Little white lies in business relationships (or how to have a headache in 60 seconds or less)

headache Little white lies in business relationships (or how to have a headache in 60 seconds or less)

The following is the first in series of posts chronicling and at times ranting about  icon_wink Little white lies in business relationships (or how to have a headache in 60 seconds or less)  , some of the (often frustrating) experiences we encountered working with some local Chinese partners. While a excellent (though costly) learning experience, needless to say this particular partner relationship has now ended.


Little white lies…

headache-300x225 Little white lies in business relationships (or how to have a headache in 60 seconds or less)
Anyone have an aspirin?

Something I found extraordinarily annoying, really hard to stomach, and terribly counter productive, is the tendency for some Chinese partners and suppliers to blurt out what ones knows is definitely a lie, rather then simply state the facts and subsequently determine what to do about them. Sure, we all know telling a white lie in order to preserve face is accepted here in China, but why tell a much bigger lie knowing that chances of it coming back to haunt (in the short term even) you are better then 100%? The focus seemed to be on answering the question as quickly as possible, with the lest effort in a “satisfactory manner” today, rather then address the actual issue at hand to avoid problems tomorrow. And often the mechanism employed was a white lie.

Case in point.

A typical dialogue  with our partner (If you speak Chinese, verbalize this in Chinese and it will make perfect sense):


  • ACF: “How are we coming along with this item. Will it be finished on schedule?
  • Partner: Definitely.
  • ACF: How far along are we?
  • Partner: In the warehouse, already started.
  • ACF: So, can I assure them it will be ready for transport by Friday?
  • Partner: Definitely.
  • ACF: 100% sure?
  • Partner: 100% sure.
  • ACF: You really sure? You know it has to be delivered on Friday?
  • Partner: 100% sure.
  • ACF: It has to be delivered on Friday.
  • Partner: No problem!


The next day, in follow up, the dialogue repeats itself. Same conversation. Same assurances. Early on, we learned two things: A) if you need it on Saturday, best to set the deadline for Friday (better Thursday)  and B) verification is the key to success. In this case, that means both calling over to the workers themselves and one of our own staff  going to the factory to visually inspect progress themselves.

This generally resulted in us determining one or all of the following:


  • The item in question hasn’t  even been started.
  • Its sitting in the warehouse and has not even been moved into the work area.
  • What item?!? None of the workers had informed about it nor knew it was to be finished within a few days
  • It was on the schedule but had been pulled off of it to work on something “more pressing.”


Conversation 2

    • Partner: Is there a problem?
    • ACF: Yes!
    • ACF: You told me this was in progress, now I find its not even started.
    • Partner: Aiya..!
    • ACF: What are we supposed to do now?!?!?
    • Partner: You never gave me the paperwork.
    • ACF: (pull out the paperwork) You have had the paperwork for weeks. You signed for it on xxx date.
    • Partner: Aiya….. (pause)…. When is the delivery date?
    • ACF: Friday!!!
    • Partner: Aiya…
    • Partner: Can they wait a few days longer?
    • ACF: WTF?!
    • Partner: Its tight but… we can do it… we will have to work fast.
    • ACF: How did this happen? You told me 100% this was in process
    • Partner: Aiya….. I Forgot….
    • ACF: Its on the schedule. Its been on the schedule for ages. I reminded you several times about this. The production staff reminded you several times about this.  How could you have possibly forgotten?
    • Partner: You know, I am so busy, so many things to take care of.
    • ACF: Busy? Yesterday afternoon, I saw you sitting in the office playing poker on QQ (computer). How is that busy?
    • Partner: You know, I so busy and have some much pressure on me. Running the factory is a lot of headaches, a lot of troubles. I have to relax sometimes.
    • ACF: Really? (sarcastic tone).
    • ACF: Really not interested in hearing about your problems. Managing the customers, quality control, orders, accounting, deliveries and the rest of the back office is a lot of pressure and troubles as well.
    • Partner: Aiya..
    • Partner: I better go and get this taken care of right away! (rushes off…)

Generally the result was a) the order had to be rushed b) problems with quality occurred c) our staff had to work overtime to make sure it was done and d) in many cases the entire order would need to be redone (at our expense) and/or redelivered a second time.

The main issue here seemed to be that the primary goal was always to address the question at hand with the least resistance and as expediently as possible, rather then taking action on the actual issue. It was almost as if, in his mind that by assuring me the order/item was “in process” he seemed to solving the problem! While there were instances where everyone involved was extremely busy where certain things were genuinely overlooked, much of the time, this seemed to be an autonomic ”white lie” response – one conditioned into the brain over the many years: don’t think – just give the “right” answer. Maybe its a problem with different ethical systems?

Thats not to say this is universal – the smart Chinese partner will knows that by getting a handle on things today, you will save yourself loads of time, money and headaches tomorrow.

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