more confucian business ethics: collect the bags!

Roughly twenty years ago, he, his wife, and their son immigrated from China to Southern California. They came to Shenzhen last year to do business with successful college classmates and brought a daughter and a younger son. The older son remained in California. The man was 40 something years of age, and he told me that his wife and son met a friend and business associate at LAX. When the three went to pick up the visitor’s luggage, his wife went to collect the bags. However, because she is a woman, the visitor stopped her and collected the bags instead. The man didn’t say, but I’m assuming the wife and friend engaged in some who-can-hold-onto-the-bags shuffle, with the result that the visitor ended up carrying his own bags. The son waited for the ritual to end and then led his mother and his father’s friend to the car. The son drove them home.

The man told me this story because he wanted to know what I thought; how had the son behaved?

“Based on what I know of American or Chinese cultural norms?” I hedged, thinking that any young man who drove his mother to the airport to pickup a guest was an accommodating son, and that if his parents and their friends wanted to engage in who’s-the-most-polite shuffles, then that really was their business and why not wait for the storm to end. In fact, personally, I sympathized with the son’s position because I am frequently nonplussed when confronted by demonstrations of Chinese courtesy that are also not-so-sutble assertions of dominance.

He explained that afterward his friend had approached him to talk about the matter. The friend worried that the son did “did not understand things (不懂事),” an expression with meanings that range from ‘immature’ through ‘is insensible to the feelings of others’ to ‘has no concept of proper behavior’. The friend had acted out of concern because he worried for his friend’s son future prospects. To declare a college graduate “does not understand things” means that those in positions of power “cannot use him (不能用人)” and thus will not place him in positions of responsibility, thereby foreclosing opportunities for advancement.

At the time, the father had replied that he thought skill (能力) was the most important criteria for promotions. However, when he discussed the issue with another friend, this time the CEO of a small company, he realized that from the point of view of makers and shakers in China, his son in fact “could not be used”. The CEO explained that he had two employees, A and B, who went everywhere with him. The CEO did not have a driver and so A and B took turns driving. When A drove, he made sure to open the CEO’s door for him before getting into the car. When B drove, he immediately sat in the driver’s seat and A, again, opened the CEO’s door before settling himself in the car.

“Now, who should I promote?” the CEO rhetorically asked the man. “Obviously, A is more meticulous/ attentive (更细心) than B. Consequently, he can be trusted, whereas B doesn’t see the big picture.”

The big picture included hierarchy and etiquette, or understanding one’s relationship with another and each time A opened the CEO’s door, he demonstrated his understanding. In contrast, B did his job. On the CEO’s interpretation, it didn’t matter how talented B was. The real problem was that B couldn’t be trusted to treat guests and by extension business colleagues and clients, properly. A could.

I’m told there are serious differences between etiquette in state-owned industries, where bureaucratic privilege trumps skill and the private sector, where talented people are more valued than sycophants. Also, it seems that things “are different” in the IT sector, but again, people quickly remind me, that techies are young and often westernized. Westernized, perhaps, but as in Western business culture, Chinese business culture distinguishes between those who give good face and those who do their jobs well; rare is the individual who can both manage people and complete tasks.

Interestingly, although the characters for the Chinese words for CEO (董事长) and “understand things” are different, nevertheless they are homophones, which alerts us to the moral of today’s story. At an airport, there are several rules that apply when greeting Chinese guests:

1. If the guest is older than you — collect the luggage to show your respect;

2. If the guest has a higher rank than you — collect the luggage to show your respect;

3. If the guest is a friend — collect the luggage in order to demonstrate your good will.

There are three possible exceptions to the “collect the luggage” rule for greeting Chinese guests, gender, age, and White ethnicity. A friend would neither expect a friend’s wife to collect luggage, nor would that friend expect an elementary school child to collect luggage. Although if the child grabbed a bag, be sure to laugh happily, muss her hair, and exclaim, “Wow, she really understands things!” And yes, white Americans are forgiven for all sorts of social faux pas that Chinese-Americans are not so that when we go for the bags, we suddenly appear “Chinese”.

But to return to the father’s story. What do we say to a Chinese man, who clearly wants his American son to succeed, knowing that amongst globe-trotting Chinese he will be judged by ancestral values and not those of his hometown, Los Angeles?

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