ClientTalk-cover
Illustration: Wang Siqi
SOCIAL CHINESE

Talk Like the Client Knows Best

The secret to business success in China may be to bombard clients with courtesy, politeness, and rose emojis

If you’re going to message a business client in China, you better come prepared with rose emojis. The rose, and other seemingly frivolous symbols, is a vital tool when talking to 甲方 (jiǎfāng, “Party A,” usually the client in a business contract) and trying to placate these demanding and valuable partners.

​The art of talking to jiafang, which requires 乙方 (yǐfāng, “Party B,” usually the service provider) to use a barrage of polite words, deferential phrases, and emojis of smiley faces, handshakes, and flowers, has become so revered that netizens have labeled it a new literary style: 乙方文学 (yǐfāng wénxué, yifang literature, literally “party B literature”), or 乙学 (yǐxué) for short.

Since October 2022, over 30,000 people have even joined an “Yifang Literature Appreciation Group” on social media platform Douban, where they share experiences with clients and offer tips to “perfect their yifang literature to the point that the client cannot find fault,” according to the group’s description. They have agreed on three basic rules to schmoozing a client, in addition to the indispensable emojis: first, repeat phrases, especially short and simple replies, to make them sound softer and more sincere. For example, use 感谢感谢 (gǎnxiè gǎnxiè, thank you thank you) and 辛苦辛苦 (xīnkǔ xīnkǔ, thank you for your effort) instead of simply 感谢 and 辛苦. Second, end sentences with modal particles, such as 滴 (dī), 哦 (o), and 啦 (la) for levity. Finally, add tilde marks (~) at the end of sentences. These indicate the final syllable of a word is elongated, which makes it sound more enthusiastic.

Though yifang literature only recently emerged in the online lexicon, this client-talk has been around in the business world for decades. In Feng Xiaogang’s 1997 comedy film The Dream Factory (《甲方乙方》) an yifang helps clients fulfill their wildest fantasies, including outlandish requests such as wanting to become American general George Patton for a day (which they achieve by building a battlefield set including real tanks). Now, service providers often dub themselves “humble yifang (卑微乙方 bēiwēi yǐfāng),” and 乙 has become synonymous with “humble.” Correspondingly, jiafang are sometimes called 甲方爸爸 (jiǎfāng bàba, Daddy Jiafang) to reflect the much greater power they hold in the business relationship.

Titles are king

A good client relationship begins with an appropriate address. First names are off-limits (they aren’t deferential enough), so you can add the client’s title to their surname, as in Lawyer Wang, General Manager Zhang, or Editor Liu. Higher ranks are preferred, so the “vice” or “deputy” in titles are omitted to boost egos.

Without a clear title, one can default to 老师 (lǎoshī), which has evolved from its original meaning of “teacher” and “master” to a gender-neutral, universal respectful address for people from all professions.

Any requests to jiafang should include a barrage of politeness and courtesies, such as: 抱歉 (bàoqiàn, sorry), 打扰了 (dǎrǎo le, excuse me), 麻烦 (máfan, [could I] trouble you), and 辛苦 (thank you for your effort). Also use the more respectful pronoun 您 (nín) for “you” instead of 你 (nǐ):

Excuse me teacher, very sorry to bother you, but could I trouble you to send me the contract?

Lǎoshī, bàoqiàn, dǎrǎo nín le~Máfan nín bǎ hétong fā wǒ xià, kěyǐ ma~

老师,抱歉,打扰您了~麻烦您把合同发我下,可以吗~

Grin and bear it

Though it may take hours or even days to get feedback from a demanding jiafang, a qualified yifang 打工人 (dǎgōngrén, worker or ”wage slave”) gives immediate and agreeable responses, no matter how unreasonable the client’s request is:

Can you make this black-and-white effect more colorful?

Wǒ yào wǔcǎi bānlán de hēi, wǔguāng shísè de bái.

我要五彩斑斓的黑,五光十色的白。

Such requests must be met with a congenial 好滴~ (hǎodī~), preferably with a cute emoji or GIF too. This is more cordial than a dry 好的 (hǎode) or a passive aggressive 好的呢 (hǎode ne), though they all mean “OK” or “all right.”

After dozens of changes, the jiafang may still come up with 新想法 (xīn xiǎngfǎ, new ideas) and require “a little bit (一点点 yìdiǎndiǎn)” of adjustment, which yifang literati often joke means “hundreds of millions (亿点点 yìdiǎndiǎn)” of changes. But the yifang must remain pleasant, even if through gritted teeth:

Client: I want to adjust the design a little bit, so the bedroom door faces west.

Túzhǐ hái děi gǎi yíxià, wǒ xiǎng bǎ zhǔwò de mén huànchéng xī cháoxiàng.

图纸还得改一下,我想把主卧的门换成西朝向。

Yifang: It will be a little difficult to change the orientation now.

Yào huàn cháoxiàng, yǒudiǎnr máfan o~

要换朝向,有点儿麻烦哦~

Jiafang: The fortune teller said a west-facing door can bring wealth.

Suànmìng xiānsheng shuō xī cháoxiàng zhāocái.

算命先生说西朝向招财。

OK! We’ll revise it again.

Hǎodī~Nà wǒmen zài gǎi xià~

好滴~那我们再改下~

After all the back-and-forth, a typical outcome is for the client to declare: “Actually, the original design was the best!”

Everyone’s an yifang

Any transaction or request, even those unrelated to business, can be made in 乙学 style. For example, a parent hoping for more attention for their child from a teacher may write:

Hello teacher, I’ve emailed you photos of my child’s homework. Could I trouble you to take some time to look it over? Thank you for your hard work!

Lǎoshī hǎo, háizi de shǒugōng zuòyè yǐjīng pāizhào fādào nín yóuxiāng le, máfan nín chōukòng cháshōu xià, xīnkǔ le~

老师好,孩子的手工作业已经拍照发到您邮箱了,麻烦您抽空查收下,辛苦了~

Not everyone is happy about this fawning though. Some online have dubbed yifang literature “written ingratiation syndrome (文字讨好症 wénzì tǎohǎozhèng)”—essentially bootlicking through WeChat. But in a video on Bilibili in November 2022, Dong Chenyu, a lecturer from the School of Journalism and Communication at Renmin University, suggested the style is just a way to add feeling to otherwise cold and impersonal messages in the digital age.

Others are fed up with the relentless humility and have decided to “be my own jiafang (做自己的甲方 zuò zìjǐ de jiǎfāng).” There are no rose emojis in their messages—and you’ll just have to put up with it.

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author Tan Yunfei (谭云飞)

Tan Yunfei is the editorial director of The World of Chinese. She reports on Chinese language, food, traditions, and society. Having grown up in a rural community and mainly lived in the cities since college, she tries to explore and better understand China's evolving rural and urban life with all readers.