Westerners frequently find it hard to understand the importance of relationship in Chinese communications. Many of my close Chinese friends will tell me that they spend weeks, if not longer, analyzing their communication with a boss or even a coworker to ensure that relationship needs are maintained. Similarly they will carefully analyze communications they receive for hidden meanings. Westerners, on the other hand, see all communication as direct information. A few weeks ago I had a situation with a Chinese counterpart working nearby that illustrates the different perceptions taken by those use to indirect communication with an emphasis on relationship and those of us who communicate information directly.
I was suppose to pick up my friend in my car. Unfortunately that afternoon I had been gardening and had lost my keys. In spite of a couple of hours searching I could not find them so would have to wait until my spouse came home with her keys. No probelem. I would call my friend, tell him I lost my keys and we could arrange to meet somewhere within walking distance, or he could walk the mile or so to my house and we could walk to a nearby restaurant or bar. Our telephone conversation show the difference in perceptions.
Orville: “Hello Kim. I know I was going to pick you up but I’ve lost my keys, so you’ll have to walk over and we can go to the place down the street.”
Kim: “Lost your key? Man, you know its hot out. Did you check that pants you wore yesterday?”
Orville: “Yes. I’m sorry, but they weren’t there.”
Kim: “what about your desk. You are always leaving your keys on your desk?”
Orville: “Yes I checked my pants pocket and my desk. They are no where to be found.”
Kim: “Why don’t you check again. We can meet an hour late.”
Orville: “I already checked twice. The keys are lost.”
Kim: “What about your briefcase? Sometimes you leave things in there.”
Orville: “I’ve already checked my briefcase, searched the house, looked around in the garden. The keys are no where to be found.”
Kim: “I’m sure you’ll find them soon. I will wait for you.”
Orville: “What part of lost do you not understand? I lost my keys and cannot pick you up!”
Kim: “Oh, you really lost your keys. No problem, I can walk. Why are you so angry at me. You were the one who lost the keys.”
The first point that should be obvious to the reader now, is that Kim was not at all sure that “lost my keys” was a factual statement. He presumed it was a statement about relationship and the inconvenience of picking him up.
The second point is that he put forward a formal mechanism ostensibly to help me find my keys, which he was not at all sure were lost. In his mind, this gave me opportunity to “find the keys” and show my commitment to our relationship. At the same time, if the keys were really lost he was doing his best to help me find them. Once he confirmed to his own satisfaction that the keys were really lost, he offered to maintain the relationship by walking over. At the same time, he was frustrated by my frustration that he did not accept the direct information I had proffered. For him, the conversation was never about losing keys. It was about maintaining a harmonious relationship. While for me, the conversation was only information about lost keys. The lost keys became a disturbance in the relationship that had to be smoothed over simply because I never thought about how to tell Kim that I had lost my keys in a way that would not disturb the relationship.
If losing keys can disturb relationships in a culture where relationship is paramount, think about how the facts and functions of business information can tear at relationships. Spending time to understand how information and communication can affect relationship will be critical to anyone doing business in China. For relationship, I should have called Kim and lied. “Hey Kim, I really need to get some exercise. So I’m going to walk over to your office and then lets go to that nifty new restaurant next door.” His reply might have been along the lines. “Sure thing Orville. But you know its hot out. I’ll meet you at the restaurant in forty-five minutes with a cold lemonade waiting for you.” I would have lied, but in this case the direct information was not critical. The “lie” would have maintained the relationship.