When to cry “uncle” in international business

Filed under: Global Business — September 17, 2010 @ 8:12 pm

Think of it in our terms: A young man disagrees with his father. He can’t seem to get his point across, or out of respect (or fear), won’t express a view contrary to his father’s.

What is he to do?

In many situations, he can consult with his uncle and ask him for advice, or to act as an intermediary. His uncle has more expertise and maturity, and a different kind of relationship with the father. Therefore, he may be more effective.

As a child in this country, I often was introduced to my parents’ friends who held the honorary title of uncle. “Uncle Morty” wasn’t my father’s brother, but the title conveyed respect to him.
This dynamic is true in many Asian countries. The terms “uncle” and “aunt” or “auntie” to describe an older person deserving of respect are used throughout Chinese-speaking countries, India, The Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and much of the Middle East. It’s a compliment.

What types of things can you discuss with your “uncle”? Basically, the relationship has no limits. And the more willing the parties are to be close, the more subjects that are covered.

In international business negotiations, an uncle can be a great benefit. Having received the compliment (as well as having given it many times), I have lived through the advantages of having one and the handicap of being without one.

My international “uncles” help with everything from business introductions, to avoiding cultural pitfalls, to arranging logistics within their countries during my visits.
The greatest task that the uncle seems to perform is as a trusted go-between, so that both parties can communicate and offer ideas.

Why not speak directly at all times with Asian counterparts? Because often, an idea can be rejected. Because the concept of losing face is so dear to many Asians, it helps to use third parties as a way of being indirect.

The message receiver retains face; if the idea is ignored, dismissed or augmented, it happens by way of this trusted adviser.

For the message sender, there is no loss of face either. They don’t have to experience a potentially difficult rejection of their thoughts. When the audience for the idea is unhappy, the idea’s creator or champion isn’t there to see it. When the idea is a poor one, it easily can be rejected by the other party without embarrassment — if there’s an uncle.

Negotiations can be tricky in Asia and many parts of Central and Eastern Europe. There are usually many hidden agendas and a lot of role playing in meetings. Add to this that Asians often enjoy the negotiating process. They enjoy hammering out the details and like to feel powerful.
One way power can be achieved is by setting (and delaying) the timetable of dialogues. Westerners often complain that their negotiations went on far longer than necessary. They complain of exhaustion, lack of ethics and big social commitments during the negotiating process.

Your uncle can relieve some of this burden. And as a third party, the uncle can take a step back and not take anything personally when negotiations heat up. Your uncle often can explain the ethics to you and relieve some of your social pressures.

Other ways your uncle can help you:
• The mere mention of an uncle will ingratiate you to your Asian counterparts. When you say “on the advice of my uncle,” you are showing Asians you know more about their culture than the average visitor.
• Uncles can help follow up business meetings with a local presence.
• Uncles can haggle with hotels, shopkeepers and taxi drivers for you.
• Uncles can train you in cross cultural understanding.
Uncles can prepare you for your meetings.
• Uncles have friends. Thus you can get an uncle network.
• Uncles can act as occasional interpreters.
• Uncles can collect debts you’re owed.
• Uncles can tell you when you’re wrong.

This last point is crucial. Many executives trudge forward in their businesses and never hear honesty. Highly successful Western businesspeople usually make a lot of money. Thus, how can they be wrong when they earn so much?

In the words of one of my clients, “I made $16 million last year. How much did you make?”
Asians are too indirect and sensitive about losing face. Central Europeans seem to have an overall skepticism that permeates all discussions. Thus the untrained Westerner may never know what the reality is, as he is never told directly — and an executive’s employees may be too scared to tell him that he’s messing up the negotiations.

Seniority and hierarchy are respected in Asia. Your uncle should be older than you, and thus possess more life experiences.

And beyond the age, know-how and wisdom, make sure your uncle is able to be brutally honest with you.

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