Lie to me Because we’re Friends

Truth Hurts

“Lie” is a strong word but I’ve decided I’m going to use it anyway… As westerners get in closer touch with Asian counterparts, who seemingly hold the future of the global economy in their hands, we are tasked with understanding their ways. By “ways” I mean culture, language, and identity. You could read volumes on Chinese culture, history, and customs, but they wouldn’t prepare you for the actual events that you will inevitably experience. Just like reading the operation manual of a submarine, you might find that just jumping into one and tinkering with the controls would be loads more effective. But you should remember a few pointers and “lie to me because you care” is one of them.

Like I said, “lie” is a strong word and it shouldn’t be thrown around effortlessly anywhere in the world. Specifically, when you anticipate that you are being lied to in China, it’s always better to examine their underlying interests rather than jumping toward accusations or scoring points. Misunderstandings are one of the major contributors to failure for westerners in China. That’s probably because we often look at business situations and friendships in black and white. We deal in immediate cause and effect, whereas our Chinese friends don’t believe it is that simple.

AL.ME related article — “Fibs are for Friends: Dishonesty a Virtue in China”

In business, Americans might believe we are good negotiators because we come from a society in which we start new relationships with the expectation of trust before doubt. “Here’s $50,000 for 50 industrial washing machines. Done.” Giving others the benefit of the doubt, provided that the American legal system will back us up,  allows for a speedy business environment. No friendship is necessary in most cases. But in China it is quite the opposite.

You will have to become friends before you can do any real business together here. A trust deficiency exists in relationships with those they’ve never met before or with those who don’t have intermediate relationships in place. I consider it a kind of natural paranoia generated by a long history of internal war and invasion by outsiders.

Everyone Lies a Little

Now, what does all this have to do with “lying”? First of all, since relationships are crucial to get anything done here it is extremely important not to offend or upset your friends. Everything you say, even in passing, could be misinterpreted. For example, you got into a small car accident that was your fault and you can’t go to a scheduled business dinner tonight. When you tell others that you can’t go, you should say “I’m not feeling well” instead of mentioning the car accident.  Why? Well, if you told the others you were in a car accident they would be concerned about your health. Maybe they will try to find you and pick you up. Or even worse, they might think that you aren’t a safe driver… or have some other embarrassing flaws.

A colleague of mine from JNU once confessed, “I hate how dishonest my culture is.” She said this shortly after her son excused himself from our office by saying “my phone doesn’t get good reception in here.” Anticipated concern about how others might perceive you or your actions is at the forefront of Chinese social behavior. Respect, honor, reputation, and other aspects of culture also greatly influence the kind of “lying” you will experience out here. I’m constantly discussing Honesty with my Chinese girlfriend, who finds me to be awkwardly direct and truthful. To her, its shameful for a man to say he’s wrong or that he needs help in some way.

During the financial struggles in the US over the past 5 years, I’m sure some people have told their spouses that they still have the job which they were laid off from during a string of cost-cutting. Saving face is universal, but I’ve never experienced it to such a degree as in China. I know this kind of “lying” exists elsewhere and I’m sure you’ve had experiences with it too. Please share them in a comment below!

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