of foreign affairs? 😉

    • Tom says:

      I did, the guy didn’t seem very qualified to teach, and mumbled when he spoke.

      • Mitchell says:

        So then why even invite him across the straits with the presumption of employment? Was a telephone interview so unimagineable? This sounds like a situation of a recruiter finding any warm body with white skin, despite measurable reservations, just to show to the superiors that somebody was doing his job.

  4. C. says:

    I’m not so sure. I’ve seen tons of grouchy old businessmen do just fine. As long as you can pay, you can play. I would be curious to see what Dan at China Law Blog would think of the gregarious businessman’s eventual contract terms. IME, there’s no relationship between the niceties at the banquet hall and the business outcomes. It all comes down to your capital, your IP, and your comfort with win-lose strategies in contract negotiations.

    I’ve also seen tons of grouchy English teachers do well here. The difference is they tend to be young and male. Women and older men don’t get any leeway.

  5. Bob Hale says:

    I’ve seen this recently at the school where I teach in Baiyin.
    My co-teacher left to work in another a city and his replacement arrived. Right from the start the school seemed to take against him. I went in to observe him and although his class was a little flat and lifeless it wasn’t anything that he couldn’t have fixed. I gave him some feedback and suggestions but he didn’t get a chance to try them out.
    He was quickly sent off to another school in a another province and a new replacement found.
    It wasn’t until I was talking later with one of my friends among the Chinese teachers that I discovered that they had felt that he hadn’t really made any effort to become part of the school, to make friends with other teachers or show that he had any enthusiasm either for the city or the job. He just showed up, taught a lesson and went home.
    It was a little ironic because before I came to Baiyin I was less than thrilled at the prospect. It’s a pretty out of the way city and I hadn’t heard good things about it. There are only four foreign teachers here and as a new city it has virtually no history or culture of note.
    But I put all that aside and started making friends as soon as I got here.
    I went out with the teachers. Drank a lot of beer. Tactfully avoided the baijiu. Joined in with enthusiasm if little skill at KTV.
    And around the city just talked back to anyone who talked to me.
    It doesn’t take a lot. And by just showing a willingness to be part of things I’ve not only got the school constantly asking me if I’ll return next year but I’ve had a much better time than I’d ever expected too.
    A lot of how you are received in China, as in any other place I suppose, depends on how much effort you are prepared to put in. It doesn’t take much but it does need some.

    For the record I’m an older man, 55, and the other popular teacher in the city is a younger woman. It just needs a little willingness.

  6. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” (St. Augustine to [St.] Januarius, AD 390)

    My corollary: Especially when not in an urban/urbanised place where people may not be able to appreciate why the things said have been said.

    When I was living with mum in Florence, Italy, we saw roughly the same thing with English teachers there (thankfully not many, but some enough) – and exactly the same reaction from the Florentines.

    Like the other commenters have mentioned already, if a teacher isn’t going to go the extra mile but remain a dead fish, I reckon anywhere in the world is going to send the person packing. Alive is the name, fitting in is the game.

  7. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Quite agree, tnl and Bob, it’s all about “emotional intelligence”. I try to remember this every time I have to interact with my next door neighbour who is an older Scottish man with all the social skills of a bad tempered five year old!

  8. Lorin Yochim says:

    An interesting thing to think about in light of tnl and Bob’s comments is the question of how one maintains a sense of integrity/authenticity while trying to understand, fit in, and get along. If I were to hazard a guess at the general them of Tom’s blog, that would be it. I suspect that grumpiness in laowai is a symptom of that internal struggle.

    I would tend to agree with Tom’s basic position, as well as Bob’s, that one doesn’t have to do everything, but nothing will obviously not cut it, and very often even the strongest effort will fail.

    • It works both ways – it boils down to a question of give and take, and sometimes it’s really the luck of the draw in the people we find ourselves with, isn’t it? Some people make it very easy for others to keep their (shall be say) idiosyncracies, while others make it very hard. Some places, some people and some certain times just don’t come together. 天地人和 ,萬事看時 so my grandpa taught me.

      • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

        thenakedlistener: Could you put your grandpa’s saying into pinyin for me? I’d like to record it and my Chinese has slipped a bit since my teacher returned to the 热闹 of Chengdu!

      • TChi: 天地人和萬事看時
        SChi: 天地人和万事看时
        Pinyin: tiān dì rén hé wàn shì kàn shí
        Cantonese: Teen dei yan wor maan si hon sii (‘hon’ substitutable with ‘taie’)

        The more Chinese-proficient among you will know the regular (and more widely known) proverb/maxim is 天地人和萬事興 / 天地人和万事兴 (tiān dì rén hé wàn shì xīng). Apparently, Grandpa’s is the much lesser-known 2nd part of the precept. Indeed, grandpa says there are lots of ‘crippled’ proverbs in Chinese (but he never got round to telling me why). The guy knew a lot of those missing 2nd parts, I tell you…

      • Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

        tnl Thank you very much. Chinese sayings are so neat, I just love them. They are so succint.

  9. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

    This story was submitted to Hao Hao Report – a collection of China’s best stories and blog posts. If you like this story, be sure to go vote for it….

  10. M says:

    there is some problem with main page, when I reach end of the page there is button “Load more posts” or something like that, once I load more there is no way how to show even more posts on other pages, no big deal for regular readers but imagine someone who discovers your blog and want to read more articles just by listing pages with them

  11. Ken says:

    Reblogged this on Zulu plus 8 — Life in The Middle Kingdom and commented:
    Tom has some interesting remarks about people in general–although he writes about LaoWai (foreigners) in China. Remonds me of that story about the guy sitting by the side of the road when a traveler wanders by and inquires about the kind of people to be found in the town up ahead. The fellow asks “How were the people where you came from?” and our traveler says they were evil, mean and uncaring louts, every one. “You’ll find them the same way here, I’m afraid” says the man at the roadside. Later, another traveler happens along and also asks about the quality of the people in the town up ahead, to which our sage again counters with his own question “How did you find the people in the last town?” The traveler says they were kind and gentle people, always willing to help a stranger–talking about the same place–and the sage responds (as you know he would) “You’ll find the people here are just the same.” It’s all about attitude.

    • Musta Lammas says:

      Attitude is important but since there are observable differences between groups and individuals I would argue it’s not “all about attitude.” Responsibility for a suitable or productive attitude falls on the employer, too.

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