A Quick Trip Down Memory Lane

Expectations can cause a lot of harm. If you think you know what you’re doing, you probably don’t. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you better learn quick.

0916_culture-tellerYears ago, in 1997, I had already quit teaching in Qingdao and was considering moving into doing freelance cultural consulting work, but I had zero reputation. To mitigate this, a friend introduced me to two American businessmen who had an interesting idea.

They had discovered that every province published a list of the top local infrastructure projects (building roads, railways, sewage treatment, etc.), which were worth tens of millions of dollars and often open to bids from foreign companies. Their idea was to get the list for Shandong province and then match projects with American companies who could do them while collecting a nice commission for the deals.

The first time they approached the Shandong government about it, they were told that no such list existed. They then checked with Beijing authorities, who assured them such a list indeed was made. They tried again and were finally told that yes, it’s real, but they couldn’t give it to foreigners. Again, this was not true. So, they tried yet again and this time were told that they should first present a list of the qualified American companies, and then they could then have the information for projects. Once again, there was no such requirement.

Around this time, they were making their fourth trip to Jinan, the capital of Shandong province, to attend a meeting with several vice-premiers. The men were incredibly frustrated and the friend who had originally introduced us assured them that I could help with their ongoing problem.

We made a plan to eat dinner together in Jinan with them and about eight high-ranking Chinese officials.

It was a disaster from the beginning. One of the Americans took the seat intended for the host, causing him to lose face. They also insulted the alcohol that the hosts had provided, saying that it tasted like gasoline (in all fairness, it did, but they shouldn’t have said it aloud). Afterward, they immediately launched into a long list of complaints about how they’d been forced to waste so much time and money, which followed up with demands, insisting that they weren’t leaving without the information they’d come for. They finished up with full-blown threats, saying that they would make formal complaints to Beijing if they didn’t get what they wanted.

I was sitting beside a vice-premier, who spoke a moderate level of English. We started drinking together, swapping stories in broken English and Chinese. We got drunk. We sang karaoke together, arm-in-arm. Except for the first five minutes, when introductions were being made, I said not one thing about the business deal I’d been hired to help complete.

When dinner was finished, the Americans were understandably upset. They hadn’t gotten what they’d wanted and they were particularly pissed off that while they’d been working so hard to get things done, I’d just been partying away.

One of them informed me that when we got back to Qingdao, he’d make sure that everyone there knew that I was a complete fraud; he even threatened to cancel my plane ticket.

The next morning, the government officials dropped by to say goodbye to us. As we were leaving for the airport, the man with whom I had spent the night drinking took me aside, reached into his bag and pulled out the complete report that the Americans had been trying so hard to get. He went out of his way to thank me for the fact that I’d shown respect to him and to his culture.

I said nothing until after we were on the plane, in the air on the way back to Qingdao. As the two of them continued to harangue me about how I’d completely wasted their time and money, I reached into my bag and pulled out the documents.

It was beautifully timed and I can think of only few times in my life that I’ve enjoyed such a level of satisfaction and vindication. As these two guys stared at what I’d just given them and then tried to figure out what to say to me, they seemed perplexed.

In the end, they never actually said that much to me; I think they were too embarrassed. To their credit, after returning to Qingdao, they told everyone the story about how they’d been so angry with me, and how it seemed like I was just wasting their time and money, but somehow through “secret negotiations,” I’d gotten exactly what they needed. I don’t think they ever really understood that there were no secret negotiations, no backroom deals. It was simply taking the time to listen, show respect and build a relationship before launching into business discussions.

That first experience led to more jobs and eventually enabled me to start my own company. The truth is, back then I still had a great deal to learn and I’ve certainly made a lot of mistakes along the way. Still, this one, simple lesson has consistently been the cornerstone of all of my past, present and future work. So, as I write my final “Culture Teller” column, I’d like to encourage everyone—while there will inevitably be cultural problems and situations that you don’t understand or where you’ll make mistakes—to revere the basic notion to be friendly, show respect and build relationships as the most fundamental skill set, and one that works in every culture.