Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Here endeth the lesson

I finally managed - with a further follow-up e-mail - to goad the senior guy at that law firm I was griping about a few weeks ago into giving me an answer as to whether he'd even received my last e-mail about the training/editing position we'd been discussing.

His reply was in flawless English, but decidedly snooty in tone. He claimed that he had been "too busy" to reply (for the whole of the past 5 or 6 weeks, much of which was a holiday in China?), and that he felt that my original e-mail (admittedly quite a detailed discussion of the topic, but with bold-labelled bullet points to facilitate skimming, and a nifty one-paragraph 'executive summary' at the beginning which obviated the need even to do that) would have required a long response which he just didn't have time for.

So, I'm not quite sure what his defence/excuse is here:  bad e-mail management (I meant to reply to you, but I omitted to do so promptly, and then forgot about it), bad time management (I really wanted to reply to you, but I just couldn't find the necessary 5 minutes in my schedule), arrogance (I'm TOO IMPORTANT to bother with little people like you - an unfortunately common mindset in China, particularly amongst 'Red Guard generation' types like this guy), or - most likely - the inveterate Chinese vice of being incapable of delivering 'bad news' (It's just SO embarrassing; I can't bear to be communicating with somebody who might become unhappy with me!).

Well, guess what, shithead - you did make me UNHAPPY with you. And I'm not the sort of person to let something like this lie.

And I'm not so unusual in this. Many Westerners, if you fail to reply to an important e-mail of theirs with even a token acknowledgement (which will only take a minute or two, perhaps just 30 seconds, for heaven's sake!), will send a follow-up e-mail querying the omission; and perhaps a follow-up to that follow-up; and a follow-up to the follow-up to the follow-up. It can go on for a very long time, choking your Inbox, and "embarrassing" you afresh every day. How's that for saving your time? You may eventually feel hounded into giving a response; if so, you haven't even managed to avoid the dreaded "unfortunate confrontation"; and, in fact, it's much worse now, because your correspondent has become pissed off with your cowardly evasiveness.

I continue my Quixotic battle against this most frustrating and self-harming of Chinese business traits. This was the reply I sent to my annoying lawyer:

Dear Mr Wang,

Thank you for getting back to me at last.

It would have taken you no time at all to acknowledge my e-mail, and to tell me briefly that you did not wish to pursue further discussion with me (even if you didn't have time to explain why).

A discussion is not terminated until one party notifies the other that it is terminated.

Of course, it is very difficult to deal with the high volume of e-mail we all receive these days; but it is conspicuous that Chinese people tend to be much worse than most other nationalities at dealing with e-mail promptly and appropriately. In particular, it is an unfortunately common problem that the Chinese seem to prefer to terminate a conversation unilaterally, without letting the other side know, especially if they feel embarrassed about having to give a response that the other side may find disappointing.

As you should know, around most of the rest of the world, and certainly in Western business usage, this is seen as unprofessional, childish, and rude. It makes an enormously bad impression on any foreigners you have contact with. It is probably the No. 1 problem in inter-cultural communication between China and the West. It seriously harms your ability to grow your foreign clientele.

Even if you do not want to make use of my abilities to deal with your English editing needs at present, it is possible that my help in this area might be of value to you at some time in the future - even if only for one-off emergency cover, for example. There are also a number of other ways in which I might be of assistance to you, such as recommending suitable editors/polishers or editing agencies for you, or introducing potential new clients. If you treat someone rudely, they will be unlikely to offer you such help; if you ignore someone's e-mails, they may ignore yours in the future.

Failing to respond to e-mail is a very bad and damaging habit, and I hope that you will succeed in eliminating it at your firm.


Froog - Champion of Good E-Mail Etiquette


John said...

All of this annoying social culture is of course based on ancient 'wisdom' with a Communist bent (that is, selective choice when it suits). A lot of Chinese are nostalgic for the past no matter who's in charge but the idea of a life "lead with the least resistance" is very popular to all, much to the chagrin of the rest of us who don't see it as such at all.
I expect he got the message but it's not going to make him think any differently; you're up against a lot Froog!

JES said...

A recent trend among (even non-Chinese :)) literary agents who accept queries from writers seeking representation: "No reply means 'No.'"

I've made my peace with this policy, sort of; I understand the difficulties they must face in coping with the bombardment of e-queries from wannabe authors. (And I'm by nature unassertive anyhow.)

But many of those wannabes are not so even-tempered about it, and I understand their position as well: you send out a query -- the advertised "wait time" for a response can be four to six weeks - and never receive anything at all. No auto-response. Nothing. Did they even receive the query? No idea. And you can't re-send, or follow up with "Did you get it?"... because "No reply means 'No'" specifically says, We don't want to hear from you, unsolicited, more than once.

Froog said...

I don't approve of this "Assume 'no response' means NO" policy. It has often vexed me with job applications here - the British Embassy are the worst offenders. You simply can't rely on e-mail being received (rather than disappearing in a transient transmission glitch, or being hijacked by this country's censors, or being diverted into a spam folder, or inadvertently deleted) and dealt with appropriately. And it's so easy to set up an auto-reply.

However, not responding to unsolicited enquiries is quite different from the situation here. We were in the middle of a conversation. We had had a face-to-face meeting. Follow-up action had been promised. I had followed up on my side, suggesting a way we could take things forward. This is not a situation in which you just CEASE ALL CONTACT - unless you're Chinese.

Froog said...

I also do not approve of the new look for the Blogger comments window.

What the hell is the point of using a full-screen view, but leaving 80% of it blank?!

I find my eyes roaming around the empty page, wondering where the comments are.

JES said...

Yes, this new comment-form page is very weird. For a moment I'd hoped it would cure the problem I mentioned the other day (with the Preview button and the word-verification captchas), but that's not the case.

I think Google/Blogger must be trying to discourage use of the separate page for comment entry, i.e., to push bloggers to use the embedded comment form at the foot of the post.