Falsehoods in front-line management

In the situation that a front-line worker in China is dealing with a difficult situation, are they likely to spout something demonstrably false? Specifically: are they more likely to tell you, to your face, that X is true and then have it become clear (often within minutes) that X is not true? [UPDATE: Intro changed — see comments for details]

This sociolinguistic question has been coming up for years, but always based solely on personal experiences of my own and my friends’. And the problem with personal experiences, of course, is that memory (especially mine) can play devilish tricks. For example: maybe I used to experience this kind of lie all the time in the US and I’ve just forgotten about it.

But since Kai Pan has done us the favor of living the KFC fake/real coupon experience, now I have someone else to kick off the debate.

Example 1: the KFC kerfuffle

The back story is in Kai Pan’s in-depth chicken-bucket coverage on china/divide, but essentially: there was a really good KFC coupon available. Lots of its stores waffled and then refused to honor the coupon. Kai Pan’s piece actually gives credit to that particular store manager for keeping his cool in the face of an irate crowd of chicken-bucket hunters armed with coupons. But he notes:

It didn’t help that this store, along with other stores, also tried outright lies in hopes of tricking the crowds to disperse without having to deal with the issue head-on, such as telling them to come back later or tomorrow. Hearing such attempts only made the patrons less likely to believe everything else. That the stores were still accepting other coupons that were released with the 32 RMB Family Bucket Meal coupon only led to people decrying why one coupon amongst the set is selectively not being honored.

For example, it was thrown out that printed or copied coupons were not valid, upon which the crowds held up their coupons and pointed directly to the fine print that said printed or copied coupons are valid.*

Example 2: fake rules at the pàichūsuǒ

The pàichūsuǒ (派出所) is the local police station where every foreigner has to go to get a local residence permit. Every time you leave and re-enter the country or change a visa, you head over there. Essentially, I show them my visa and the rental contract and they give me a temporary residence permit good for the length of the visa. Sounds easy enough, but here’s a rough transcript of my last visit:

PCS: Let’s see the contract.

Me: [handing it over] Here’s the landlord’s name; he’s Korean

PCS: What’s his name in Chinese characters?

Me: He doesn’t have Chinese characters, only Korean and English (i.e. romanized Korean)

PCS: That won’t work. We have to put in Chinese characters or the system won’t issue a permit.

Me: Oh, then what should we do? He doesn’t have any Chinese characters. We could make some up, like his last name, Kim, is 金…

PCS: No, he’s Korean, they all have Chinese characters in their names.

Me: I’ll call my wife, she has a copy of his passport. [Make call]

Me: No, she’s looking at a copy of his passport. There are no Chinese characters. Do you want her to fax it to you?

PCS: There’s no fax machine here. [PCS attends to computer with annoyed look on face; I tell wife I’ll call back if needed.]

PCS: [less than a minute later] Here’s the permit.

And that was the end. Of course, I knew there was no such “must have Chinese characters” rule because I’d gotten the same permit under the same conditions three times previously. So why did she feel the need to make it up? I’m not trying to imply that bureaucrats and managers in the US (that’s the only country I can compare) don’t lie. It’s just that my impression is that they’d go for the big lie, the vague lie, rather than something so easily falsifiable AND if they did get caught in a lie (like my PCS officer) they’d quickly think up some excuse to make themselves look good, like “oh, I found a way around that rule” rather than just pretending like it didn’t happen.

Besides collecting no end of anecdotes, is there any way to show more conclusively that the Bald-Faced Bureaucratic Lie is (or is not) more prevalent in one place or another?


* These two paragraphs are out of order from his original post just to make the point clearer

14 responses to “Falsehoods in front-line management”

  1. Bruce says:

    Am a relative newcomer to this site, but want to say that the content of this post is not what I, personally, want to find here.

    I have a list of 20+ China-related blogs and can’t visit all of them very often. Am fascinated with language issues, and hope you will focus on them as you — generally seem to do.

  2. Kevin Miller says:

    My favorite example, from years ago, involved calling back a phone number at the Chinese embassy and being told by the person who answered, “We don’t have this phone number at the Chinese Embassy.”

  3. Julen says:

    I was also thinking: how is this a sociolinguistic question? Do you suspect that the honesty of bureaucrats might be related to the language they speak? I am confused.

    Anyway, to get back on topic, I don’t find that Chinese are less honest than Westerners overall. The case of KFC is just another example of the terrible job that Chinese typically do of PR. This applies to all levels, from companies to the government managing the image of the country.

    My view is that we all lie just the same, only Westerners make a better job of hiding it. The manipulation of the Western media is a work of art compared to the crude censoring of Xinhua. But not to worry, another decade of development and their lies will catch up with the high Western standards.

  4. Syz says:

    @Bruce and now @Julen:

    OK, did I blow this one?

    I’m not remotely trying to say that Chinese are less honest than anyone else. Neither am I saying all bureaucrats and managers are liars or only Chinese are, or anything like that.

    My point was supposed to be much more narrowly “speech act” related. Something like this: when a person in an official capacity (low-level bureaucrats and front-line managers at larger companies are the people who come to mind) is confronted with a difficult situation, will they come up with a demonstrably false statement more often in China than in, say, the US?

    After thinking that idea through, and with Randy’s feedback that the title was incendiary and misdirected, I’ve changed it from the original “bald-faced lies in bureaucracy”. I’ve also changed the first line from the original “Are Chinese bureaucrats and managers more likely to lie?” — I’m just preserving them here for the record.

    I hope that sets the context and scope better.

    In the post I’ve got two examples of difficult situations
    1. Angry customers to disperse
    2. Some kind of computer input field that needed to get filled to process the residence permit

    In both cases, how they dealt with the situation was to say something (the speech act) that was almost laughably easy to falsify.

    I think (though I’m entirely open to being wrong) that this occurs with surprising (to me) frequency in China.

    If I’m understanding your displeasure with the post correctly, it’s because of one of the following:
    1. You think I’m wrong
    2. You think this doesn’t have much to do with language

    On (1), that’s OK. Feel free to disagree
    On (2), I’ve tried to make the case above. Heck, my co-bloggers might not even agree, so I’ll leave it to the larger jury.

    I guess maybe there’s another possibility. This happens to me once in a while on other blogs I read. It goes something like this: a blogger, whose stuff you normally like to read, posts something so asinine, uninformed, wrong-headed and unrelated to their sphere of expertise that you almost want to quit reading the blog entirely. I hope that’s not the case here, but I’ll be glad if you tell me it is. Usually, when that happens to me, I don’t tell the person whose blog I’m reading. I either ignore it, or, if it keeps happening, I quit going back. It’s a 诤友 indeed who would take the time to say a post really sucks.

  5. I’m just coming to this post now, so I can’t speak to the original format or the complaints regarding that version.

    That said, I think it’s a very easy trap to fall in to, that of “grrr China”, both as writer and reader. That is, it’s easy to sound like you’re complaining about your adopted home in writing when that’s not your intent, and it’s easy to read that into things as the reader. I think in both cases it’s because there is so much of that floating around English-language China blogs, so we’re naturally inclined to be defensive about such things. Especially those of us who are tired of hearing it.

    I do get that this is about a speech act, and one that I’ve witnessed more than a couple times. Whether that speech-act is linguistically relevant beyond being a speech-act is up for debate. It may be a strictly sociological issue. Two years as an undergrad soc major has left me unqualified to comment on such.

    I’d be interested to know if there was some sort of historical linguisticness to explain this perceived discrepancy. My friends love to tell me that in China people are less likely to question government because they’re used to having kings, not presidents. Validity of that statement aside, I wonder if there’s a similar explanation for these sorts of encounters (e.g. people in positions of power are not to be questioned).

  6. Max says:

    My favorite story is when I had to get some sort of vaccination and we called the doctor to make an appointment. He told us he’d have get a blood sample first. I had never had blood taken before a vaccination before and the thought alone creeps me out, so we asked why that would be necessary. Obviously annoyed, he answered us that if I already had antibodies for that particular disease, and would get the shot, I’d ACTUALLY GET THAT DISEASE I was being vaccinated against. Obviously, I didn’t go there..

  7. Chris says:

    From a sociological-cultural point of view i do have some observations, let’s just regard them as qualitative rather than quantitative research for the sake of argument.

    Reasons for stating something obviously untrue:

    1 To show off power by telling a lie that obviously obstructs and subjects the one being lied to to a lot of hassle:
    Example: I took a student whose passport was stolen to the PSB, they only had to stamp 1 document for her to be able to request provisional papers. 1st the guy said he could only stamp it on monday, then he said he didn’t have the stamp, then he said we didn’t have the right document and needed another document requesting for a stamp. All lies just to frustrate the one asking for the stamp.

    2 To save face
    Example: Somebody gave me wrong information, I go to his chef and explain the situation, Chef asks the person, person blatantly states that I misunderstood him, being a foreigner and all, (happens less frequent now, but really drives me up the wall)

    3To avoid work
    example: I once had to have my internet connection paid for and arrived after 1 1/2 hour of waiting at the desk, by then it was 5mins to 5 pm,
    Lie: “Oh I can’t do that right now, the server is out of order, you will have to come back tomorrow”, while next to me is sitting a Chinese man who is their for doing the same thing.
    ME: I never budged, asked to see the error screen, to which she, infuriated, started typing away. 10 mins later job done。

    I never encountered these things in my home country, since lying there is lying about other stuff that is harder to spot immediately, but turns out much later to have been a lie. EG: lying about the people you know or the money you earn…

  8. Nicki says:

    I think this is a good post. I feel like this happens to me all the time, but can’t think of a recent example. In general, it seems like people often answer 没有 when they do in fact have the item being requested or the ability to do the requested task but think it is too much trouble to get it/do it.

    I also feel like this is a cultural way to signal to the person being lied to that they should quit asking, because they are causing trouble. The more ridiculous the lie, the more you should realize you are being a pain and leave them alone!

  9. Chris says:

    @nicki: Dropping the issue depends really on which position you are in. I have observed that Chinese people use the rule of only letting it go when it doesn’t really matter if you get or don’t get what you have requested for or if the person I am requesting something from is in some sort of power position over me, if not, then I will definately not drop the matter.

  10. Calling them on it and watching them squirm is a beautiful sport, *I* think.

  11. Julen says:

    @Syz – But I was not complaining! On the contrary, I enjoy every post in Sinoglot, and you are totally free to write about whatever you want. Damnit, I am a blogger as well and I know the effort it takes to keep it up and write something interesting every day, all for free… I wouldn’t dream of telling you what you have to write about! :)

    My post was only saying that I don’t think the honesty of the Chinese is connected with the language they speak. And your argument in comments has not really convinced me of this. I would need some more proof before I start to believe in this connection.

  12. Chinaren says:

    I think Nikki has the nub of the matter:

    “The more ridiculous the lie, the more you should realize you are being a pain and leave them alone!”

    A lot of the time they don’t feel like doing, whatever, so they make up a stupid excuse in the hope you’ll go away, especially if you’re a lao wai. If you push it, as stated by others, they’ll (usually) do it, to get rid of you if nothing else.

    It happens to my wife too, who’s Chinese. She used to just accept this, but as she’s got older and wiser, now she shouts at them (quite funny sometimes) and they generally moan but do whatever it is they ‘couldn’t do’ a minute before.

    The KFC incident sounds like the usual bad communications that China is notorious for. I wouldn’t be surprised if Corporate KFC started this promotion and didn’t bother telling all their (franchise) branches!

    Yes, bad communications and lies happen in the west, but they don’t usually happen for such trivial things, and they are usually a bit less blatantly stupid.

  13. Chris says:

    @Syz, I definately would agree on the second paragraph of your latest entry, language here is not the culprit. It’s culture. Chinese amongst themselves seem to agree that people of the north are more straightforward than those south of the yangze and almost all chinese believe that the lower classes are more honest than the higher classes.
    But those are just perceptions (maybe).

  14. GAC says:

    1 To show off power by telling a lie that obviously obstructs and subjects the one being lied to to a lot of hassle:
    Example: I took a student whose passport was stolen to the PSB, they only had to stamp 1 document for her to be able to request provisional papers. 1st the guy said he could only stamp it on monday, then he said he didn’t have the stamp, then he said we didn’t have the right document and needed another document requesting for a stamp. All lies just to frustrate the one asking for the stamp.

    There is a chengyu for that: 指鹿为马 “to call a deer a horse” Funny cartoon of the story is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CfgyG8RKNzI

    I have another theory. Maybe these demonstrably false statements are akin to the ridiculous justifications Chinese often give when bargaining. My brother likes to tell a story of his Taiwanese father-in-law wanting to get a discount on a rental car because it was too new, saying “the oils haven’t run through the engine yet.”

    RE: better or worse liers. I think maybe these are two different things. Americans in these situations would lie to decieve people or to hide the fact that they don’t actually know the rules (and don’t want to bother their supervisor). Chinese appear to be doing something different either:

    1) trying to save face — which doesn’t require successful deception if the other person cooperates
    2) avoiding telling people bad news
    3) some kind of negotiation (as I just suggested), or
    4) trying to show their power (which could be a way of negotiating or face-saving or just done to get you to go away)

    Now, here’s the trick: let’s see if a linguist will ever in a lifetime be allowed to study this thoroughly enough to really examine any of our hypotheses.

    RE: other posters on sociolinguistics. Speech acts, as I understand them (though I may be less informed than syz) aren’t so much tied to a language as to the speech community, so yes it would be a “culture” thing. Chinese learning English will still be influenced by the communication tactics of their own culture, though if they live abroad, they may find foreign cultures influencing their Chinese as well. It’s fuzzy and complicated how it shakes out.

Leave a Reply