The World of Different Rules

The Story of the Mason

Three years ago, I re-modeled my apartment. I hired a mason, who helped me to install floor tiles and wall tiles in the kitchen.

The guy was a 40-year-old skillful mason. We couldn’t get along very well. He didn’t show any respect to me, was rude when talking with me. He did crazy things like laughing at me when I asked about the schedule, or using my room as it was his.

“How can you behave like this!” I didn’t understand at all. “How can someone in the service industry survive without knowing anything about ‘service’, and ‘respect’?” I complained to Wendy: “This guy knows nothing about how the world works”.

I tried to educate him about what is customer service. Obviously, the attempt failed miserably.

I didn’t want to continue to hire him, and he didn’t want to work for me. Finally, the guy who introduced him to me asked him to stay and suggested me not to change a mason in the middle of the work – for quality purpose.

The argument continued, until one day, I found the secret.

The Secret

I consulted with my friend. He suggested me that his behavior indicated one thing – “He needs some money”.

I talked with the mason the second day, and gave him 50 RMB. I said: “Thanks for the good work. Here is the ‘red bag'”.

He smiled.

After that day, he changed to another person – polite to me, worked harder, and seemed to be very considerate to me. The good relationship continued to the end of completion of the project.

His Rule or My Rule

This experience is still vivid in my mind after 3 years.

It was me who didn’t understand the rule – the mason’s rule. I adopted the mason’s rule and got what I wanted.

What I didn’t understand at the very beginning was, the mason had his rule, just as I had mine: “Pay me the extra money, and I work harder for you.” The rule was simple and straight forward. The challenge was, no one except my friend told me about the rule.

I Follow Your Rules, or You Follow Mine?

When there is a conflict, there is a choice. Choice is on both sides.

If I insist my rule (a mason should be good to his customer), I could go to B&Q, and pay 4 times higher than directly hiring him. This way, I feel good, but in terms of $$$, I lose.

At the same time, if the mason insists his rule, and doesn’t follow the customer’s rule, he remains a poor mason for ever.

I am still smarter than the mason, right? I got what I want with little money, but he gave up his future just for small money.

Rules in China

When foreign companies come to China, they find “unreasonable” local business partners or business practices.

If people in the foreign company think their supplier must follow their rule, they can find the suppliers, but with much higher price than needed, because suppliers who know the “international rules” are rare resources in current China. Many companies did choose this approach and suffered from high cost, and finally failed.

On the other side, if companies in China change themselves to follow the international rules, they are more competitive in international world.

Smart people make the right choice, and not-so-smart people complain about rules, or “lack of rules”.

Typical Dialog

Mr. Smith: “China does NOT have rules!”

Mr. Zhang: “China does NOT have rules that you can understand.”

Not to follow the written rules is a rule in China. Believe it or not.

That is the Reality

My observation is, China needs to change smartly to adopt widely accepted rules to be more competitive in the world economy. Local businesses that move faster than average get bigger benefit.

For companies coming to China, to wait for the change (this may takes decades) or to follow the local rules is a choice. Smarter guys make the right choice.

Which is the Right Rule

Controversial about which rules is the right rule will continue, and I expect it to continue for ever. The difference of rules is a universal matter.

  1. The rule of the older generation are different from the younger one.
  2. Men use the rule from Mars, and women use the rule from Venus.
  3. Every industry has its own rules.
  4. Human being has its rules, and the nature has its own…

The whole world is made up of smaller worlds running by different rules. There is not always be the right rule or the wrong rule.

It is all about the difference. In a modern word, it is called “diversity”.

31 thoughts on “The World of Different Rules

  1. congratulation Jian Shuo,

    there is post which i didnt agree, post i like, this one up to date is the best i red on my personal opinion.

    i shall say that after 16yrs as Lao Wei in S.E.Asia and China, i feel that lots of foreign company failure has been due the wrong approach tryin to impose their rules to the local standards… they didnt melt and mingled with the local rules, they try to impose their ones.. and miserably failed.

    anyway my personal opinion is much more libertine:

    “The first failure of a Rule is to be a Rule by itself as well and try to impose itself”


  2. Your story is all about cultural difference! Your’s believe vs the craftman’s work culture, east vs west , all parties concerned have to give a little and we will all be one big happy family. Life is good.

  3. Bah humbug–Bribes, payola, kickbacks, graft, grease the palm, etc. I would have fired that guy had he given me any lip and/or acted rudely.

    I am a believer that the ‘doing comes before the giving.’ You don’t want to work, then I am not giving any ‘red bag’ extras and you’re out of here. Simple and straight up policy.

  4. There was an article in the New York Times a couple of months ago about this topic. American companies that operate in China were following the Chinese rules — bribes, kickbacks. That is a clear violation of American laws, which American companies have to follow even when operating overseas. Congress was clearly upset about that.

    It’s not right that American companies have to break American laws to operate in China. China needs to change.

    Bribery is illegal in Chinese laws too, right?

  5. Shrek7,

    Bribes and kickbacks are the form of benefits in order to facilitate the transaction with your trading partner and sometime it is illegal or unethical. Nevertheless, the use of gratuity or bonus to motivate the employee or the contractor in addition to the regular remuneration often creates loyalty to work. That is why large company often pays generous fringe benefits to retain their skillful workers.

    I guess life must be fairy miserable under your supervision……….. no grease!

  6. It is called TIPs in the USA. People pay tips for service, but it is not common in China. Most Chinese people don’t know when they need to pay tips. Usually they are very rude if you don’t pay tips.

  7. Stephen

    you wrote:

    “I guess life must be fairy miserable under your supervision……….. no grease!”

    sometimes I have overly generous moments and do hand out ‘grease’. that’s to help unsatisfactory employees slide into their shoes quickly so they can hit the street.

  8. Your story sounds similar to examples from a bestseller book, “How to Win Friends & Influence People.” by Dale Carnegie. This book teaches you how to deal with many types of seemingly irrational people.

    – also I believe laborers in China definitely deserve more pay. Because of them, the great cities of China are standing today.

  9. yes indeed, that’s what bribery, influence peddling, corruption and all the wrong criminal stuff is made of..stuffing money into people’s pockets and hope others don’t see you doing it.

    just read about the NatWest Three being extradited from England to face wire fraud charges in connection with the Enron corporate fraud case.

  10. Here is an interesting story recorded in 1854 by an Qing Dynasty official Duan(段光清) in his chronicles 《镜湖自撰年谱》:

    “Ningbo was a major port south to Shanghai, but the fishermen and merchants were bothered by vicious pirates. The Qing Navy was paid to fight the pirates, but they were lazy. The fishermen and merchants decided to pay the Navy with extra money every year, in addition to their taxes. This worked, but only for the first few years. With no other choices, the merchants decided to spend money on foreign war ships near the sea, and even applied documents for them from Official Duan. Duan recorded that later the foreign war ships won a major battle against the pirates.”

    The mason worked on Wang Jian Shuo’s kitchen project was not bad at all. He did not even complain a second time!

    In generalizing “the mason’s rule” to the rules in international business, it seems useful to at least make a distinction between two kinds of partners: that in monopoly, and the rest. For the former, there is typically little margin in bargaining, as for the Ningbo merchants in 1854.

    When rules collide, smart people like businessmen think of compromise. But there is also a word called “principle.”

  11. As a private employer, Jianshuo had no choice, because the guy wanted more money, but didn’t say anything, just assumed that his customers always were aware of the unwritten rules in his world. His failure was not to speak out, even he could see Jianshuo’s problem to understand him.

    Anyway the guy was just an asshole, and he never would have set a foot into my home.

    Another thing :

    All workers on low salary works better by the influence of a little extra money, no doubt about that !

    The worst to do is to take money from workers (a common punishment for a failure in China). This does a tremendous lot of damage to the trust between worker and employer.

    This NEVER happens in the west (because there are law rights for the workers).

    When people expect their basic salary, they do not expect it to be less than their “basic salary calculated spendings” because they or their collegues made a mistake.

    Fight this bad behaviour of employers ! (Well, most who do so are government owned…)

  12. ignorant employer deserves no respect, can’t believe you use the term mason! probably from 2 centuries ago, nowadays they are called decorator, no wonder he is not happy……

  13. Not so, at least in America. A decorator is someone who renovates an entire house or apartment, but a guy who lays brick and tile is definitely a mason. They often have the word “mason” or “masonry” in the name of their business.

    I’m guessing also that Jianshuo’s mason was not so clear on the distinction between the English words mason and decorator…

  14. solopolo,

    It only means you are ignorant of Chinese situation to say that a Chinese mason is a Chinese decorator. You would have to live in China for at least a year to understand that.

  15. it is a typical case in China, although there is still a long journey for me to experice such kind of issue, i will adopt a flexible channel and to be smart.

    and this is my first time to visite youe blog, i enjoy what you have read and i assure you i will be a often visitor here.

  16. Dave,

    USA law is very controversial, it correctly forbid bribes, but if u dont pay 10% to 20% TIPs to waiters, better you ever dont show up, in the same restaurant.

    Isn’t this a forced bribe what u call TIPS ????

    as usual USA has always a very strange concept of law and freedoom! As in USA if a criminal, rape, torture and kills anotehr human being is correctly jailed for life, or sent to death penalty, but if a US troop, rape, torture, kills innocents humang being outside USA, if the unlucky they got few yrs jails, otherwise not even that.

  17. bribe and tips/bonus are different.

    Bribe means to pay someone for something he/she does not own. For example, pay money for government officials, who don’t own the moeny of tax payers, but have the power to make decisions benifit to the one who pay. This is not acceptabled.

    Tips, Bonus, whatever arrangement in business transactions are OK in most of the case, because the money is paid for something they OWN – whether its his/her labor, hard work, resources.

    For me, there is a clear line between them.

  18. bribe and tips/bonus aren’t different and there’s no clear line… take a waiter for example… they don’t ‘own’ the food they’re bringing you but they’ll gladly spit in it if you don’t tip them well… or the worker you hired owns his skills and could apply them at any speed he wants.

    and speaking of ‘rules’… who’s to say what is right and what is wrong… do what it takes to achieve the goal. take for example that talking monkey the americans call their leader… he was whining on tv about how the enemy doesn’t fight by the ‘rules’… ummm… monkey boy, who’s ‘rules’ are you talking about? if he means the ‘rule’ that invading a country for their oil on false pretenses is allowed, then yeh they’re not playing fairly. they should stand out in the middle of the road so they can be killed instead of using ingenuity to fight back.

    rules are only applied when it is to the benefit of the party applying the rule, else it is an exception to the rule in which case the rule can be changed or ammended by those who make their rule. eg. bible thumpers… the bible clearly states that a sin is a sin and, according to the rules, committing a sin is not allowed. so of course there’s interpretation… small sin, big sin, medium sin… you can sin from monday-saturday but not on sunday until after church service. but of course if you do sin, say 10 hail mary’s and you’re good for another week.

    yes jian shuo… it’s all about diversity and interpretation. there are no universal rules nor should there be…

    i think it’s all about the will of the party’s involved and who’s willing to break ‘their’ rules to achieve the goal. eg. you want to keep the worker so your project would have a consistency in workmanship so you bend your rules and pay up… no big deal. an exception was made. he could’ve bent ‘his’ rules and did his job without extra money… but he held true to his rules/beliefs and ended up getting what he wanted… good for him. you could’ve kicked him to the street and i’m guessing it wouldn’t have mattered to him. if he’s not willing to change then so be it… you make your own bed, you sleep in it… like the saying goes ‘know your enemy and know yourself before the battle can be won.’

  19. Actually any rule is made on the basis of its internal sake. In China, some rules should be said to form unavoidably in connection with our culture and current social environment. Remember, is there any rule like JianShuo’s mason in Mao’s era. To be fair to say, social reality brings out the so-called rule, right?

  20. Respect is a two way street, when you treat people with spite don’t expect them to thank you in return, it is not a complicated concept but one that is easily lost in places like Shanghai !

  21. It is true that colliding rules reflect diversity, as Jian Shuo and Canadian Badass have both advocated, but isn’t there something we call “right” and “wrong”? Immanuel Kant named “the moral law within” as one of the two things he admired. Modern science is revealing the biological basis in the human brain for reasonableness, from which principles have been developed.

    Why did Google set up a corporate motto “Don’t be evil”? Is it the same to set up a motto “Be evil”? I doubt that anyone wants to claim it, even as a simple practice of diversity.

    By the way, in international business, rules have a much wider scope than just bribery.

  22. without ‘rules’ we are left without any bright shining lights and have no beacons to guide our conduct. By analogy, just think what the situation would be like without any rules of the road, traffic control lights, signs and markers. Try driving in that kind of chaotic mess where anything goes.

  23. yes i agree without rules one can have chaos… however even in chaos there are rules. the driving in china is a prime example… it seems like chaos from an outsiders point of view but it’s actually organized chaos. the fact that most of the drivers seem to know what they are doing and what others will probably do in itself creates some sort of defacto rules. however throw someone into the mix with different standards and they will cause accidents. throw a chinese driver onto the north american roads and they cause nightmares as we’ve all seen… similarly if i were to drive in china, i’m pretty sure i’d kill someone or be killed in an accident.

    agree with shrek7 that we do need rules but they are only guidelines that are only followed when convenient. for example your driving analogy… how many times have you sped or rushed through a red light or drove in the carpool lanes alone. does the fact that the flow of traffic on highways is usually above the stated limit mean that the defacto limit is now the speed of flow? ask the cop and he says no, ask the driver getting the ticket and he says yes.

    of course a society does need rules to govern itself and form some sort of order however one society’s rules should not apply to everyone else. that’s where the problems in this world arises…

    one final comment about international business. i don’t see it as any different from a society. a company may have it’s own rules of conduct/ethics however when it comes to the bottom line, you’d be surprised how fast those rules are revised or ignored. companies are set up for one thing and one thing only… to make money. all that crap about ethics they teach in mba school soon goes out the window when you’re faced with a declining stock price or you’re trying to hit those numbers for that big bonus. yeh there’s more to it than bribery… but it all boils down to the same thing – money. pollution laws? no problem, we’ll move our operations to somewhere more accomodating… unions? no problem, cheap labour elsewhere… which city will give us the greatest tax breaks and kickbacks to open shop there? corruption is worldwide but in china at least it’s more transparent… no hiding behind a veil of god or freedom or some altruistic mission. just give me the money or it won’t get done… genuine corruption. that’s why i love it here. some would prefer their corruption be sugar coated to make it more palatable… the same people are living in the west with their head in the sand.

    yeh it’s late and i’m bored… cheers!

  24. Canadian Badass

    I guess you believe that the genuine variety of open and pervasive corruption in China somehow makes it right or good. While that may make things more expedient to accomplish a goal, it certainly doesn’t make it legit or even morally right.

    where there are no principles of honesty and scruples, a society and its people ultimately perish.

  25. shrek7, i’m not saying the openess of corruption is good or bad… i’m saying it’s honest and genuine. you know what you’re getting and can deal with it accordingly (ie. take it or leave it)… i for one, respect someone more who is upfront with me about their true nature be it a thief or a worker. unlike where i guess you’re from (usa) or where i’m from (canada) where everything is sugar coated under a veil of freedom, democracy, capitalism, etc… if you think that corruption and dishonesty doesn’t exist in our respective countries then i suggest you look again… i’d argue that there is just as much or more as there is in china but of course we call it something else. want a simple example? i’m personally involved in the pharmaceutical industry and know how the system works in north america… how many freebies/perks we’ve given to doctors and pharmacists so that they will push our drugs. highly unethical, it’s technically not allowed, goes against the morals of our society, but… it works. everyone else does it so why shouldn’t we? must be ok, right? of course these aren’t considered bribes but affects you, i, and everyone using the health care system… do you know about it? do you care? probably not until someone you know dies.

    want another example? headlines read ‘Canada (or USA) gives $50M to Africa to fight poverty’… how much of that $50M actually makes out of north america?… how much of it goes to ‘consultants’… how much of the amount that makes it to Africa gets to the people and not the warlords? Even worse, how much of that $50M is actually real money and not left over surplus goods that the donating country is trying to get rid of or is structured as a loan? but of course this is all transparent, legit, humanitarian, morally ok.

    “where there are no principles of honesty and scruples, a society and its people ultimately perish.” — hmmm… so by this logic (which i don’t necessarily disagree with), the usa (and canada by default) will perish given their actions in iraq and the middle east in general. such principles will not be upheld in the cases where innocent iraqis are murdered by u.s. soldiers. they will of course not be punished and the incidents swept under the rug and forgotten about. to use clinton/lewinsky logic… what exactly constitutes ‘honesty’… define ‘scruples’ LOL

    so i guess what i’m saying is corruption manifests itself in every country and none is better than the other so people should think twice about looking down on someone else’s country. each has it’s own system and we should deal with it accordingly. find out where the “problems” are then work with it, or leave it… but if china is so bad because of corruption then so is canada, usa, japan, germany, africa, iceland…

  26. Hi, I like your articles of “east meets west”. May I ask your permition of publishing some of your articles on our magazine? It is an English-Chinese monthly magazine. I will appreciate you so much if you are interested in this. We can talk about the details via emails if it is conveniet for you?

  27. 本人有极其相似的经历,也是装修,也是没做完先要钱,还要求请他吃饭。当然他的意图也是由懂行的朋友告诉我的。不同的是,工人给我干完活后,那位懂行的朋友建议我扣他工钱,因为他的活儿有诸多缺陷。”即便没有缺陷也一定要扣他的钱,至少扣一段时间”,我的朋友这样建议。这也是中国的潜规则。

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