Don’t speak Chinese!

When you have studied Chinese for many years and put myriads of characters on paper, you love to practice and speak the language. It can be considered an advantage to speak Chinese in China. I had to realize that this is not always the case! Contrary to what I always thought for a long time!

Shanghainese / non-Shanghainese

In Shanghai, in January 2015, Xu comes to see me in my office, explains that he needs me for a complicated case, and ends with a sentence in English “Don’t speak Chinese! ».
The business development director, Ma, has made an appointment with one of the city’s first Shopping Mall. The manager, Li Meihong, who is to receive him is Shanghainese.  The young executive has to negotiate an initially unattractive contract; the brand is paying a lot of money for a location. There is no profit to be made. Ma doesn’t feel in a strong position. On the other hand, he, a native of Jiangxi Province, when he considers the supposed “feeling of superiority of the Shanghainese,” he is not in the best conditions. So he asks his director, Xu, a Shanghainese, to arrange the meeting in order to be on an equal level. And Xu, the strategist, to put all the chances on his side, asks the Frenchman to come in order to put more weight in the process.

I do not speak Chinese

The tactics of languages

Xu details the tactic: “The deal’s not in our favor, so we’re going to play to our strengths to get her to lower the royalties. We’re not going to put her in the most comfortable position. She speaks English, but not very well. We will talk in English, not Chinese. If she doesn’t understand everything, I will translate. You don’t show her that you can speak Chinese. I know her, out of respect for you, she will try to speak English in front of you. I, on the other hand, I’m finer, I’m not going to speak Shanghainese when I translate, it would be too obvious.  She would understand that I want to play the local feeling and that would be counterproductive. I will translate into Chinese.”

We have fun, and we win

The meeting had a comical aspect because Li Meihong was speaking in limited English. She had to spend half the time composing in Shakespeare’s language. I had to avoid any reaction when she spoke in Chinese because I was supposed to not understand. Sometimes I wanted to put an end to her linguistic ordeal. At that time, I was working mainly in China, in a 100% Chinese professional environment, I never practiced English. The first reflexes came to me in Chinese, and I never speak English with Chinese people. I felt like I was participating in an upside-down comedy. Finally, the director lowered royalties’amount. Did the language strategy work? I don’t know!

I frequently found myself in situations where my Chinese colleagues were presenting me with a whole range of strategies during meetings or meals. The use of English is nothing more than an arrow with a sophisticated bow. I have often wondered how effective we can be with a more direct and less sophisticated Western approach.

22 June 2020

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