So what do we think when we read this sentence in an email? Obviously someone is very upset. Maybe with our company, our product or our service or on a personal level. It might be a customer, a service provider or even possibly a strategic partner. But the bottom line is, whatever is the cause of the issue – we simply need to fix it. We have to try to come to some result where the person who is upset is no longer, and all parties are at peace again. Happy service, happy customer right?
So what would be the outcome if an email to a Chinese business person included this same sentence? Would the recipient react by immediately trying to rectify the problem? Well, this scenario did happen, just last week, between my client’s shipping agent and a Chinese export officer. And the result was not what we in the West would expect.
You see, the recipient, found this sentence “very rude.” When the Chinese recipient received the email, he talked it over with his friends. The recipients friends also thought this was “very rude.” The situation then started to get a little out of hand. The recipient felt insulted, his friends (one being the client’s factory manager) were angered, the writer of the email couldn’t understand why the problem wasn’t immediately fixed, and last, but most importantly the client was in a dangerous position of losing his production facility. Wow.
I know the whole story from both sides, but in the end this was only over an amount of 2000 RMB – about $400. So in the West, as foreigners, we would look at the situation and think to ourselves, “Yeah, well – big deal”. Myself, if I weren’t so observant of the culture of this nation, would be inclined to think similar thoughts.
But the reality is, we were doing business in China. And it’s not a Chinese version of “my way or the highway.” It goes far deeper than that. You see, the email recipient lost “Face” (Miàn zi) and his friends with whom he had strong “Guanxi“, all felt hurt and angered for their friend. “Face” is very important to people of Asian cultures, especially in China. And another takeaway here is that the client didn’t actually write the email, but his associate did. And because of his associate’s actions, we had to rectify the situation for our client quickly.
What I always do and so should anyone dealing in China, say, ” There is a problem, but together we will find a solution”. What this essentially does is show respect for the other party and not only strengthens your Guanxi, but you will probably also gain Face by using this method. Working together, we came to an outcome we were all happy with. It took some time, but the result was well worth the effort.
Yes – when in China, do as the Chinese do. Unfair or Fair? Depends on which way you look at it. I can immediately see the benefits of it. You see, when you show respect for their culture and make an effort to fit in with the “Chinese way”, you are demonstrating that you understand the importance of Face. Simply, this will mean your production line will run more smoothly, plus numerous other benefits that your production cost per item cannot buy. Most importantly respect will lead to rewarding business friendships (Guanxi) that will last a lifetime.