Only the devil walks in a straight line.

I came across this traditional Chinese saying a while back and it had me thinking. Only the devil walks in a straight line. I can imagine the devil, and walking in a straight line, but what can be meant that only the devil himself walks in a straight line?

After some investigation, I discovered that it generally means (crossed fingers here) that when giving bad news or any kind of news, instructions, anything that could cause loss of face, embarrassment, or have the person feel uncomfortable – do so indirectly. Never directly like what we in North America would call, “telling it directly and straight to the point.” This just does not work well in Asian cultures. Particularly in the early stages of a relationship or business negotiation. It’s not to say that there is never a time for it but allow the relationship to develop harmoniously first.

It’s origins likely trace back to the idea of “Wu.” Which is Chinese for the word harmony. In ancient times the levels of respect, admiration, and power of an Emperor had been largely based on how well the people were living in harmony. When things got out of whack and disharmony erupted, the people could say the Emperor had lost the Mandate of Heaven, Meaning, out he goes in favour of the new guy. Or, new conqueror as the case may be.

Remnants of this are still evident today. Harmonious relationships are desirable in Asian business as it is everywhere. Besides, who wants to be in a long-term business relationship where there is nothing but disharmony? Asians will do business first with those they consider “friends” An often-heard remark about doing business in Japan is that it’s, “easy to sell to the Japanese once but difficult twice.” It is after you have earned their trust and friendship that your business efforts will progress. My experience is that this holds everywhere in Asia.

Being direct and to the point is lauded here, even encouraged. Time is money, get the deal and get out, do not beat around the bush, all these sayings show how differently we think about conducting business. Neither way is better than the other, simply different.  Keeping in mind this saying is a good reminder to be indirect, I guess the devil can get away with walking in a straight line, But then again, the devil can get away with a lot of stuff we mortals can’t.