中国法律博客
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Don’t Stare at the Other Monkey: Getting Your Cross-Border Deal Done
媒体来源: 中国法律博客

evil_monkeyThis blog primarily concerns news of the day, or if I'm busy or hungover the news of the week. It is not focused on business advice — I'm not very comfortable telling people how to use chopsticks properly, whether they should eat duck's brain, or how many toasts of baijiu one needs to keep down before vomiting is permissible.

I've always tried to keep it simple when advising foreign clients, mostly because I think business advice is 80% common sense. It should come as no surprise therefore that I rarely read/pay attention to the usual "How to do business in China" monograph, which seemingly every ex-pat who has lived here for more than six months inevitably writes.

As I've mentioned on many occasions, my business advice can be summarized with the following: "Don't be an asshole." This is no doubt trite, but it gets my point across nicely. I honestly believe that if your average businessman, or lawyer for that matter, treated his counterpart with a bit more respect and courtesy, transactions and long-term relationships would benefit.

When conveying my favorite tagline, I usually expect one of two responses. Either the person already agrees with me, and then gives my fragile ego a lift by telling me how brilliant my philosophy is, or they think that my call for civility is a sign of weakness — these folks usually call me an idiot, and some vow never to work with "a pussy" like me again lest some of "the stink" rubs off on them. (I knew working on a deal involving Dick Cheney was a bad idea . . .)

Those conversations are generally brief and to the point. You either agree with it or you don't. I always thought it would be nice, however, if I had a little more ammunition to back up my claims.

As usual, Wired Magazine comes to the rescue, specifically an article about primate behavior. As anyone can tell you, the world of business can best be described, and best understood, as a bunch of monkeys trying to prove their dominance while the rest of the group throws feces at you. Your average lawyer wishes he was as evolved as a monkey — I think our profession is unfortunately stuck in reptilian mode most of the time, and I'm not just talking about litigators!

Some new research not only explains some interesting human behavior, and its similarities to other primate behavior, but it may also suggest how best to behave when you're stuck in a room negotiating a deal.

[T]he way people act towards others when they ride together in an elevator suggests that they have serious concerns about their own safety.

If the elevator is crowded, everybody stands still and stares at the ceiling, the floor or the button panel as if they’ve never seen it before. If two strangers ride together in the elevator, they stand as far as possible from each other, don’t face each other directly, don’t make eye contact and don’t make any sudden movements or noises.

Much of people’s behavior in elevators is not the result of rational thinking. It’s an automatic, instinctive response to the situation. The threat of aggression is not real, yet our mind responds as if it is, and produces behaviors meant to protect ourselves.

Elevators are relatively recent inventions, but the social challenges they pose are nothing new. Close proximity to other people in restricted spaces is a situation that has occurred millions of times in the history of humankind.

When two rhesus macaques are trapped together in a small cage, they try everything they can to avoid fighting. Moving with caution, acting indifferent and suppressing all the behaviors that could trigger aggression are good short-term solutions to the problem. The monkeys sit in a corner and avoid any random movements that might inadvertently cause a collision, because even a brief touch could be interpreted as the beginning of hostile action. Mutual eye contact must also be avoided because, in monkey language, staring is a threat.

The monkeys look up in the air, or at the ground, or stare at some imaginary point outside the cage. But as time passes, sitting still and feigning indifference are no longer sufficient to keep the situation under control. Tension between the prisoners builds, and sooner or later one of them will lose her temper.

To avoid immediate aggression, and also to reduce stress, an act of communication is needed to break the ice and make it clear to the other monkey that no harm is intended or expected. Macaque monkeys bare their teeth to communicate fear and friendly intentions. If this “bared-teeth display” — the evolutionary precursor of the human smile — is well received, it can be a prelude to grooming.

frustrated-monkeyFirst lesson for business. You may need to take a long elevator ride in an office tower to get to your meeting with your Chinese counterpart. If someone is in the elevator with you, try not to feel self-conscious when staring at the ceiling of the elevator — everyone does it, and you are just channeling your inner monkey. Smile to reduce tension. However, and although I am not Chinese, I think I can say this with a measure of certainty, I would draw the line at smiling and not proceed to any grooming behavior unless you know the person. Grooming a total stranger is frowned upon in polite Chinese society.

Second, and perhaps you can do this during that long elevator ride, you really need to figure out what your personal, emotional agenda is when stepping into that negotiation. That uncomfortable feeling on the elevator is our irrational monkey brain telling us that the other person is a threat. I've seen lots of CEOs, CFOs and lawyers march into that boardroom thinking that they need to screw over the other guy as quickly and harshly as possible before the same thing happens to them. Sure, throwing feces may work as a negotiation strategy, but probably only with low level flunkies, not with the CEO of a State-owned Enterprise.

angry-monkeyThird, body language matters. Everyone learns how to make small talk of course, but some people are a lot better at it than others. If you're dealing with a cross-cultural situation, you better come prepared with something to talk about. If you can't demonstrate to the other monkey, by baring your teeth, that you are not his enemy, hostilities may ensue. Chimps take care of a threat to their dominance by tearing out the throat of their opponent and, just in case he lives and attempts to procreate in the future, rips off his balls. Just a guess on my part, but I would not consider that to be a positive business outcome, no matter whether you are the ripper or the rippee.

Fourth, you've all heard about lengthy negotiation sessions and how poor jetlagged foreigners "give up" to their Chinese counterparts after 12 hours in a cramped boardroom. I've also seen folks get increasingly frustrated and lose their tempers after negotiations drag on. Your inner monkey has a time limit, and if you can't resolve this hostile situation relatively quickly, someone is going to start playing the dominance game (see above). If you wish to remain fertile, and you definitely don't want things to go that way, take time out (scientists refer to this as a "banana break") if need be to reset and let your inner monkey cool down.

By the way, this discussion is not entirely esoteric. I have it on good authority that Apple and China Mobile were in the final stages of a deal that would have brought the iPhone to China this past April. Unfortunately the deal fell through after, you guessed it, feces were thrown by a regional CFO when his numbers were challenged.

On a more positive note, the recently announced sale of 15% of the Cleveland Cavaliers NBA franchise to a Chinese investment group apparently involved very tough and intensive negotiations. The talks broke down late one evening over cultural differences that were successfully bridged when principal owner Dan Gilbert began grooming Huang Jianhua. During a subsequent press conference, Gilbert chalked up the deal to both sides having learned to express their inner monkeys. This was a bold move on Gilbert's part; as I mentioned above, you generally want to avoid such behavior unless the other person is a spouse, child, or Joint Venture partner.

monkey-thinking

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