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BEIJING – It took five long years for You Lian to understand that fine words are more important than good food and the capacity to hold your drink.
He can still recall the first dinner party he attended at his old state-owned enterprise. Not only did he not understand the polite words one is supposed to say before toasting one’s superiors, but he was also laughed at for not being able to hold his liquor. The next day at work, the whole department made fun of him.
Today, You Lian masters the art of strategic sucking up at dinner parties. He says “Flattery and brown-nosing is a survival skill in state-owned enterprises.”
How important is a dinner party? Chinese people like to operate along the emotional register. Important business should never be settled at a negotiation table. With the help of alcohol, things go along much more easily. If the boss has had enough to drink, he’ll be so pleased that he might even invite you into the private room next door.
Most people don’t have the ability to hold their own at these affairs. Yet it’s often only through these parties that one can get to meet the higher-ups. If they give a good performance, employees lower down the food chain have the opportunity to be noticed by their bosses. The performances and excitement levels rival that of a theatrical production.
For years Liu Wei was content to play the part of an audience member. As a chemical engineer working in a state-own company, his solid technical education had always given him the idea that sycophancy was a shameless and vile behavior.
One day, he realized that in order to get ahead, he had to alter his value system. To get promoted, you can’t stay as an outsider forever. For those who work in Chinese state-owned enterprises or as civil servants, the only way to get promoted is by playing the game. When the leader is talking dirty, you have to laugh. When he starts to look drunk, you have to grab the liquor and drink it for him.
Brownnosing for beginners
This game starts right from the moment everyone arrives at the table. Everybody knows his or her right place to a millimeter – the most senior employee gets to sit in the VIP chair. His job is to act humble and bashful, undeserving of his seat, until the others tell him things like: “You are the most venerable. We respect you too much to sit down before you are seated.” Only then does the VIP sit down, with feigned sheepishness.
Anywhere there are distinct levels of power present, there are bound to be offerings of adulation. Some people decide to go the self-deprecating route. For instance, at a recent dinner, someone stood up to say: “Director Wang, when you came up with your last idea, I sincerely felt someone like me wouldn’t ever be able to catch up, even if I worked overtime for the whole year.” This is a good technique for beginners.
After a second round of drinks, a female colleague who is usually very quiet, gets up with a glass of wine: “Director Wang, after seeing you at the company’s last family day, my son told me how much he admires you! He said you looked so handsome on the podium!”
She must have rehearsed beforehand, because her long string of flattery came out seamlessly, like she was reciting a poem. Meanwhile, everybody around the table is feeling nauseous while the boss looks a bit embarrassed. Perhaps he really is embarrassed, or perhaps he too is taking part in the show.
For more experienced bootlickers
Experienced flatterers can take risks, for example, using the boss’s children: “The last time your daughter came to the office, you were absent. I happened to be working overtime. Your daughter said to me, “You are working so hard.” What a kind child! You can tell she really cares about people! It’s so rare for a child her age to be so thoughtful!”
Jackpot! Slapping his shoulder, the boss toasts him with two glasses of wine. Not only has he flattered the leader, he has also casually passed the message that he was working late even when the boss was not around. Who dare say that brownnosing is not a vigorous interdisciplinary combination of sociology and psychology?
You Lian knows a “brownnose queen” in another department of his company. She is famous for her dramatic style of flattery: it’s as if she is participating in a TV reality show. None of the hierarchy around the table is left out. “Director Zhao, it is only thanks to your leadership that I am what I am today!” she tells the big boss. She continues to another lower-ranking superior: “I have heard so very much about you, Director Li. In my heart, both your character and competence are unparalleled.”
To add greater sincerity she ventures such phrases as “I never boast,” or “I’m someone who usually doesn’t express myself well.” This surely puts her fellow colleagues in a dilemma. On one hand, it’s not easy to follow suit by imitating her. On the other hand, what is left to say, once all the flattery has already been exhausted?
However, the leaders all seemed to be so pleased with her. Not really because her words were so beautiful, but because of the way she looks. For a boss, a good-looking woman who is realistic and who knows how the wind blows is a pleasant thing indeed. Whether or not she is sincere is superfluous: they want to believe that those words come from her heart. This is the essence of the virtuous circle of flattery that makes China’s state-owned enterprises tick.