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Business drinks: China’s thousand-year-old test of trust

 The Taoist idea of wu wei is deeply rooted in Chinese culture. Often translated as “non-doing” or “non-action,” it’s an effortless state in which you’re not explicitly aware of yourself or your actions, but simply at peace with what’s going on around you. In his Big Think+ video “Uncover China’s Most Influential Unwritten Rule of Business,” Edward Slingerland explains that this ancient concept remains important today, and is the foundation on which Chinese business people build strong relationships. It’s also the reason there’s often a lot of alcohol involved. Slingerland is the author of Trying Not to Try.

Face to face

Chinese people prefer to do important business in-person as opposed to via email or video conference. What your Chinese counterparts most want is a sense of who you are as a person, and that you can be trusted. “And the only way that can happen,” says Slingerland, “is when people spend time together in the same place, and they can read the micro signs from each other, and really get to feel like they know each other.”
This desire for personal connections is the manifestation, asserts Slingerland, of a real and profound insight about how business actually moves from talk to results. While “institutions are great and rules are great but things typically get done through personal relations,” he says.

Drinking your way to wu wei

Newcomers to business in China, says Slingerland, may be blindsided by the “massive amount of drinking you’re going to be asked to do.” Business banquets are standard operating procedure, as are lots of toasts, followed by countless quick shots of Baijiu. While Slingerland cheekily advises travelers to “get your liver in shape,” all of this drinking is no joke, and it goes back to wu wei.
Being devious, dishonest, or manipulative all require remaining in cognitive control of yourself in order to maintain a subterfuge. Slingerland says that, on the other hand, getting drunk with your Chinese hosts amounts to making a statement of personal trust. After all, you’re “taking your prefrontal cortex and putting it on the table and saying, ‘I am disarming – I’m cognitively disarmed.’” With participants’ prefrontal cortices mutually out of commission, everyone at the table is free to simply be present and at ease, un-self-consciously enjoying the experience via liquid wu wei. Slingerland says this is the way treaties and deals have been arrived at in China for thousands of years.

Wu wei at home

Liquor’s value in business may not be limited to Asia or for getting to know each other. Slingerland points out that since sometimes the conscious mind creates barriers between people, alcohol can have value as a creative lubricant at any company gathering, wherever you are. He says, “If you want people to interact in an effective way and have maybe new ideas they wouldn’t normally have, it’s actually often effective to throw them all together and throw in a little bit of alcohol.”
Apparently there’s research that indicates a sweet spot for creativity right at the threshold of being legally drunk, at a .08 blood-alcohol level. It’s amazing, he suggests, what a down-regulated prefrontal cortex can come up with.

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