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How to be tactful to your global business associates in times of disease or danger

What’s the best thing to say to your business contacts when you hear of trouble in their home cities?

How to be tactful to your global business associates in times of disease or danger

(Art: Chern Ling)

Cities locked down, factories shut, cruise ships quarantined, foreigners flown out. What do you say to the Chinese contacts you made on your travels as you watch their country ravaged by the coronavirus? What is the best thing to say to your business contacts anywhere when you hear of trouble in their home cities?

The easiest is an email saying that you are thinking of them and hope that they and their families are all right. This works for epidemics as well as natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes and bush fires.

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A quick message hoping everyone is safe is the right response to terrorist attacks too. I was grateful for all the messages I received on the day of the bombings on London transport in July 2005, particularly from those who knew I took the Tube to work. I sent similar messages to contacts in New York after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

When troubles have a domestic political tinge, things are trickier. Nothing in my six visits to Hong Kong between 2014 and 2018 prepared me for the recent television images of tear gas, riot police and Molotov cocktails on the streets. True, the umbrella protests had happened in 2014, but when I discussed them with Hong Kong professors, their tree-lined campuses were tranquil and easily reachable on the Mass Transit Railway, the most impressive metro system I have ever used. Over the past year, those campuses have been barricaded and besieged and protesters have been pursued into MTR stations.

(Photo: Unsplash/Macau Photo Agency)

It’s a mistake to assume that you know what position your contacts take on political events, in Hong Kong, Chile, Zimbabwe or anywhere else. Even natural catastrophes can divide people politically. It may be obvious to you that Australia’s bush fires are connected to global warming, but climate change denial is still strikingly prevalent there. Last month, James Murdoch criticised his father Rupert’s Australian news outlets for their climate change scepticism.

The fact that people have different views doesn’t mean you need to abandon yours, nor that you shouldn’t probe theirs. If you do business in a place, it’s important for you to find out what’s happening now and what’s likely to happen next. It’s just that it’s best to do it face-to-face the next time you meet rather than via email. Remember too that there are places (not Australia, obviously) where you could endanger people by asking them to criticise their government’s policies.

When you do next meet people, it’s best to ask open questions – “So what do you think I should know about the situation here?” – rather than direct ones, such as “Do you think the government is doing the right thing?” That way people can assess how much they trust you and what they feel safe in saying. When I was last in Shanghai a decade ago, a local banker in a busy restaurant said to me that if you believed Marx on the ineluctable march of history, you would assume that China would one day become a multi-party state. A colleague who returned recently from Shanghai told me the same conversation would be unlikely today.

Do not make the alternative mistake of thinking that people automatically agree with their governments. Once when I was travelling in America, someone told me how grateful he was for Tony Blair’s support for the US over Iraq, with a look that suggested not only that I would be gratified at the compliment but that I would carry the message back home. I was amused; in other circumstances, people could be insulted. Your business contacts are individuals. Don’t treat them as government representatives.

By Michael Skapinker © 2020 The Financial Times