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WJS: Why the Chinese hate to use voice mail
By REBECCA BUCKMAN (WJS) (Exclusive for chinadaily.com.cn)
Updated: 2005-12-01 12:54

HONG KONG -- When Chinese-born entrepreneur Edward Tian moved his Internet-systems company from Texas to Beijing about a decade ago, he tried to teach U.S.-style business practices to his new Chinese work force. Plan in advance, he advised. Keep detailed records. And use voice mail.

"People from [China] didn't get used to it," recalled Mr. Tian, now chief executive of Beijing-based telecom giant China Netcom Group Corp. (Hong Kong) Ltd. Employees simply weren't in the habit of leaving phone messages for customers or colleagues, a practice that initially dragged out some decision-making, Mr. Tian says.

Not much has changed. Despite a decade of blistering economic growth and capitalistic evolution, the Chinese have an old-fashioned aversion to voice mail -- whether it's on home or office telephones or cellphones.

Chinese people "hate" voice mail, says Danny Wang, a software executive in China who studied and worked for several years in the U.S. In China's go-go climate, "who has time to check it?" he says.

It's a big point of frustration for businesspeople trying to navigate China's already-labyrinthine marketplace. The cultural voice-mail quirk is also a problem for companies like China Netcom, which are trying to sell messaging systems in China. "It's not a very successful business for us at all," Mr. Tian says.

The reasons for China's national distaste for voice mail are both technological and cultural. As in many developing nations, China's mobile-phone networks progressed faster than its fixed-line infrastructure. That means most people are hooked on mobile phones and never turn them off -- even during critical business meetings, at the movies and during funerals. "That's normal," says Mr. Wang, the China country manager for Framingham, Mass.-based Red Bend Software Inc.

Many Chinese who have worked for inefficient, state-owned companies may not comprehend the idea of being obligated to return phone calls or to respond to customers. Plus, Chinese workers are away from their desks most of the day, conducting meetings in the traditional, face-to-face Asian style, Mr. Wang says. They don't expect anyone to be around to answer their office phone and check messages. That is one reason cellphone-based text messaging, which is cheaper than installing a complex office voice-mail system, is popular.

Nor do many Chinese expect to leave messages. Duncan Clark, a telecommunications consultant in Beijing, has voice mail in his office but says many people seem mystified when they call and hear his recorded message. Callers often say, "Wei? Wei?" -- the traditional Chinese phone greeting roughly meaning, "Hello? Hello?" -- over and over, believing they are speaking to a real person.

Others consider it a loss of "face," or dignity, to leave a message with someone of lower corporate rank. "It's basically a cultural gap," says Mr. Clark, a Westerner who speaks fluent Mandarin.

Many globe-trotting executives from the U.S. and elsewhere are, of course, glued to their cellular phones and mobile email devices such as BlackBerrys these days. They don't always need voice mail to keep in touch -- some simply use it to avoid talking to pesky friends and colleagues.

Nevertheless, in the U.S. and Europe, voice mail is so ubiquitous that it has become high-tech. Some companies use unified-messaging systems, which use Internet-based phone technology to convert voice mails into text messages that people can read on their computers, says Agatha Poon, a senior analyst at the Yankee Group telecommunications consulting firm in Boston. Conversely, they can listen to emails on the phone if they aren't near a device that receives text messages.

That often happens at Cisco Systems Inc., a provider of unified-messaging systems. "Guys use voice mail more than email, because they travel so much," says Victor Tsao, a Cisco senior vice president based in Irvine, Calif. who runs the company's Linksys home-networking division. Cisco officials in Asia say they hope the rise of Internet telephony, which easily integrates data and voice, could mean more sales of messaging systems in countries like China.

For now, China is somewhat of a voice-mail free zone. It frustrates American and European businesspeople in China who say they count on voice mail to leave important phone messages, particularly when customers and business partners are spread over different time zones.

Tim Dinwiddie, an American who manages southern China operations for Singapore-based contract-electronics manufacturer Flextronics International Ltd. in Doumen, China, says his bosses gave him two directives when he landed in China six and a half years ago: Get a good cellphone with global "roaming" capability and voice mail to keep in touch.

He got both. But since then, "I don't think I've ever gotten a voice mail from someone who is Chinese," Mr. Dinwiddie says. Still, his office phone continues to have voice mail.

Many people assume that anyone of importance in China will have a secretary to answer the phone and take messages. That is the attitude of big Chinese companies like Huawei Technologies Co., which doesn't use voice-mail at its Shenzhen, China headquarters -- even though the company sells voice-mail systems to companies around the world. Two calls to a Huawei spokesman one recent afternoon, including one routed through the company's main switchboard, and then a secretary, simply rang and rang. The lines eventually went dead both times. Reached later on his mobile phone, the spokesman, Fu Jun, said all calls to the office are supposed to be answered by a 24-hour operator, so there is no need for voice mail. Mr. Fu said callers also can reach Huawei executives on their cellphones.

Businesspeople lucky enough to have the mobile numbers of contacts in China often find those phones don't have voice mail, either. (Many Chinese businesspeople give out their mobile number only after in-person meetings.) In the rare event a cellphone is actually turned off in China, most callers simply hear the grating message: "The subscriber you reached is power off," and are forced to keep calling.

There is no evidence that companies have lost business because of the no-voice-mail habit. Executives consider it a nuisance and work around it. Some, like Mr. Dinwiddie, take more calls on their mobile phones at all hours. Others have found new ways to communicate: Harriet Chan, director of business development for Hong Kong company Elite Technology Co., which sells inventory-tracking technology, says she sends instant computer messages via Microsoft Corp.'s MSN service to business contacts in the Chinese mainland. "They will not listen to telephone messages, but they will answer the MSN," she says.

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