EVERY GOOD SALESPERSON KNOWS that to win business you need to first build trust. That trust is built with the combination of reputation and goodwill. Most of the responsibility for reputation falls on marketing’s shoulders, leaving goodwill in the hands of salespeople.
For China, salespeople reach extraordinary levels of ass kissing, known as ‘pa ma pi’（拍马屁). To many, including myself, this simply appears as conspicuous flatter. But never-the-less, this communication style is important to cultures where ‘face’ (面子) is deeply ingrained in the culture, such as China, Japan and Korea. However, this style can backfire when dealing with customers who are less externally motivated (ie. praise and respect) and more internally motivated (ie. KPIs and self development).
Take a meeting I had in the southern city of Shenzhen some years ago.
Emily, a Chinese colleague and I arrived at the ground floor of the Futian office building on a sunny Spring day. We were 15 minutes early, but decided to go up to the client’s floor anyway. A minute passed, as we stood in front of the bank of elevator doors, and then the door directly ahead opened.
Inside stood a foreigner, who I immediately stereotyped as English, with his hair cut, complexion and habit of smoking. You see he had a cigarette in one hand as he took a step forward.
We made eye contact and simultaneously clicked that we were scheduled for a meeting.
“Morry?” said Peter.
“Yes. Peter?” I responded.
“Great. I was going to have a fag, but let’s go up to my office,” responded Peter, his accent and use of colloquialisms confirming my English assumption.
All three of us stepped into the elevator, and Peter pressed ’20’. As the door slid to a close, he turned to me and asked.
“Are you from Australia?”
“Yes. Melbourne actually.”
And then Peter said something that you’ll never hear coming from a Chinese client, or any culture that isn’t ‘mismatching’.
“That’s a pity!” stated Peter, bluntly.
That’s right. Knowing me for only seconds, Peter had thrown an insult. Emily looked shocked.
Her shock grew when she heard my reply.
“Oh, it get’s worse! My mother is from England!”
My reaction has been measured but instinctive. I recognised Peter as a ‘mismatcher’ – simplistically put, somebody who enjoys finding the differences, rather than focusing on similarities. He verbally slapped me, and I verbally slapped him back. And all the while Emily stood in shock. In her mind this contract was lost, even before we hit the twentieth floor. “Morry, what are you doing!” she was screaming in her mind.
But Peter was smiling, and when the door for the floor opened he slapped me firmly, but with respect on my shoulder, leading me left towards his office.
The contract was signed on the day even though Emily still didn’t know what was going on. She was introduced to mismatching communication style, and one endemic to the Australian and English cultures.
Should you start every meeting with Australians or English with an insult? Of course not, but be aware that this is how some people build goodwill. It’s backwards, but more common than you might think. And finally, just remember to always complement your insult with a smile.