[Guest Blogger] Legalized Communication

Graham Jones (Vancouver, President of VANTUG)

I noted Celso’s comment about language being a barrier in one of his projects. It reminded me of one of my own experiences. Inevitably when dealing with contract language, the legal profession usually gets involved somewhere. I found myself having to make contract amendments when working on site in China.

Of course before I could discuss them with the client, I was required to fax them to the home office for their scrutiny. Invariably it would be returned modified, having been “legalized”. Now it wasn’t that I lacked skill at writing contracts or unaware of the style of language, it was more what does it read like when translated into Mandarin. I had already discovered to my chagrin that certain English words don’t have a literal translation into Mandarin and if you weren’t very careful the whole meaning could change depending upon who did the translation.

I remember once having an intense “debate” with the client that lasted 2 whole days only to discover that he was upset for entirely the wrong reason. That taught me a lesson. Since the client insisted in doing the translation into Mandarin, I insisted in having one of our hired Chinese interpreters translate it back into English before any formal negotiations took place. So where was the problem? Well, our lawyer always insisted that I couldn’t write the amendments my way (which always worked with the client because I had gained the experience) because it didn’t meet HIS requirements.

It is also important to remember that there is usually a cultural component. Language and culture are closely intertwined because of history and this carries over into customs and practice in business. If you have designs on doing business in China, or indeed any of the Asian countries, it is essential that you assimilate the cultural component of business. If your only experience is in North America then you will find it very different. In China you will certainly be held to the “letter of the contract” should it become necessary, but more importance on a day by day basis is attached to the “handshake” and establishing “trust”. They will literally “look you in the eye” and decide from there. In China there are “no failures”. If the client thinks things are going “south” it will be next to impossible to get their cooperation because of “loss of face” and the possible personal consequences for those in charge.

So what to do when faced with legal and cultural issues? Well, at the end of the day the project has to be completed and as much as you need to protect yourself in the event of “bad things happening”, a negative approach isn’t going to get the job done! A negative attitude usually results in a self-fulfilling prophecy especially if this gives the client the feeling that as the PM you can’t get the job done. In China that would be “disaster”. So I worked hard at gaining their trust (in other words you have to be “good for your word”) to establish a “personal” relationship with the client. I wrote my own contract amendments on site and negotiated them with the client so that we could move on and give them confidence. Was our lawyer happy? I don’t think I need to explain that one.

Don’t get me wrong I am not advocating some form of wildcat approach to such things but the point is when faced with being caught between the “immovable object” (the lawyer) and the “irresistible force” (the client) something has to give. You cannot abrogate your responsibility as PM to get the project completed whatever it takes even if that means sticking your neck way out. Oh and, of course, my boss was in the mix as well and sometimes he was harder to get onside than our lawyer. He had a hard time with the cultural issues. Needs must when the devil drives!

Of course if you succeed then all is forgiven. On the other hand…..

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