On meeting people

When preparing for a meeting, whether it’s a potential business connection or a date, it is tempting to think: what is it that I want from my counterpart? And what is it that I need to show them or tell them to get it? But presence has a funny way of surprising us, if we let her. And a simple conversation may reveal unexpected alignments and life-changing common paths ahead.

If we let her. This requires more than listening for the right cue to drop our set piece, meanwhile asking polite questions to build rapport. What shared experiences will trigger trust? Family? Geography? Similar taste in food or wine? Or a seemingly worthless but oh-so-worth-it choice of study major? There is no knowing in advance. Closeness will come in a flash, but first, there may be long, disjointed exchanges.

Often, lacking faith in the powers of genuine curiosity, we fall back on safer patterns. Let’s get to business. This is what I want. What’s your bottom line? What’s in it for you? What’s your price? The transaction might occur; the magic doesn’t. Goods, money, services, bodily fluids are exchanged: the parties can leave. But nothing new to the world has appeared. And frustration lingers.

Marketing will be the end of me

I just wrote on my facebook page that ‘I absolutely, entirely and completely hate marketing.’

There was a context to the statement. On the 5th of October, I’m co-organising an event at a Melbourne artistic centre, with a partner university. I am supposed to make a flier for this event, but had to postpone this morning, because I need to clarify the exact requirements of one partner, and wait for the logo of another. I’m not in touch with the marketing department of either organisations, but only intermediaries. Result, I am annoyed, in the dark, and cannot start this piece of work (hence time to write this blog post).

This is certainly not the first time I got annoyed at a marketing department. The basic premise is very sound: of course, partners put effort into a joint event, and should be fully acknowledged. However the practical details are where the devil hides – Should there be a logo? How big should it be? Where can I place it? Where do I get the right version? Is there a colour scheme? A font? A standard sentence I have to put in? In the same font, or a smaller font? Is there an approval process? Who approves? How long does it take? Multiply this by the number of partners involved, and you start understanding the problem, especially when you’re running on a piece of thread, like many cultural organisations do.

At a deeper level, I believe the problem is cultural. The tone used for all marketing matters, in my experience, is typically threatening and hostile. Things are generally ‘requested’, but the actual power relationship is left unclear, as much as the consequence of disobedience. Will the partner pull off because they’re not on the flier as they wish? Will they never work together again, no matter how good the event? Or will I somehow harm my contact person within the partner organisation if I do not handle marketing properly? Maybe marketing studies showed that leaving the consequence of disobedience to sheer imagination was a good and cost-effective compliance strategy?

As a result of this hostile ‘requesting’ culture, I have come to repeatedly experience partnerships which started from mutual shared goals and values as ones of mutual mistrust. Will I acknowledge partnerships? Will they hold their end of the deal? Is there a secret plot to undermine and threaten each other? This is poison.

Friends working in the non-profit and cultural sector – I have questions for you:

a) Have you ever had a bad experience with the marketing department or requests of a partner organisation?

b) Would you agree that strict marketing standards, multi-layered approval processes, and general marketing hostility, when you’re running joint events on a piece of thread, add a much unwanted burden to everyone’s life?

c) Is there any place that already lists ‘annoying partners’ – organisations that are difficult to work with, because they not only impose bizarre marketing requirements, but also use hostile bureaucratese?

d) Should we league to change the culture – and start from a basic expectation that established organisations should not make life difficult for small non-profits, and prioritise support to mutually beneficient events, rather than imposing hostile approval systems and marketing standards?

Why I quit class – Trust and teaching institutions

I’ve been to class once in the last month, and I may not return. I don’t think I’m a lazybones, my Mandarin has been growing steadily, and I have made significant progress on all projects I came here with. But classes have been a great disappointment. I’d like to reflect more on the reasons why I decided to no longer attend the course I enrolled in. 

Superficially, my decision was based on a simple premise: attending classes required considerable amounts of energy, but only yielded limited results in areas of low priority for me (specialised vocabulary and advanced character recognition). On a personal level, my teachers were enthusiastic, smart, and encouraging. But the shape of the course and evaluation, rather than serving as a learning accelerator, was a cause of stress and made me passive – impairing the goals I had set myself, whether for cultural understanding, network development, or actual language learning. The contradiction became very manifest after I returned from a trip up North to meet a number of partners in a literary project I’m putting together. And again, after a trip to Shanghai attending a conference on Social Enterprise models. My teachers already knew I was doing a lot outside of class, and I told them I wouldn’t sit exams. Then I stopped attending, and shifted my focus outside.

I have written elsewhere about the lack of personalised goal-setting, how classes lacked proper differentiated learning, and how I ended up in a class too difficult for me, but with a more suited learning speed. These factors played a role in my decision to stop attending university. But the core reason is more fundamental: I developed a radical lack of trust in the system. That lack of trust started through rumours and hearsay, voices warning me that the Chinese education system was teacher-centric, inefficient, dull. I arrived doubtful, and was not proven wrong. After a month, I entirely stopped believing  that Nanjing University and I shared a similar goal – increase my ability to speak, read, write and understand Chinese based on my current level and future needs – but started to believe instead that the system has a goal of its own, and would not hesitate to trample over me for the sake of its internal logic.

From the start, and at a very material level, the university didn’t seem to care much about my well-being, or that of my fellow students. Registration was one of the most painful administrative processes I ever experienced. I queued for a total of 7 hours over two days, not knowing at any point whether I had all the required paperwork, or would need to come back again, and encountering nothing but seemingly rigid bureaucracy. Later, I shifted levels upwards from ‘Gao Xia’ to ‘Wenhua Ban’ because the speed of progress was too slow, but also because one of the classes had no working air-con. Daytime temperatures in Nanjing vary from 35 degrees in early September to 4 degrees or less in December. After two days of heavy sweating in class, temperature control didn’t seem a trivial matter anymore, and I chose the class in a room with air-con. These negative experiences had nothing to do with the curriculum – they shaped my experience nonetheless, and from the onset, made me doubtful about the level of care that students could expect from this institution.

Evaluation, however, was the root of the problem. In both ‘Gao Shang’ and ‘Gao Xia’ classes, teachers announced weekly ‘dictation’ tests on new vocabulary. I didn’t sign in to be failed for lacking skills I never intended to build. Hand-writing disconnected lists of new words is far from my top priority. In our ‘Oral Chinese’ class, a core part of our final exam will require us to write a short essay (by hand), and a vocabulary test. Isn’t the class about spontaneously telling a story, or taking part in a conversation? That’s my goal at least, and a legitimate one I think. If a test is not adequately measuring against learning goals, then how can I trust that it will reveal anything about my success or failure? More importantly, how is it going to tell my teachers – or myself – anything about my future learning needs? And if it doesn’t – should I still attend the classes that prepare for it? Maybe I should have asked for special treatment – but the culture was far from inviting to that option.

Universities are complex institutions, with their own performance management systems and internal feedback loops. Student evaluation occurs within this framework, and is not exclusively based on pedagogy. Beside, students from different backgrounds carry their own expectations, and vocabulary quizz may be what they wish to be tested on. I’m an atypical Mandarin learner: whether the system is radically flawed, or whether it simply doesn’t suit me, I’m not sure. Trust is a personal matter.

Maybe these early weeks I did attend class had a positive effect on me, maybe they simply taught me what I needed to study. In the end, my Mandarin did improve significantly over the five months I spent in China, I learnt a lot about the country, and I’m now collaborating with local student clubs to run translation workshops – not to mention the networks I built and projects I progressed. It has been a superbly valuable stay. Still, I feel that something was wasted. My own time and early enthusiasm; the time and skills of my teachers; and the learning bond I could have made with my fellow students.

I wonder how often learning institutions fail in their mission because students stop trusting them, and whether it’s a problem with no solution – that some individuals will just always be dissatisfied by the system – or whether there are simple (or complex) ways to make the situation better, and develop stronger trust between teachers, students and curriculum designers – and people attending learn better.

Chinese lowlights – internet and hardware

Internet has been the lowlight of my time in China. Unreliable, slow, and expensive. At home, I used a 3G stick from China Unicom: 300 yuan for nine gigabytes, three nationally, six locally. The first one went quickly – I bought a second from a small shop, which turned out to be registered in another province, and so ran out after three gigabytes of usage only. Neither anger nor diplomacy got any result from the shop ladies, so I bought a third stick, which has lasted me till now. Overall, the connection was highly unstable and slow, with or without VPN. As for cafes (or even youth hostels), WIFI quality was a regular source of frustration – it varied from place to place and from day to day, without any clear explanation. Bad internet connection affected my mood and productivity considerably. I run online projects, I have collaborators in Australia: if I can’t get online, I can’t work. As time passed, my patience wore off, and in the last month, I have seen myself give up a few times before midday, after spending long periods of time re-loading pages in between timeouts.

Hardware issues made the matter worse. I bought a MacBook Air in October 2012 – it came highly recommended, and indeed, I found it amazingly practical to use. Then in October 2013, while I was visiting a friend in Tianjin, just before a week of back-to-back meetings in Beijing, my computer crashed: a flashing folder with a question mark appeared on the screen when I tried turning it on. The SanLiTun store delivered harsh news, my flash-drive needed changing – all data was lost. More annoying, they didn’t have a spare part. After much insistence, I got them to order the piece in a Shanghai store, and set up an external boot-disk, so I could use my computer in the mean time. Planning an appointment in Shanghai was another ordeal – their complicated and all-in-Mandarin online appointment system didn’t work, and the phone assistant refused to help. But in the end, I got my computer fixed, and an apology from the manager for the bad experience over the phone. All important data was on dropbox and google docs, and I got over the annoyance.

Then four days ago, as I was browsing the net at a friend’s house, my screen froze. The flashing folder was back. I went to the Shanghai Apple store this morning, and got the same harsh news: my flash-drive died.  They were decent enough to recognise that after three months, this was an embarrassment. ‘SSD drives never break’, said the guy from the Genius Bar. But they didn’t have a spare part for me, so I’ll have to get the thing fixed in Melbourne. Fortunately, I bought a warranty extension in October – so won’t have to pay extra. And fortunately, I did regular back ups on time-machine, so won’t lose much data. But the Shanghai people weren’t able to properly order the piece for me in Australia – though they did say they would try to send an email – which means possibly more back and forth trips to the Apple store in Chadstone.

These IT issues have been a constant drain of energy throughout my stay in China. It’s hard enough to deal with everyday interactions in Mandarin, get used to a new country, make a new set of social contacts, all this while preparing two collaborative international projects and studying the language at an advanced level. Now imagine the same thing with your tech cyclically breaking down, and no reliable service to fix it. I guess Apple was alright, in the context of China. Their phone service is a nightmare, their repair did last for only three months, and they’ve got a short stock of crucial spare parts. More generally, multiple details in attitude and expression, which could be summed up as ‘cultural differences’, added to the sense of frustration. But I did manage to get a temporary boot disk, and the technicians in store were polite, understanding, and helpful to an extent.

More importantly, though these IT issues were a great drain on my usual productivity, they were a great learning lesson on three fronts:

* I learnt to let stuff go. In general, I’m a reliable planner: I give myself a list of things to do, and then I do it all. For the last month, I slowed down, both socially and professionally. There’s emails I may never send, blog posts I’ll never write, New Year’s greetings I’ve missed, articles I will not translate. That’s OK, when I get back to Melbourne, ‘where things work and people smile’, I’ll take stock of my losses, and start afresh.

* The frustration of unreliable tech gave me direct emotional insight into the multiple frustrations that people in China live through every day. It explains the tired faces and the cynical words, both among locals and expats. The frustration extends beyond tech – it’s everywhere in a society where service and infrastructure is unreliable. I’ve come back to my reflections on trust – as I learnt, you can’t even trust an Apple computer to work here, or a repair from a genuine Apple store to last over three months. Gradually, you trust everything and everyone less.

* Finally, my interactions with Apple were a great opportunity to reflect on culturally hybrid spaces, and the particular challenges they pose to globalising economies. At every step, my relationship with technicians and customer service people was distorted through a number of lenses – my attempt at adopting a ‘Chinese’ mode, their attempt at servicing a ‘Westerner’, and our common struggle to fit these cross-cultural efforts within the framework of Apple’s generic service processes.

I came here to learn the language and the culture. These tech issues were very painful, and they did harm projects I was trying to set up from here. But they might have made my learning better – so that ultimately, I’m not unhappy that I had to face them. A four month stay abroad will have highlights and lowlights. And I believe the wisdom of a true cross-cultural learner is to take both of them in. Learning is not always pleasant in the moment it happens. Sometimes, what you learn is even slightly grim. But you’re still that little bit wiser, and better ready to face the future.

The cost of low-trust: low efficiency

Last night I was invited at a dinner with Chinese people – entrepreneurs, angel investors, a TV producer. Too many conversations entangled for me to perform at my best – but my seat neighbour, fortunately, was considerate enough to speak slowly, repeat, and listen to my broken Mandarin.

At some stage – after much baijiu toasting and spicy thin sliced beef, our conversation rolled on Chinese workers’ efficiency. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘I did hear, and observe, that Chinese workers are not efficient – but is there a cause?’ – ‘No trust’, replied my seat neighbour.

We then started pulling it apart – though my limited language skills, unfortunately, did not allow us to go quite as far as I would have wanted. If two people are joining in a business deal, or a work agreement, but there is no trust between them, then haggling will start: ‘you pay me first – you do the job first – no you first.’ This haggling, in and of itself, is a loss of time. And because it is not guaranteed that the pay will come – why do the job well? And because it is not guaranteed that the job will be done, why set aside the money to pay, or why offer good pay?

I proposed a piece of theory that I developed earlier: trust is the most fundamental element in any professional relationship. In a trusting environment, staff and partners are selected based on their competence – because everyone, a priori, can be trusted. In a low-trust environment, trustworthiness trumps competence: I’d rather have someone do the job slowly to a low standard, rather than pay for a competent person to do nothing, or worse. And trustworthiness comes with personal connection, habit, long-established networks. Hence nepotism and guanxi plays, and hence a perception that, ultimately, who you know matters more than what you know.

Lack of trust extends outside of the workplace, to doctors, teachers, politicians and the media – none of these, according to my seat neighbour – and others who since had joined our conversation – would be trusted here. This is not just a China story. We should take it as a warning, but also see the need and opportunity: Australia has built a relatively high level of trust. What happened? Is it replicable? And is there something we can do to help Chinese businesses, groups or councils increase the level of trust, and – to some extent – mitigate the negative consequences of this situation?

I will be thinking about this question further – and would very much welcome your thoughts!

Shigong – on trusting Chinese infrastructure

‘No, my building is ground zero’, said a friend, ‘I’ve had jackhammers from six again this morning – so I just wake up and walk around – I can’t stay home anymore.’ Massive ‘Shigong’, or infrastructure works, have been going around Nanjing University since I arrived. I’ve had mud up to my ankles on the way back home, walked along a thin ledge of ground beside a moving excavator, and woke up to the pleasant sounds of jackhammers before 6am a few times. Yet I learnt I should count myself among the lucky ones: my jackhammers stopped after a while.

I left for Beijing ten days ago, and expected the Shigong outside my building to be finished when I came back. Indeed, I pulled my suitcase back along a freshly covered path, and the mounds of dirt had been swept clean – beside the thick layer of brown dust, nothing remained of the previous chaos. I put down my bags, and turned on a tap to get water for tea. Nothing came out – and nothing came out from the bathroom taps either. On the little path leading to my compound, I had noticed an unusual line of people queuing in front of a tap with empty water bottles and buckets. I picked up my empties from the kitchen – lazy man’s luck, I had a bunch of four-litre bottles I never bothered throwing away. ‘How long will the water be gone?’ I asked, hoping for quick respite. ‘Day after tomorrow’, replied a neighbour. Then added, philosophically ‘Lucky we got a tap working here, it would be really annoying otherwise’. I nodded. It’s been three days, and the water hasn’t come back. ‘Day after tomorrow’ seems to be short for ‘who knows?’

Running water is such a part of my daily life I hardly notice how much I rely on it every day – whether I quickly wash my hands or clean a cup, running water allows for my daily purification rituals. My dirty laundry took two journeys to the tap – and I collected the used water for my flush. I experienced something, and I’ve grown a deeper appreciation for the daily comforts of life in a developed urban environment. But it surely wasn’t fun or particularly pleasant. So for the last few days, I’ve been just a little bit grumpy, just a little bit frustrated I couldn’t wash properly – body, tea-cup or underwear – and couldn’t get a cup of tea whenever I felt like it without planning ahead.

By global standards, I am still in a privileged environment. A walk down the stairs will take me to the nearest tap, and I won’t have to queue for long. The water there may not have the cleanest taste, but if I boil it properly, I can drink it without immediate harm to my body. And I can get as much as I need for free. By relative standards, however, I am experiencing hardship: ‘if this was a shantytown, I would understand’, commented my father. ‘In a Chinese metropolis, it’s surely not normal’. I live in a rather wealthy central district of Nanjing, the capital of China’s second richest province, and an aspiring global metropolis. Yet as I discover, it’s not simple operating as a fully-connected citizen of the globo-sphere when practical details of your water recycling management require so much attention. And it’s that little bit harder to plan international skype meetings and visits to local innovation communities when you’re not sure you can get a shower, or boil yourself a cup of tea.

‘Not knowing is the worst’, right: this applies to Chinese infrastructure. It’s actually quite good when it works – but you cannot rely on it. I’ve experienced it with internet access, I’ve experienced it with transport, and now I’m experiencing it with running water. 没办法’, there’s no way, say some of the locals, resigned. Others pester with annoyance. The service is gone, the cause isn’t clear, and nobody knows when or if things are gonna work again. In other words, basic infrastructure cannot be trusted – and people treat basic service provision in the same way they deal with major weather events.

This lack of trust in basic infrastructure affects the whole society. If anything might break at any moment without sign of warning, long-term planning and risk management become laughable pursuits. Why build solid, if nothing is assured –cheap, fast and low quality makes more sense among such levels of contingency. Expected standards of service also drop accordingly: my cashier/waiter/doctor/ teacher/manager might have no running water today, no wonder they’re in a bad mood. Maybe this transaction cannot be completed on time, because some part of the system has collapsed. Let’s try it anyway – but if it seems too hard, we should give up: surely something must be wrong somewhere, or we’re just out of luck. And this attitude, in turn, breeds further chaos.

Trust, unilateral decisions and fait accompli.

I announced a series of posts on trust – here is the second. The setting hasn’t changed – we’re still in a bar on Qingdao Lu. This time I will focus on a recent interaction with a friend, to better understand how trust is grown, or eroded. The phenomenon I describe is minor, but I believe, on a very small scale, it represents very clearly what often happens on a larger scale – and therefore presents a very valuable case study.

Few days ago, I had lunch with a friend at the 32 Qingdao Lu café. We discussed a collaborative project, and I told him about my psychological difficulties in China, how I struggled with my energy levels, and what I learnt I should avoid – mostly loud environments and spaces that foster aggressive or competitive behaviour. I was happy to share this and receive support. I really value this friend, but a sense of alienation from him had been weighing on me. We mostly met in settings I was uncomfortable in, and so didn’t have a chance to connect at the level that matters to both of us. The lunch was productive: we clarified ideas and set goals. Then after lunch, we both focused on our respective tasks. I had planned – and announced – a long afternoon preparing for coming meetings in Beijing and Shanghai. He was going to proof-read a book.

I was quietly reading about online literature when, out of the blue, the friend announced he’d invited ‘that girl and her American friend’ to come join us. The goal was not for them to sit and proof-read with us. We’d previously chatted about flirting in straight and gay contexts, and mentioned ‘that girl’ then. I was annoyed. Not only did I have work to do: my energy still wasn’t very high – I had spent the previous afternoon locked in my room to recover some – and flirty straight environments neither energize nor comfort me. I superficially knew the two girls, I found it weird to sit at the next table and ignore them, probably wouldn’t much enjoy the type of interaction that was about to take place, so I packed up my stuff and left, annoyed at what just happened.

Today, I lost a small measure of trust in that friend. It’s not a big measure and repairing it shouldn’t be difficult. But this loss has a cost. It’s interfering with our prospects of collaboration. I like working with him, but if he drains my energy by generating environments I dislike and leave, then I might have to focus on more efficient partnerships – and avoid his invitations. It’s interfering more broadly with my other projects – should I look for another place to work and concentrate, if this café changed its vibe. And I have to think more about sharing information with him in the future – should I introduce him to the various environments or circles of contacts I am building here, or keep him out of the loop to maximize my own energy levels. In other words, it’s added a cognitive load for me, and might lose both of us opportunities.

I wrote before that ‘trust implies a belief that other people will not simply walk over you to push their own agenda without prior warning’. In that case, it’s precisely what didn’t happen – my friend invited two girls over, without consulting me, while knowing I had other plans and may not enjoy the sudden change from a work to social space. My friend imposed his own desire on our shared environment, with no regard for my desires or prior consultation.

This new plan was not presented as a possibility for me to discuss or approve, but a fait accompli – the girls had been invited and were on their way. It was too late, or too complex for my tired mind at the time, to negotiate an alternative. I could either submit or leave. In other words, what only minutes ago was a collaborative environment – two people exchanging ideas to reach a common goal – had suddenly changed nature. At some point in time, our shared space had become open to the first initiative. I didn’t make a move, and I lost the ground. But there had been no warning sign that the race was on.

Such behaviour is by no means rare. Many people may find it surprising I even noticed. What made me lose a measure of trust in this friend is the sudden, unilateral change I experienced from a collaborative to a competitive environment. I believe this is a crucial part of how trust is grown: by explicit disclosure of the rules that apply at any moment in a relationship, and in shared settings. Sudden shifts in these rules, cunning tricks, or simple disregard for unspoken conventions, may win battles and even wars – but they will not grow trust, nor the wealth of ideas, opportunities and material goods that, often, come along with higher levels of trust.