The Cult of the Míngpiàn

6 Jul

There are lots of things to unravel about Chinese culture and not least of them is how to do business and how to interact with your Chinese co-workers. There’s a very delicate balance to respect and much of it can be quite opaque for those of us foreigners coming from a Judeo-Christian background. In the latter culture, borders between yes and no, right and wrong tend to be quite well defined and we generally struggle with the grey areas. In Chinese culture, there’s a lot of grey. To start with, there are no words for “yes” and “no” in Mandarin. It feels like a truism to say this now, after having lived a year and a half in China. If you are asked a question, you would reply using the main verb to signify the equivalent of a yes or a no. For example: – “Are you Lebanese?” – “I am.” Yes and no questions are often asked in a positive/negative mode: “You want you don’t want…?”, “Is there isn’t there…?” but then again, because of the lack of single words for yes or no, you answer: “I want” or “I don’t want”, “There is” or “There isn’t”.

To add to this, Chinese people rarely ever refuse to do something or admit that they don’t know how to do it. Fear of losing face I suppose. So they rush into agreeing or saying ok, ok, ok or kěyī, kěyī, kěyī (i.e. I can, I can, I can) and you have to read between the lines to understand that it’s a no. Many foreigners who have worked here will testify to this. I can see it on my students’ faces. I’d ask them if they’ve understood something and they would always say it’s fine even though I can clearly see their faces decomposing.

We were once explained by our French friend S., whose parents are Chinese, that Chinese attitude and interaction are a question of harmony and maintaining an equilibrium amongst all things present or at stake. Therefore, yes and no positions can be a bit brutal for the contextual balance. (S. please feel free to correct me on this.) After having spent over 5 years in Shanghai, he said he was getting better at navigating within this fragile equilibrium and that got him a lot of satisfaction, as he was being able to draw the best out of his team at work.

All this restraint however blows away when it comes to networking. Then Chinese people can become rather forthcoming whereas we first engage in a bit of small talk before getting into the business side of things. At various events, I have noticed that they spot the slightest opportunity to talk to you and immediately ask who you work for and tell you what it is that they do, without much preliminaries. Essential to this process is the exchange of míngpiàn* or business cards. Some of them have those ready in their hands as they start speaking to you. I say hands because manners here require that you exchange business cards with both hands and that the text on the card is oriented towards the recipient. In turn, the latter should receive the card with both hands and read it duly and respectfully before putting it away. Mingpian are so important that everyone should have one and foreigners have in turn started to refer to them as “name cards” – the literal translation of mingpian – instead of the more correct “business card”.

So next time you do business with Chinese people, make sure both your hands are free and never, ever throw your business card nonchalantly across the meeting table.

* To be pronounced mingpyen

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