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.