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Being “Overly Friendly” in Business?

A friend with an Asian background complemented me recently on being “blunt” about things. While, I agree that being straight-forward in conversing with other people, it’s not really in my nature to be that way. You see, I’m also half-Asian and half-Italian – born and raised in the United States and probably have a much different “way” of conducting myself than most Westerners. The “Chinese way” of dealing with others whether in business or relationships has  a lot riding on something they call “guangxi” – or “relationships.” The Chinese business model – if you can call it that has to deal with how one person inter-relates with another. Their businesses have a lot to do with family and developing friendships and taking a business proposition from there.

For instance, if someone wants to start a business in Taiwan – let’s just use a “teashop” for example, these individuals can turn to their relatives and friends for support – to help them pool-in and finance their businesses. However that doesn’t always mean that a business is going to be successful. In fact, when I taught there I used to go to teashops to meet people and work on lesson plans on a regular basis. One day my favorite teashop would be open, and the next day it would be closed. Then right around the corner from there, another one would “magically appear.” The same applies to their restaurants and shops as well. And that’s not an exaggeration. For the most part, it is a model which has worked fine for Chinese culture for many thousands of years and their culture continues to operate in this fashion to some degree.

However, in the United States – while some businesses do start with familial support, many business owners take the “familial” portion out of the equation and often substitute their start-up and operational costs with loans from their local lenders. In this way, their dealings seem less “personal” and perhaps more “professional” by Western standards and practice. The whole method tends to be more direct and to the point.

Now, I’m not advocating “wrong” or “right” here. But there definitely is a cultural divide which happens between the two cultures. I acknowledge from both sides that it exists.

As much as I would sometimes like to “take” the Chinese way of doing business out of me, a lot of this is habitual and stems from my upbringing. By nature, I tend to be polite and gregarious towards others. I don’t hesitate to make “small talk” or even “negotiate” (another standard Chinese practice) with people – in fact I enjoy it and it comes somewhat naturally. However, I’ve noticed over the years of running my business that these rules and habits don’t seem to translate too well for business practice in the United States.

For many years, I’ve spoken with some of the biggest developers and architects in this country. Some of these individuals wield more financial power than entire countries. Some of them can make or break you. Sometimes it’s a phone call, and other times it is an email or two. One thing that I’ve discovered is that when I’m talking with a head or president of a major corporation in the US is that they often don’t make small talk. I say that with some caution – I don’t want to come off as stereotyping – this is just my own personal observation. Usually, it entails getting straight to the point – “how long will it take?” and “how much will it cost?” That’s the essence – the “meat and potatoes” of a conversation. They don’t necessarily want to know the ins-and-outs of what may potentially go wrong or what problems you may encounter. They don’t want to know that you’re busy because “family is coming in from out of town.” They just want simple, straight-forward answers. And the few times I’ve tried to make small-talk when I first started out, I think there’s times where it may have actually back-fired on me ( I’ll never be 100% sure if that has ever occurred.)

I think that there may be some sort of disconnect which happens in business when the East meets West. I often think that if you’re “too friendly” in your business dealings, Western culture tends to interpret this as being untrustworthy, or it’s marked with a red flag. And if the reverse situation occurs, Westerners can be viewed as being “short” and perhaps even “unfriendly.” From a business psychology stand-point, this is actually a form of “communication barrier” or even “language barrier” and can lead to some major misunderstandings – whether it involves people directly, businesses, or even on a global political level.

So it’s unfortunate, but when I’m on the phone with clients nowadays, I’ve become somewhat “straight to the point” as well. I don’t mess around with people’s time because I don’t want to lose a potential project on the simple fact that I was “being friendly.” That’s not to say that I am being “unfriendly” – I do in fact occasionally joke around with a client if we’re feeling comfortable with one another – but perhaps it should be considered “professional” by Western standards.