By Greg Bissky
Well, the Chinese are very polite people, but it’s still good advice. Of course you should be polite, just Chinese polite not Western polite. There is a big difference.
First, a brief principle about politeness: The receiver of the action, not the sender, determines whether the action is/is not polite. In other words, when I speak to you, you decide if I am polite, not me. Being polite means adapting to whom you are with and/or where you are. To change an old saying: when in Rome the Romans decide what is polite.
Each culture develops unique rules of politeness and manners. Chinese decide what is polite in China, Westerners what’s polite in the West. It’s just common sense. Or it is until you go to China, try to be polite and you are not. Then it’s confusing. Worse is, the more you try to do everything you know how to be polite the more impolite you become. Then it goes beyond confusing.
A common example is “getting straight to the point”. My parents and teachers (who teach us our manners) taught me not to waste people’s time, that it was impolite to “beat around the bush”. If I had something to say, then say it. Clearly (nicely of course, and timing was important too, but both are other types of politeness).
Doing business with other Westerners reinforced everything our parents taught us about getting straight to the point. Think of a meeting between a salesperson and a customer. What would the customer think if the salesperson didn’t even mention business (the point) for the first hour, and instead talked about non-business topics like family, hobbies, weather and politics? Would that be considered polite?
No, but more than just impolite, it would be unacceptable. In most cases the customer would sooner or later grow impatient and ask the salesperson to get to the point … or make an excuse to end the meeting early. We’ve learned that getting straight to the point is polite, thus the right thing to do.
So once off the plane in Shanghai, Taipei or Tokyo that’s what you try to do. You get to the point in business meetings. There is always a lot to do and life there is expensive so you get to the point. Nicely of course, but quickly as well: time is, after all, money. Isn’t it?
No, not in Chinese Asia it isn’t. Nor is getting straight to the point polite, especially early in a relationship, business or otherwise. If I was trying to sell something in a first meeting with a Chinese I wouldn’t mention business (the point) until he or she did, or until near the end of our allotted time. Even if that was 5 minutes before the end of an hour, I’d wait, patiently and nicely talking about sports, family, weather or restaurants for the first 55 minutes. I’d be uncomfortable, and in my (and my mother’s) eyes impolite, but unless I waited, beating around the bush talking about non-business subjects, I’d be impolite to the Chinese.
Making a very complicated subject far too simple, Westerners prize results more than relationships and facts more than feelings while Chinese prize the opposite. Time isn’t money, relationships are, and to the Chinese all “getting straight to point” is good for is offending someone’s feelings or agreeing to do something before knowing the people involved well enough. It’s poor manners.
I was joking in the title. Of course you should be polite with the Chinese, you have to be polite to succeed. But Chinese polite, not Western: often the more you use the rules your parents taught you, the more impolite you will be. This is one time you should not listen to your mother.
There’s a lot to it, but a good overall rule is to pay more attention to peoples’ feelings. In Chinese business that frequently means spending time to know each other enough to develop a mutual feeling of trust, sincerity and loyalty. After that, talking directly about business is polite.
A waste of time? It may seem so but remember, Chinese Asia has few lawyers and fewer laws, and in the end all that will protect you is your relationship, not contract or courts. Such being the case, I recommend wasting the time being Chinese polite, and saving Western polite for justifying your expense account when you get home.
Greg Bissky, BicBiz.com | Bicultural Business