08/26/2014 11:06 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Cheating the Chinese


I'm tired of hearing Western business people in China complain that they're being cheated. The sad reality is that they're cheating themselves. Deception happens in NYC, Toronto, London, Sydney, and unfortunately Shanghai is no exception. The only difference is that in the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia Americans speak the language. Learn Mandarin and level the playing field. English speakers are losing out by not learning foreign languages. According to one study 3.5% of GDP is lost in Great Britain due to the language deficit, the same likely holds true for the US, Canada, and Australia. My paper "The Evolution From Ignorant American to American Polyglot," which was selected for presentation at the ICT for Language Learning in Italy later this fall, examines this. The paper focuses on how we can overcome the language deficit and why it is crucial for America Inc. that it happens soon. Here are two stories from China illustrating why it's imperative that American business discovers how to learn languages.

Big Boss Speaks English

A favorite excuse among the expat crowd in Shanghai for not learning Mandarin is that "the Chinese speak English, there's no need to learn Mandarin." Yet they naively believe that the factory Big Boss doesn't. People that believe this, are cheating themselves. While Big Boss may use an interpreter and never speak English, he understands it. You'll realize this if you get out of the boardroom and into the Karaoke Room. Tell a joke in English, if you're funny Big Boss will be first to laugh.

In a negotiation this gives them the advantage of hearing everything that is said in the meeting twice. It gives them time to develop a tactically superior response putting US businesses at a disadvantage. It also lengthens the meeting, playing to another weakness of American negotiators, a lack of patience. If you don't believe this, you are the "Ignorant American" and you're cheating yourself. If you do believe it, turn the table on them and learn Mandarin.

Soft Translation

In learning Mandarin, I followed the lead of the Chinese Big Boss, I didn't tell the factories I was learning the language. It's interesting to hear the difference between what I say in English, and what even a very trusted interpreter says in Chinese. I realized this during a contentious meeting with a factory that we were moving business away from. Big Boss had no clue I spoke Mandarin. He was a smug, smarmy little man. He was price gouging us and had a terribly run factory. He didn't know I had other options. I did, and was about to exercise them.

During a heated point in the negotiation he looked at my interpreter and said, "the problem isn't me, it's not my factory management, the problem is Ryan. He doesn't understand China, Chinese manufacturing, or Chinese culture!" My interpreter began in English "he believes that there is a misunderstanding, there are differences between how Americans and Chinese do business..."

I stopped her in her tracks, looked at Big Boss, and replied in Mandarin "the problem isn't me, it's not my understanding of manufacturing, or Chinese culture. I've worked with factories from south to north and east to west. I've been to more cities than you know the names of. The problem is that you don't know your customer, you've not set foot outside of China, and you don't understand manufacturing."

His jaw dropped. In that moment he realized that I understood everything he had said the previous four years. It was epic. While it cost us a relationship with one factory it lead us to another much better business partner. I would have never known this had I not learned to speak Mandarin. In China, as with anywhere else, if you want to fully understand a situation you must speak the language.

Fair Play

It's not about "Cheating the Chinese," it's about not cheating yourself. You have to know your partners as well as your adversaries. In China, they likely know you better than you know them. This is precisely why American business people think their Chinese counterparts are cheating them; it's also why it's vital that Western business leaders finally realize this and take the initiative to school their employees on not only the Chinese language, but also the culture. The idea that "they speak English, so I don't need to learn Mandarin" is a losing position. Learn Mandarin, as importantly learn the culture. If you do this, your business wins big.