In the email flyer through which all events from the training department inevitably get disseminated, there was a cast photo from Sylvester Stallone’s dismal movie The Expendables 3 with a caption in Chinese that read:
Every member of a team is a superhero
So that each hero fights bravely with one heart
So that your team can become SUPER EXPENDABLES
Within the six-person branding department at CFPA Microfinance are two mothers, a married woman in her thirties, and two other male colleagues who each share my birth year. Staring at the picture, I questioned the feasibility of such a transformation. The only similarity, if one could be raised, rested solely on the character of Jet Li. In a group of nearly all white men, Jet Li is the sole Asian. At the CFPA company headquarters of 160 employees, I am the only foreigner.
When I arrived at the large conference room reserved for company events, the theme song to Rocky was cued up on repeat alongside projected battle scenes from Saving Private Ryan. Pretty soon, the host for the training, an affable mustachioed man in his early 30s, took the stage and began addressing the room of new hires.
“By a show of hands,” he said, staring out at the twelve neatly arranged tables, each equipped with post-it notes and colored markers. “And I mean this mostly for the men in the room. Who has ever asked for someone’s hand in marriage?”
His question, abrupt as it was, caught the group off-guard, and a mixture of surprise and laughter ensued, like a kindergarten teacher had just farted in front of a roomful of students. Gradually, a few men raised their hands, their gold wedding bands glistening under the fluorescent lights.
“That’s great,” the host said, scanning the nearly dozen hands. “But I’m really more interested in hearing from the non-married men. Any bachelors who have ever proposed before?”
The twitter in the room quickly devolved into a nervous silence. Did he really want to know who had proposed and been rejected? As with much of my confusion in China, I worried at first that I had misunderstood the question. It wouldn’t have been the first time that such a blunder at work had occurred on account of language.
Though I am technically employed by CFPA Microfinance as a Gruber Fellow, my office colleagues know me better as "the American intern.” No one understands what being a Gruber Fellow means, save for the fact that the company doesn’t pay me a salary. What they do know is that the American intern is plodding, bizarre, and slightly inept. It takes him three times as long as any other employee to read and respond to an email in his adopted lingua franca. He insists on eating five small meals a day and working at a makeshift standing desk that he made using parts from IKEA.
And so when it came to the host’s question, I was incredibly thankful – thankful in that instance that the uncertainty wasn’t unique to me. There would evidently be a point to what the host was saying, but so far, none of us had the slightest idea what it was. The host, unfazed to the bewilderment, stood in front of the podium and made a final appeal to the audience. After what felt like minutes, a man from the table closest to the stage raised his hand.
“Yes, you young man,” the host said, gesturing in front of him. “Please, come this way.”
Like most other occasions in China when a person is goaded into shamelessly performing for the benefit of others, the man from the first table was met with resounding applause as he got up from his seat and made his way on stage. Though his body was tense, his face bespoke the reticent joy of a kid who for the first time during P.E. class hadn't been picked last for kickball.
“Why don’t you tell us your story?” the host asked.
“There’s not much of a story,” the man answered, feeling the clock ticking on his fifteen minutes of fame. “I guess I just thought she’d say yes, so I asked her.” The host began nodding profusely.
“And why do you think she turned you down?” he probed. By now every person in attendance had their attention fixed on the stage. The man in question shifted nervously from foot to foot.
“She probably didn’t expect it,” he said finally, letting out a sigh. “She probably didn’t know exactly how I felt.”
The host, with the sage smugness of a prophet, replied slowly: “That is exactly what we are here to discuss.”
What he unveiled next was a communication framework known as ORID. ORID, which he told us stood for “Objective,” “Reflective,” “Interpretive,” and “Decisional,” is a 4-step process used to help parties reach an agreement and facilitate decision-making.
“When you think about asking for something,” the host started, his back to the glowering PowerPoint display, “I want you to remember these four letters. You have to give reasons to support every claim.”
The next slide he pulled up was framed in pink trim over an image of roses. On the top in English were the words “Will You Marry Me?” followed by four lines in Chinese intended to replicate the ORID process:
We’ve been together for a while
The feelings that we have for each other are pretty good
To go on like this is pointless
So, let’s get married!
All at once, a hum of collective recognition bubbled up from the crowd. The approach, though far from romantic, goes a long way to explaining marriage in a country where nuptials are often taken pragmatically. But for a Westerner, to define marriage in terms akin to any other business transaction – replete with linear cause and effect – seemed almost to miss the point. In my daily life in China, I am used to butting up against points of view that are very different from my own. Working as the only foreigner at a Chinese company, I quickly learned, was no different.
A Chinese friend and I had a talk about marriage recently. He is 32 but looks a spritely 26, handsome, and manages a chain of hotels in the southern provincial capital of Fuzhou. Like me, he had recently broken up with his girlfriend of the last three years. Part of the reason, he told me, was because he felt the pressure of marriage creeping up, but he hadn’t made the necessary preparations. He said that in China, in addition to paying a large dowry, a man must be able to provide a car, a house, and a reliable stream of income for his bride-to-be.
“What is required in your country for marriage?” he asked me. I could tell he was looking for commiseration. Though there is little argument that having a financially-sound foundation for marriage is important, there seemed something bigger at stake. At the risk of sounding insensitive, I answered.
“Love,” I told him, as non-naively as I could muster. It felt like a significant thing to leave out. Maybe we are all tainted by our own cultural upbringing. But was that something so hard to reconcile?
Back in the conference room, the host of the company training finally made it to his point. He said that the ORID method could also be applied in a multitude of different work contexts: everything from expressing a conflicting opinion to asking a boss for a raise.
“Regardless of the situation, it is essential to plainly articulate the reasons behind everything you do,” the host mused. He extended a hand to the man from the first table. “Perhaps if our friend had used this strategy, he might already be married today!” The audience crackled with laughter, and even the man himself couldn’t help flashing a smile.
In reality, the host didn’t need a PowerPoint presentation to state this fact. Nor did he need a two-hour-long training session. In order to do anything, individuals must have the capacity to request the things they want of the world – of their peers, of their superiors, and especially of themselves. Communication is about making clear our intentions—the confidence to undertake a romantic union, the bravery to admit something embarrassing to a roomful of new colleagues, the courage to end a three-year relationship because you recognize, in the deepest, truest part of your heart, that the love you once had is no longer there.
As the training came to a close, the host announced the final item on the program: the awards ceremony. As had become customary in company trainings, prizes were given to select attendees as a way to encourage participation. The host gave a hand as he called up the jilted bachelor to collect his prize. When the man reached the podium, he delivered a mock Oscar acceptance speech, and the room let out a collective laugh. As he exited the stage, two women at the next table over lowered their heads and blushed. The man left the training with a package of green tea leaves, delicate and fine – perfect for receiving company.