Etiquette

Big questions in the Middle Kingdom

January 16, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

My friend held an employee meeting in China. It was not business as usual.

By Stanley Bing

china-business

FORTUNE -- When it comes to doing business, it can pretty much be said that every place is different. I remember going to Irving, Texas, a long time ago, where I was greeted by a gray-faced, six-foot-tall woman dressed entirely in gray with a massive bonnet of steel-gray hair who smoked continually throughout the meeting and then essentially told me to buzz off. I remember going to Japan, where I was offered a fried fish head with bulging eyeballs by my host, who said, "You eat that." I did. We did business. I remember going to an expensive lunch with an investor in Boston, back when I was earning well into the high four figures. At the end of the lunch, the Brahmin patted his pinstripe in a desultory manner and said, "Goodness. I seem to have forgotten my wallet." I paid the equivalent of a month's salary for that lunch. He invested in my little startup a week later.

But when it comes to different, I now believe, nowhere in the world is more different than China. I haven't yet been there myself. But more and more of my friends have been doing business there, and they come back saying pretty much the same thing: China is different. Isn't everyplace different? Not this different, they reply.

A case in point: My pal Wiedermeier runs a manufacturing subsidiary of a Midwestern conglomerate. They have an operation in one of those cities in the heart of the Middle Kingdom whose name is unfamiliar to most Westerners even though it sports a population of 25 million people. The other day he returned from a tour of that facility, and we had a drink. A residual aura of wonder and befuddlement hung like a nimbus about his head. "We had an all-employee meeting that was one of the weirdest experiences I've ever had," he said. "I opened up the floor to questions, and the first seven were like nothing I've ever gotten at that kind of thing before."

They were as follows:

Question No. 1: "What brand of suit are you wearing?"

Wiedermeier had to look. He reported his findings.

Question No. 2: "What kind of car do you drive?"

He told them he drives a Prius.

Question No. 3: "Do you have any pets and if so what kinds?"

Wiedermeier has a springer spaniel and said so, but he was becoming disconcerted. This was, after all, supposed to be a business-related motivational event.

Question No. 4: "How are you so high, rich, and handsome at such a young age?"

This embarrassed my friend, who didn't really answer but said a bit about his career to date.

Question No. 5: "What kind of men's skin-care products do you use?"

At this point, Wiedermeier asked if he could please have a question about something related to business. After a moment, two were asked:

Business Question No. 1: "Can we have a raise?"

Wiedermeier asked for another. He was now getting annoyed.

Business Question No. 2: "How was my performance in my meeting with you this morning?"

This last was offered by a middle manager who had attended a one-on-one with his boss from America earlier in the day. It was asked in front of all 1,400 of his colleagues, some of whom were in the room and others online. Maybe in a country where self-criticism was once routine, this wasn't so unusual.

The next day there was a ceremony in celebration of the corporate brand, complete with songs and dances. I suppose that's not unprecedented. A few years ago I went to a boondoggle in San Diego where we all had to build sand castles in the shape of the company logo. I remember that as being lots of fun, even if it was different. I suppose if there's lots of money involved, you can get used to just about anything.

This story is from the January 14, 2013 issue of Fortune.

Follow Stanley Bing at stanleybing.com and on Twitter at @thebingblog.

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