Fighting Fair

May 1, 2007 

As I was researching online before my first trip to Thailand, I ran across an interesting Blog.  The writer issued a warning:  "Never get into a bar fight with a Thai."  Now, Thais are known as peaceable, friendly people.  Among my other readings, somewhere along the line, I’ve read that Asian cultures have much lower rates of sociopathy than western cultures.  Especially Thailand.  The question is why.  There’s speculation that Asian children are much more encompassed within their larger family unit, get more socialization and cuddling, and that this tends to snuff out any latent tendencies toward sociopathy.  Thais, in particular, have a reputation for being slow to anger, slower than westerners to fly off the handle.  So, why this advice to avoid the bar fight?  Though it takes more to provoke a Thai, according to the Blogger, if he does fly off the handle he’s gonna kill you.  The blogger put it this way:  "When an Englishman fights, he fights to win.  When a Thai fights, he fights to kill."   So, well, that’s another good piece of advice.  Next time I’m in a bar in Thailand, I’ll be sure to avoid joining in the violent fray, no matter how enticing it otherwise appears.   


I’ve written before about the concept that "what you don’t know, culturally, can hurt you."  It’s important to know the rules.  One of the very minor rules in China is that tipping is not the norm.  Americans like to tip for good service, not realizing that it’s not only not expected here, but in some circumstances might be construed as an insult.  But even knowing this, it’s hard to break the mindset.  But the issue of tipping is small change, literally, compared to another culturally shaped concept I bump up against regularly here.  That is, the concept of fairness.  What is considered "fair" in Asia is very different from what is considered "fair" in the West. 

I chose the Thai bar room brawl analogy deliberately because, as every (western) school boy (or tomboy) knows, when one is in a fight, there are certain things one still doesn’t do.  The things we don’t do are generally categorized as "hitting below the belt."  We Westerners think that certain categories of fighting are unfair and (mostly) we don’t do them:  we don’t hit a man with glasses, we don’t hit below the belt, we don’t hit from behind.  My Thai analogy illustrates that fairness is a hugely cultural concept.  Those rules don’t apply here!  A westerner in Asia had better realize real fast:  there ain’t really a concept of "fighting fair" here!  Maybe I should rather say that what is considered "within limits" is radically different from what a westerner would expect or be comfortable with.   

"Fair" is not defined by the rules we learned on the elementary school playground.  Rather, it’s defined as "whatever I can get by with."  It’s all about finding an advantage and using it for one’s personal benefit.  Nobody thinks anything of what we in the USA call "looking out for number one."  Chinese look out for #1, no matter what the consequences might be for party #2. As they say, "all’s fair in love and war."  Lying, deception, cutting corners, padded envelopes . . . the list could go on for a long time.  It’s a land of "buyer beware" in the extreme!   This is why the Westerner is going to lose the bar fight, as well as the reason that when a person buys an item in a department store, he must still open the box, assemble the item, turn it on, and make sure every aspect of the item is functional before he leaves the store.  It’s also why pet food containing the non-nutritious melamine, which mimics protein in lab tests, was imported into the USA.

(See, NY Times, Business / World Business.  "Filler in Animal Feed Is Open Secret in China," By DAVID BARBOZA and ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO, Published: April 30, 2007 Animal feed produced in China has been regularly supplemented with a cheap additive that is at the center of a pet food recall. )

The key issue, from the Asian’s viewpoint, is not to be "fair," but rather to get the best deal for me.  The issue is, "how hard of a bargain can I strike?"  It’s a matter of pride to get the best price.  Now, let me assure, getting the best price is not done with malicious intent, it’s just an assumed fact of life.  You must look out for your interest, as I will look out for mine.  If we can reach agreement, so much the better.  But the bottom line is always going to be, "what’s best for me," definitely NOT, "can we work a deal that is fair to both."   If melamine is a fifth the price of real protein, and if I can get by with substituting it, and if I don’t personally see any reason not to (for instance if I think there’s enough protein already), why not use it?  I will make more money! 

I’ve written before about dangerous types of fraud here, such as counterfeit antimalarial pills.  I wrote about my own incensed emotional response that the manufacturers of counterfeit antimalarials are guilty, in a moral sense, of murder.  But though I think the forseeability of harm from pushing too hard of a bargain (in the dishonesty department) imparts a component of malice, I don’t think the shopkeeper’s analysis goes that far.  Because, as he views it, his duty is to himself and to his family.  He doesn’t have a societal duty to worry about your or my well being.  It’s up to you and me to protect ourselves, in that regard.  (Another aspect of Asian culture is the fact that there is no duty owed to a stranger; which is one explanation why Asians prefer to do business with relatives and friends.) 

I’ll give an example of how the "no duty to stranger" rule works out in real life. 

A few weeks ago, I was shopping with a Chinese friend.  We were shopping in an area known for hand made batiks.  I found a shop where the man showed me his wax and brushes, his vats for dyeing.  And in the back of the shop I found a wall hanging I liked.  It was not extremely complex, but it was nice and was dyed with four different colors.  I asked him how much he wanted for it, and he said 60 RMB, which is about $8.00 U.S.  I looked around his shop.  It didn’t look like he was selling very much.  I liked his work, which was artistic and unique.  In the back of my mind was the thought, "this guy needs to make a living, too."  Knowing that I am expected to bargain, I offered 50 RMB, which he readily accepted.  The speed with which the guy agreed to take 50 was an immediate clue that I had paid way too much.  He probably would have been happy to take 30 RMB.  But driving the hardest bargain possible was not my primary objective.  My personal, guiding principle, in negotiating, was to be fair and reasonable, to pay a price that would enable this guy to make a living.  How naively American! 

My personal approach is definitely not in keeping with this culture.  When I rejoined my friend, she asked what I had paid.  When I told her she scolded me.  "Next time, wait for me!  I could have gotten this for you for 20 RMB!"   It’s not a malicious thought, to get the absolute lowest, rock bottom price.  She’s not a mean or vindictive person; she doesn’t wish ill on the other person.  She just doesn’t care so much what happens to him.  It’s a slight difference in perspective.  As I was walking with my friend on this day, pondering this exact issue, I noticed how many hordes of people there are here, all needy.  And culturally, no one is going to help the stranger.  So, "looking out for number one" is perhaps, actually, a cultural imperative.  There is always another beggar, always someone needy.  The dumb American (figuratively speaking, of course), who gives away too much, could end up with nothing and no place to turn for help in return.   And this population, I must remember, is one that survived the famine of the 1960’s.  The ones who survived were, indeed, the ones who took care of their own survival first, no?  

So, what is the significance of these differences in perspective?  I remember my law school contracts professor giving my class the explicit advice that a fair deal is often the most advantageous deal.  Why?  Because if one side feels they have been cheated, they will be looking for ways to cut corners and get out of the deal.  If both sides feel the deal is fair, the Western mindset goes, they will be less likely to try and break the deal or cut corners.  My contracts professor was making the advice as a matter of risk avoidance:  if a contract were drafted with fairness in mind, and parties felt it was fair, then they would both be inclined to adhere to their contract, leading to less risk of litigation later.  What an American perspective! 

Building a deal around fairness is not so relevant to the Chinese mind.  It’s more about advantage.  While the American guy is thinking he has a fair deal, the Chinese guy is seeing someone who can be played a bit more.  Let’s get it all settled, or seeming to be so, we might even draft a contract, and then after he’s on the hook I’ll jerk the chain just a bit tighter.  As a matter of power, you’ve always got to be willing to walk away.  

My Chinese friend gave me lessons on how to do this.  She instructed me, "Say your bargaining price in a gruff voice, then walk away quickly as fast as you can.  No other conversation or small talk!  It’s important to show no hesitation about walking away, to be ruthlessly mercenary, to show no interest, no matter how badly you want the item."  She found it a bit amusing that I asked each shopkeeper nicely, "Can you make it a bit cheaper?"  They said I was making two huge errors.  First, I was too nice about asking.  Second, I left it up to the shopkeeper to set the discount.  Thirdly, I suppose, is that I was showing too much interest in the object.  My approach, she said, might result in a 5 RMB price reduction, not a 50 RMB price reduction. 

To demonstrate the skill she wanted me to learn, my friend challenged me to pick a silver bracelet that she would bargain down for a good price for me. I chose a thick, silver bracelet that is carved with an intricate dragon and phoenix surrounding a central pearl.  The dragon and phoenix are the symbols of the emperor and the empress of China.  The dragon governs worldly affairs and the phoenix governs home and harvest, and the pearl shape in the center represents the middle kingdom.  (It’s a pretty nice piece, if it’s real, though I don’t really know if the silver is pure or not, since, well gee, you see what I’m writing about?!!  Do YOU think it’s real?! Anyway . . . .)  The vendor, a member of the Miao ethnic minority who are known for silver work, stated she wanted 100 RMB for the bracelet.  My friend barked sharply, “Twenty!” then ushered me at lightning speed to the next stall, moving on from that vendor.  Some words exchanged between them as we were in the next stall.  I didn’t understand all the Chinese, but I stayed behind when my friend returned to the stall to haggle a bit more.  The vendor said she would take 50, and so my friend briskly walked away and joined me again, where I waited.  Finally, then the vendor followed after us and said she would take 20.  So now I have a 20 RMB, wonderful silver bracelet — which may or may not be real silver — as a souvenir of a very memorable shopping experience!  

As this demonstrates, the objective is to get the best possible price, period.  I’ve been with Chinese friends who haggled 30 minutes over paying 3 RMB versus 5 RMB to a shoe repairman on the street.  While I’m observing this interaction, I’m thinking — to myself only of course, since if I were to breathe a word of disagreement it would disadvantage my friend in the negotiation — that the shoe repairman might need to eat that day, too, and how much is 2 RMB in the grand scheme of life.  But to some people, 2 RMB is a heck of a lot!  My housekeeper told me that when she first started work in 1976, she earned 20 RMB in an entire month! 

That was during the days of the iron rice bowl.  Things have changed now, and China is now extremely capitalist in its outlook, in my opinion.  Fairness is the pure, capitalist notion of what a willing party is willing to pay a willing seller.  On the flip side of that capitalist equation, I’ve been with a different Chinese friend who let me pay about triple the fair price for something in a market.  When I found out, I asked her later why she didn’t say anything to me while I was bargaining.  She replied, "It’s your money, and it’s what you were willing to pay.  You can do with your money what you like!"   

Obviously, I’m such a failure as a negotiator that I’ll never join the ranks of the wealthy!  I console myself with the thought that the Good Samaritan’s actions weren’t in keeping with the mindset of his culture, either.  For the most part, I try to live by the rules of the culture I’m in, but strike a balance with my own values.  And I try to at least be aware and intentional in the way I demonstrate my cultural values.  I don’t normally tip, but sometimes I do, often with a special word of thanks.  I do bargain, but only to a level that is comfortable for me, and I do notice whether the person I’m bargaining against seems to be one mouthful away from hunger. 

I’m aware that my generosity is sometimes perceived as stupidity.  Indeed, a Hong Kong shopkeeper once told me why he likes Americans as customers.  He says, "Indians have money, but they are very sharp.  They’re skilled negotiators, and they haggle a hard bargain.  Americans, on the other hand, are great customers.  They have a lot of money, and they’re not too smart."  A fool and his money are, truly, soon parted!  I guess, after first accepting that I’ll never be wealthy, I have to admit to myself that my true, main goal is not to end up dead on the bar room floor. 


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