Yes, you can

Written by Julen Madariaga on November 12th, 2008

Last weekend, as I was browsing the net for some material to get over my post electoral withdrawal, I came across this iconic Obama.

I didn’t know exactly what it was, but something in it looked very familiar. Very Chinese. I saved it in my Obama bookmarks, and didn’t think of it again until Sunday evening.

That was the evening when I went to the barber’s to have my hair uncut.

I like the barber down the road, I’ve been going there every month since I came to Shanghai, and by now he knows exactly what I like. This is a great advantage, because I am always at a loss when giving instructions to a Chinese hairdresser. I feel even more embarrassed when they proceed to show me pictures of men supermodels, and rather optimistically ask me to point at one of them.

But Wu Shifu will do none of that. He is a no nonsense professional, and he delivers 20 kuai worth of real styling value. A true perfectionist, he takes care of every detail and will not give up until every single hair is at the right lenght.  Every now and then he stops cutting and reaches for the little mirror with which he shows me around my own head, asking eagerly if all sides are well shaped, and secretly hoping that I will request some virtuoso manoeuvre, perhaps a re-balancing of my temples.

Like usual, last Sunday the man was doing a great job. When it was almost finished and he came up with the little mirror for the 5th time, I thought I might as well give him some little bit of satisfaction for the trouble. And, since we are at it, why not test him for Chinese characteristics.

- Is it OK this side? And here? And the top?

- Um, no, no. Too short over the top, I will have it a bit longer this time.

- Uh, er… longer what, here?

- Yes, please, can you do that?

- Yes we can!-  Snap, snap, snap.

And there he goes snapping away with his scissors, cutting the air close to my head in his efficient fashion, and probably thinking that if he goes on for long enough, my hair will have actually grown longer by the time he is done with it. After 5 minutes of cutting the air thin, while I watched the ultra boring Shenhua-Tianjin  on his TV, I decided that my hair was long enough already, and informed him thus.

- Thank you, master Wu, it looks much better now.

“Yes we can” is the magical phrase that’s always ready in the mouth of the Han. It has the extraordinary power of making the impossible possible.

The “yes we can” phenomenon is one of the most remarkable Chinese characteristics, and one that few Westerners fail to notice. Some explain it as a consequence of the Chinese constant obsession to save face. I take the view that it has more to do with their culture of group and consensus. In such cultures, the only way to obtain something from a discussion is to be extremely cautious with the other party’s sensibilities, and make sure that nothing is said to arouse even the slightest bad feelings. Feelings tend to get in the way of consensus.

Now, I know this kind of behaviour is found at the very least annoying by most Westerners dealing with Chinese, but this is only a consequence of the clash of cultures and the aggressive rationalism that characterises us. The interesting question here is: is this an effective way of conducting human activities, and in particular business and politics? I think it is. By humouring the other party and managing its sensibilities, the Chinese negotiator can slowly erode its position, and end up getting an upper side in many difficult situations. I strongly recommend the reading of Carl Crow for some funny anecdotes of table-banging devils in China.

Some day, when I am allowed to speak about my work here, I will tell some funny stories about negotiations held with a Chinese company by the extraordinary and exhausting method of achieving consensus. Remind me also to speak about the longest meeting in my life, which I am submitting for Guiness book approval. It lasted 12 days non stop, weekends included, during the first weeks of July 2008 in Beijing. Panda eyes, flocks of Kaoya and Litres of baijiu were the price to pay to be able to reach a common understanding on whatever it was that they wanted us to understand.

All this being said, Iet’s remember some of the memorable moments of yes we can-ism in China that have happened in recent times:

  • When asked if they could deal with the developing SARS epidemic, local officials reportedly answered: Yes we can.
  • When asked if they could ensure free press during the Olympics, Chinese government officials said: Yes we can.
  • More recently, now that the financial crisis is being felt hard in the world, Russia, USA and many other countries ask China if it will guarantee the world’s stability. Yes, we can!
  • One of the most scary and best documented cases in the history of yes we can-ism: In year 59, Mao asked the Party cadres that he met at the local Communes: can you produce tons of high quality steel with these makeshift backyard furnaces? Yes we can!!  In case you are not familiar with the history of China, you can read about the disastrous consequences of this answer here.

It is easy to see the bad side of a consensus culture when we look at these examples, and I can understand that you may have mixed feelings about it. But it might be as well to remember that, without this characteristic, China would probably have never managed to create the strong, united country that is preparing to rule the world of tomorrow.

In the meantime, the rational, table-banging inhabitants on the other side of the world have been too busy arguing and fighting endless wars, and even today are not capable of taking any consistent decision in their precarious European Union.

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