This blog has been around for more than six years and during that time we have picked up a number of regular e-mailers. Some of these are people who, for whatever reason, refuse to comment on the blog, even anonymously, preferring to leave their “comments” via email.  Then there are the people who have a regular agenda/theme. There is the person who for years has sent me emails “proving” China’s economy is a bubble that will inevitably pop.  There is the person who thinks China is amoral and that will eventually cause it to rot from inside. This person is constantly sending me emails showing how “bad” the Chinese people are.  On the rare occasions when I respond, I usually do so by pointing out something similar that just happened in the United States. Or I sometimes just say that one can certainly expect a lot of bad apples in a batch of 1.5 billion of them.  I have always thought this person keeps emailing in the hopes that we will eventually take one of his emails and do a post on it.

Well that someday is now.

And here’s the problem. I am not sure whether I am seeing something where there is nothing simply because the constant barrage of emails has worn down my critical thinking skills, or if for once, the e-mailer is right.  China is different than anywhere else.  Note though how I said “different” not anything having to do with morality.

So here’s the email:

I was booking a hotel the other day for a friend of mine coming into Shanghai and as a part of that, I compared the reviews of two American hotels in Shanghai. One of the hotels had a comment by a guest complaining about a very high level of noise. The manger of the hotel responded to that complaint with this:

Thank you for sharing with us your feedback on your recent stay. After looking into our records, we are unable to find any entry close to your comments. Hence, I think it is likely that you may have been given a room near the guest lift. During high occupancy there is heavy foot traffic in that area which may result in load voices. May I recommend that on your next booking you may request for a room not close to the guest lift. I hope this will be helpful. Look forward to welcoming you back soon.

You have to admit that no hotel manager anywhere else in the world would go online and treat a guest like this. The manager starts out calling the guest a liar because there is no record of any complaint and then he blames the guest for not requesting the right room.  Despite this, he still thinks the guest will return but just ask for a room not near the elevator the next time. This is typical of China and you know it.  Anywhere but China, the manager would apologize and say that he is looking into the problem and that it will be fixed. This lack of introspection and blaming the foreigner for everything is going to doom China to mediocrity.

Okay, so I hate to take one tiny incident and one hotel manager (at an American hotel no less) and say that it is going to doom a country of 1.5 billion people, but I really don’t have a very good response beyond that.  Do you?  My problem is that I cannot imagine a manager of a fairly high end hotel (American no less) saying something like this to a guest, much less online.  And yet the fact that a manager of a hotel in China said this does not surprise me at all, which means I must think this sort of thing is “typical of China.”  But at the same time, this really is just one person out of 1.5 billion and so I really do hate to use this tiny incident to extrapolate.

People, help me out here.  Should we view this one bad hotel manager as emblematic of China or is this just one tiny meaningless incident?  The phone lines are open…


  • Will Lewis

    I think your email buddy is seeing something that ain’t there.  The manager didn’t call the guest a liar; he is informing the guest that they don’t have a record of these types of complaints and he is trying to figure out why the complaint was made.  He doesn’t blame the guest for choosing the wrong home; he makes a suggestion for making future stays more comfortable and putting the world on notice of how to make their stays more comfortable.

    Maybe when one is abroad in a ‘different’ environment, the ‘morality’ of the different people you’re living with is highlighted.  But your local US newspaper will let you know exactly how moral folks are at home.

  • Bluetwinkle

    I usually read this blog without commenting, but this time, I feel like i have to. 

    I have to say that when I read the “hotel’s response”, I absolutely did not have the same interpretation of its meaning. It is possible that the hotel staff does not speak English very well, and did not express themselves appropriately. 

    To me, the reply was saying: 
    – thanks for commenting
    – we looked into our floorplans, and couldn’t find any entrances near your room, which would normally be the cause of noise problems
    – therefore, it’s possible the noise you complain about comes from the guest lift, which can be loud during busy times
    – if you come back, let us know you don’t want a room near the lift

    I’m not quite sure why your emailer interprets the response as calling the guest a liar, or blaming them for room choice. Maybe people just see what they want to see…

    • Arthur Borges

       That’s my reading too. True, the responder (not necessarily the manager) might have checked the room number against the floor plan and cited the room number in the reply, but if it’s a relatively upscale hotel, it’s built and decorated to be quiet, so a room next to the lift/elevator in high season may be the only option.

      But yep, Chinese are real partygoers and they drink. They never just drink. It’s always food & drink together. But it’s very liquid and some of the stuff is 120 proof so it gets all noisy and chummy when folks say goodbye as they stumble back to their rooms at two in the morning.

  • Lol. I disagree with the two prev. commentators, and also the email writer.

    I think this comment is:
    A. Very commonly Chinese (there is no problem, okay, maybe there is a problem, but it’s YOU)
    B. No big deal

    I also don’t think it shows some deeper truth that the Chinese are bad. I’ve stayed all over the world, from 5 stars to 1 star, and I’ve had some of the worst experiences in New York, for example.

    What the above sounds like to me is a Chinese manager (who is a little arrogant) following the “letter” of a policy while allowing his inner belief in the righteousness of his side shine through.

    I don’t think it’s ground breaking, or very insightful, or that bad, for that matter.

  • Poiuy098765

    The fact that you said you can’t imagine a hotel manager (probably anywere on earth) saying something like that, and that you were not surprised that a hotel manager in China would say that tells us the problem.  China is not just any country.  China is special.

  • Guan Yang

    I’ll have to browsing later on Tripadvisor, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen American hotel managers respond in essentially the same way to guest complaints there. I should say that I interpreted the response exactly as Bluetwinkle did.

  • steve laudig

    As an experiment I took the fellowʻs comments beginning with “Okay, so I hate…. this tiny incident to extrapolate.” and ran it thru Google translate. This is the result: “好吧,我恨采取一个微小的事件,一名酒店经理在美国的酒店不说,它是要死命的1.5亿人口的大国,但我真的没有超越,反应非常好。你呢?我的问题是,我不能想象一个相当高的高档酒店说像这样客人(美国没有少),更不用说网上的经理。但事实上,在中国的一家酒店的经理说这并不让我感到吃惊,这意味着我必须考虑这样的事情是“典型的中国。”,但在同一时间,这确实是一个人出去1.5亿美元,所以我真的不讨厌使用这种微小的事件来推断.” My Chinese is, to use the phrase commonly used by my students to describe their English, “very poor.” So I am in no position to judge whether what was intended to be said [in English] gets through to the other side [Chinese]. Those of you who have a command of Chinese and English might be able to determine how well the translation captures the original intent. Does the speaker sound regretfully critical at having to provide such clear evidence or does he/she sound arrogant and insulting and a bit bigoted?Communicating in a second language is tough and it seems a bit crabby to impute ill intent unless one is clearly present. I sense only an sincere attempt by the hotel ʻmanagerʻ to be helpful that is hampered by not having a command of the language rather than some snotty reply to a whining Westerner. [Sidebar, Iʻve been trapped several times with a group of English-speaking Westerners, particularly Americans, and invariably, IF AND ONLY IF there are no English-speaking Chinese around, the conversation turns to mocking the Chinese and whining about ineptness of the Chinese and Chinese ways with the unstated proposition being that things are much better back home in the  usually “good old USA”] People see what they want to see in a situation and hear what they want to hear. 

    • Lucifer

      Google translate is notorious for really bad Chinese translations. It’s very mediocre even if you do it one phrase at a time…using Google translates completely discredits your analysis.

  • Roberto

    Oh, so many China hotel stories … one of the best of which was my experience handling the communications for a friend with a famous five-star hotel in Hong Kong (then not China) on the waterfront in Wanchai (if that helps). My friend regularly stayed over 100 nights a year in this hotel and rightly considered himself a good customer. The hotel had given him a major upgrade to be used on a future visit, and when he tried to, they reneged on their commitment, telling him they he would have to move into his more normal humbler accommodation for the latter part of his stay. [I’ve forgotten the details of the incident, but these are the broad outlines.] He thought that was rude, and was unimpressed they had reneged on their commitment to one of their best customers. I conducted an email conversation on his behalf with the general manager, who was of course Swiss, and after a bit of back and forth, including a fairly unsatisfactory offer of compensation, the general manager wrote to me, “To be perfectly honest, though I would handle this another way, I and my staff are under strict instructions from the hotel’s [Hong Kong Chinese] owners to under no circumstances offer compensation to guests on service issues.” I wrote back that I understood, and I told my friend he had a choice: accept that outcome, or change hotels. He changed hotels, taking his 100+ nights a year across the street.

    More broadly, the story (and your post) does speak to service culture, and for better or for worse, China is not a service culture. Which everyone knows. That’s not to say you can’t get great service in China, but it’s not the norm.

    Another short China hotel story (about good service): during one short China trip I popped back into my room after a morning of meetings to field email and eat a quick room service lunch. I called room service and as it was a five-star hotel and I don’t often eat a burger for lunch and usually find five-star hotel burgers decent, I decided to order one. The room service staffer paused lengthily in taking my order, and eventually said, “I don’t really recommend the burger, sir.” “Why not,” I said. “It’s, er, local beef, sir.” “Oh, I see. What do you recommend, then?” “The shrimp fried rice is excellent, sir.” “That was my second choice! Perfect.” I was stunned that he’d steered me away from the burger, that he cared one whit about my dining experience and/or health. [And no, cynics, the fried rice wasn’t more expensive, hahaha!]

  • Hua Qiao

    First i would say that Chinese and western customers are generally treated differently in China with Lao Wai given far more respect than Laobaixing. I think it is fair to say that Chinese firms trust customers far less than western firms. Try to return a good at a retail chain anywhere in China. You’d think you were on trial. The level of paperwork, hassle and obvious suspicion is significant. This comes from 2 things: first,there is a lot of fraud in China and commercial firms must create policies to prevent being hurt from scams; thus, the Draconian processes that go with responding to just about any customer issue. Secondly, clerks are generally not empowered to make spontneous customer decisions (ala Nordstroms). They are taught to follow procedure and they will not deivate outside what they think is policy no matter how obvious the solution might be. In fact, most fuwuyuan will tell you “not company policy” and expect you to understand. Mainlanders usually accept this. But say that to a westerner and they will say “i don’t give a flying &$%* what your policy is.”

    East meets west.

    • This response was spot-on.  There is iron-clad policy and nobody is given the authority to make on-the-fly decisions or implement correction or change.  If you complain or bring a suggestion to a normal floor worker or lower-level manager, they don’t want to “rock the boat” and they mainly want you to relax and forget the whole thing.

      We don’t know what level of manager responded to the above complaint.  In a Chinese structure, many people can have the title as manager, but they are just normal employees.   

      The Chinese really get embarrassed at discussing issues, a lot of awkward silence and red-facedness comes up if a partial or sign of complaint springs up.  By doing this, you’re not maintaining a pleasant harmony level.  Having said that, many Westerners are pretty cranky in China and do try to place their standards or home standards on the place – this leads to a lot of disappointment.  Living in China, you definitely have to learn to “live and let live”.  – pick your battles.  

    • Arthur Borges

       Yes, We get a real ego high out of setting the natives right on who’s boss, don’t we?

  • Don’t think this was such a bad example of poor customer service, but I agree that in general customer service is appalling in China.

    I remember being in an up-market cafe once in Guomao. Ordered the HK-style milk tea and it was terrible, I couldn’t stomach it and I’m not a particularly fussy eater. Pretty sure the milk was off. Asked very politely to swap it for something else, but had to argue with the manager who told me the tea was absolutely fine, I just wasn’t used to the taste (“茶是没有问题的,是你喝不习惯”). Never mind the fact that I’ve lived in Asia half my life and been to HK numerous times, when the manager has in all likelihood never been to HK. Even if the milk tea was perfect, completely the wrong attitude but I’ve had numerous similar experiences.

    Is this a reason for why China will never rule the world? Unlikely. I think this kind of attitude will get better with time as the country and its people mature, and as (if?) the rule of law takes hold and people are able to trust each other more.

  • Mo

    I can only comment on Chinese hotels, as my travel takes me 90 % of the time to some smaller Chinese hotels, often far way from the big cities.

    The staff simply does not care, they know that most likely you will be back, because they are the only hotel in that city.

    In other places they don’t care, because they get their salary despite their lousy service.

    Same goes for banks, China Mobile and Unicom etc etc.

    Is it better somewhere else in the world? I don’t know! But I often gave up on commenting, as commenting has the same effect as explaining Einsteins Theory of Relativity to a barnyard animal.

  • Balidengta

    Ever heard of “uneven development”?

  • DaMn

    The majority of the comments have this right, perception is not reality. This emailer’s perception is the tail wagging the dog. What the manager is saying is that there was no “report” of any noise problem (such as an argument or disturbance out of the “ordinary”) so it was likely from a “normal” source such as the lift. Besides, this post doesn’t state where the noise was coming from at all. Were the workers laughing and talking in the hallways? Was construction going on in the area? Is it on a busy street with lots of traffic and horns blowing?

    Honestly, I’d rather get a thoughtful honest response like this manger gave, recognizing the “normal” and from someone who actually thought about the source of the problem, than some foreigner who “knows what to say” or gives the “proper accepted response” and then does nothing about it.

  • Like you, I’m surprised at my lack of surprise at the hotel manager’s comments.  I just thought, “Yeah, you’re lucky they didn’t blame him for having sensitive ears.” I think as China moves from an easy money investment phase to one where it actually needs make money by providing value, firms will be forced to improve their service if they want to stay in business. 

    Just my 2 mao.

  • Ethan

    If you ever read hotel reviews by Chinese websites, this is pretty much the standard response.  First deflect the criticism and make it the customer’s problem, and then say something about you will look into it or fix it, and tell them to come back next time.  

    Also, I am pretty sure the hotel manager did not write it.  Most likely it is a paid service by the hotel chain to monitor and reply to online review sites.  Someone most likely earned about 50 cents RMB for posting it.  

    Seriously, foreigners will understand China so much better if you learn a little Chinese and use it.  When I see “experts” that say they have lived here for ohsomany years, I just laugh, then quietly curse my bad luck because they invariably think they know China so well, but then here is a typical example where laowai are just clueless because they don’t know Chinese.  

  • Shuike

     This guy is just using any & all opportunity to smear China & things Chinese. If you read the Manager’s letter from a Chinese perspective, you’d find that he was actually trying to be polite. Most probably his written English wasn’t good enough (as evidenced by the “we are unable to find any entry close….” What “noise” got to do with “entry”?). So he most likely wrote the reply in Chinese & used a translator like Google – with disastrous cultural misunderstanding. What he clearly meant (I think) was:
    –         Thank you for the feedback
    –         We took your comments seriously & investigated.
    –         Unfortunately, could not locate the source of disturbance.
    –          Probably due to high traffic noises near the lifts.
    –         But we value your patronage so if ever you return, we will ensure you get a room away from the lifts.
    Can you be more polite & meaningful that this?

  • I agree with some of the other commenters.  The manager’s response sounds like he is trying to identify and solve the problem.  Perhaps he could be more apologetic, but it doesn’t read to me like a “blame the foreigner” response.  I find this response more genuine and personal than an effusively “correct” response. But perhaps that is because I am British and have a very strong aversion to insincere bullshit along the lines of “your call is very important to us…”

  • Thinking back to the last time you wrote about service, either you or a commenter noted that you often get great service in little corner shops. Which leads me to think, it’s not so much a service problem as a management problem. As in your examples here, low grade employees are literally not allowed to show any initiative.

  • Don Clarke

    Agree with the majority here. Don’t see how this is obviously the manager calling the guest a liar. He’s diagnosing the problem and suggesting a way to fix it. This is not blaming the guest; it’s thinking about how to deal next time with a problem neither guest nor hotel anticipated. There’s no way the manager can honestly say, “We’ll look into the problem and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” because there are always going to be some rooms near the elevators.

  • P.Z.

    Chinese people are so big on indirect communication and insist that their indirect communication translates regardless of language. I think that needs to be taken into consideration when interpreting this situation.

  • 罗宝亮 Lucas

    The amount of China hate being flung around in the U.S. right now is startling, dangerous, callous and plays on the very large and completely ignorant American impression of China. Only in America do we have educated congressman who believe the world is 10,000 years old, and only in America do we have a population that can be driven to damn the worlds second largest economy, because even if they have traveled to China, they take the very regular stance that America is Christian, majority white, democratic, and Western, and therefore by every margin far better than the Mandarinate. We have allowed ourselves to be distracted into the position that China is Evil. 

    I could point out that the average Chinese person has one sexual partner in life, and the average American has 14. I could toe the economic line and remind everyone that the savings rate in China is close to 30-40% annual salary, whereas in the United States its closer to 0%. I could remind everyone that the United States is number one of the list of nations by incarceration rate, and that China is number 121, well behind Taiwan. I could point out that gun violence is much rarer in China, drug abuse much less common, and thievery startling lower. We could point out the rising standard of living in the China and the falling standard of living in the United States. I could emphasize how religion is used as a tool of disenfranchisement and a vehicle of hatred domestically – I could name the massive amounts of American religious leaders that have lead there congregations to ruin, and I could remind everyone that China has the only female Imams in the world. The list is endless and the point is this…

    America and China are different nations. We are different culturally, ethnically, even physically. Neither of us are superior or inferior, we are simply not the same. We each have our individual strengths, and our individual weaknesses. 

    Most importantly, we must both be very cautious of branding each other, we must avoid the necessity of conflict, and we must reject the notion that difference means dissonance. 

    China will be the world’s largest economy. For many years it has not been a question of if, but of when. With the likely collapse of the European Union, and with double dip recessions, possibly depressions seeming much more probable throughout the West, China’s ascension has been slowed, but not stopped. 

    We as Americans have a choice. We may embrace the ideals that our great nation was founded upon, beliefs of freedom – freedom of religion, the freedom to choose one’s destiny. If we accept these freedoms we must accept China’s ability to choose its own. And make no mistake that China will control its direction, in whatever way and in whatever time the Chinese people will. 

    I for one have chosen to embrace the better angels of my nature, to accept the things about China I will never understand, and to instead focus on the areas of mutual success and opportunity. But I fear for the safety of the future when my countrymen seem to be unable to do the same. 

    My father always said to me, “remember son, that when you point your finger at others, three fingers point back at you.” 

    Let us not be a nation of fingers, but of thumbs. Thumbs are a lot more constructive. 

  • Joyce Lau

    I’m a woman with no small number of complaints about Chinese hotels and service in general.
    But I agree with posters here that this particular online exchange — and this blog post — is nothing.
    It’s a form letter/ That’s it. It’s not rude or vulgar or unhelpful, just not particularly well written. We don’t expect hotel managers to be Shakespeare.
    Sometimes something small can offer great insight into a culture, but this is not one of those times. There’s no deep sub-text. It was probably written by a secretary and fed through Google Translate.

    But aside from this post — yes, the service is patchy in China. At 5-star hotels in big cities,  they put on a facade of a helpful face, but you can tell that it’s forced.
    If you’re a nobody like me — an ethnic Chinese businesswoman / traveler who is not a big tycoon / government crony — you’re really treated worse in places like Shanghai. Some of the big Chinese-run luxury hotels will even stop Chinese looking passers-by at the door unless they say specifically that they are guests. (Foreign tourists are welcome).

     I find the staff in the countryside to be much nicer. They might not be as smooth — and the facilities not as fancy — but they often put an effort in, particularly young women. In Shanghai, they have an awful chip on their shoulder. We’ve had (on multiple occasion) waiters in expensive restaurants snap at or yell at me and my elderly parents when we complained about a dish, or simply wanted something different.

    Then again, I am spoiled here in Hong Kong.

  • MHB

    That response reminds me of the book by Bill Bryson, the American travel writer, on the UK… in the 70s! 

    I have no idea how anyone can interpret the manager as being amoral, nevermind extrapolate to Chinese society! Look at their attitudes to family…

    A broad-brush suggestion: Chinese bad apples are more prominent than Western ones, but otherwise equal in volume. Chinese bad apples are not generally ostracised from society, so long as they have something to offer (albeit cash or influence in the right places). Family will usually support them. Undeserving people get jobs through connections.

    In Western society, criminals are locked up, jobs are lost – bad apples are not necessarily supported through thick and thin by their families. Undeserving people do not get the jobs. They stay undeserving, and can be identified as such. Western societies have underclasses. Is it that Chinese are not so good at sweeping their bad apples out of view? Class (UK) and segregation (US) are part of Western cultures.

  • Alexander Baltatzis

    “…we are unable to find any entry close to your comments”
    What does this mean? They looked into their records looking for a complaint with a date close to the datetime the comment was made? If so, I think it is very naive. Some may say it is rude and yet others that it is refreshingly honest. 

    Judging from the comments on this article it seems to me that the hotel market in China is not mature yet. I guess there has been hotels in Shanghai the last two centuries but the last two decades development in China is extreme. Perhaps competition will force better customer service in due time. 

  • Nate

    I’ve found generally that whenever you make a comment about service (or lack thereof) that the Chinese person on the receiving end interperets as lashing out or barking at them,  their viceral reaction will be to retaliate and defend themselves and the company they represent.

    Perhaps the writer of said comment would have had a different experience if they had lowered the tone of the statement posted online.