How Not to Give Partners A 'Death Wish' in China

  • 作者: 超级管理员
  • 时间: 2013-12-24 15:32:45
  • 点击率: 3868
C. Roe Goddard thought he understood local customs. Turns out, he told a group of Chinese businessmen to drop dead.
Mr. Goddard, now a professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, was preparing gifts for the members of his joint-venture team at the end of a successful mission to find a drug-manufacturing partner in China. He became enamored with an elegant leather-bound travel clock and couldn't resist buying one to give each of his 11 Chinese colleagues at a celebratory banquet in Shanghai.
Mr. Goddard had done consulting work in China before, but he didn't know that the Chinese word for "giving" is Song, and the word "clock" is Zhong, which sounds like a word describing the end of a person's life. Thanks to that etymological connection, the gift of a clock in China can be construed as "a death wish."
The custom in question
Mr. Goddard had violated a well-known taboo, stepping into the kind of trap that awaits countless expat executives fronting their companies around the world. Plenty of local traditions have endured the muting effects of globalization, and Mr. Goddard had to follow China's if he hoped to maintain successful business relationships there.
"He did the right things: organize a big lunch, present them with a gift," saidDonny Huang, a Beijing-based consultant on cross-cultural issues. But to give a clock, to go with personal taste over acknowledged local custom, was a serious mistake that could have been costly.
Mr. Goddard's reputation, his Guanxi -- the measure of a trustworthy, successful, businessperson -- was at risk. "It's something you kind of protect and are always seeking to enlarge," Mr. Goddard explained. "China is only evolving toward a system of where there's the rule of law." And the personal relationships an executive builds there can help overcome the hurdles created by corruption and an environment where contracts can't always be enforced.
Beyond Guanxi, the choice of a gift demonstrates local savvy, and a person who made the mistake of giving a clock would seem ignorant -- and vulnerable. "They would probably say 'dumb foreigner' instead of 'look, the guy wishes that we die,'" said Salih Neftci, an economist and a columnist for Shanghai's daily business newspaper Diyi Caijing Ribao.
Learning the ropes
When choosing the right business gift in China, the recipient's title and personal interests are important to note. And a choice that demonstrates an appreciation for Chinese culture is a must.
Every region is unique, Mr. Huang said: "This part of the world is totally different from New York." The symbolism of gift choices may astonish some foreigners, but a sensitivity to the kind of message that accompanies the clock is invaluable. For example, "wearing a green cap is really, really bad for a man," according to Mr. Huang. "That means your girlfriend or your wife is having an affair with someone."
There are ways to play it safe. Jihong Sanderson, director of the Center for Research on Chinese and American Strategic Cooperation at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests giving books about a visitor's native region or culture, Californian wine, or useful items such as pens or stationery. And although chocolate may be too sweet for the adult Chinese palate, it is still welcome in many family homes. "They will give it to their children," she said.
Also, in China, it doesn't hurt to get personal. "The separation between personal life and work is so clear in the U.S.," Mr. Huang noted. "In China, the boundary between personal and work is so close."
In the end
In Mr. Goddard's case, enlightenment followed embarrassment. Soon after he presented the gift-wrapped clocks at the banquet, Mr. Goddard received a note at his hotel from one of his Chinese colleagues. The note expressed gratitude for the clocks but explained the unintended insult, and it came with a penny from each person who got one, symbolically turning the exchange into a purchase. That way, they were no longer a gift -- and no longer an insult.
Mr. Goddard said he was grateful for the group's explanation of the taboo. "It showed how they respected me," he explained. And it didn't affect the outcome of the deal. He also appreciated the larger lesson. "Humility is a valued trait in China, so I hope I've learned a little about that."
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