Money talks, so builders listen to the experts

San Francisco Chronicle

They learn that Chinese and Asian Indian home buyers prize harmony over hard sell.

Susan Fornoff, Chronicle Staff Writer

Shake hands gently. Make minimal eye contact. And never, ever say, “No.”
What could entice the average American to do business this way?

Money, of course. And so a group of cultural experts from Pleasanton adeptly wielded that weapon at the Pacific Coast Builders Conference in San Francisco this week at “Embracing the Buying Power of Ethnic Homebuyers,” a seminar about building homes and business with the Chinese and with Asian Indians.

“This is where the money will be, among the groups with high income and low homeownership,” said Ashok Mathur, India consultant for Charis Intercultural Training Corp. “Asian Indians are the richest ethnic group in the United States but are lowest in home ownership. So if you can get some skills here, there is a lot of money to be made.”

Mathur quickly got his predominately white audience’s attention with a few charts and bar graphs. In the latest census figures, Asian Indians averaged a $69,470 annual median income and Chinese a $58,300 median, figures well above the national median of $42,100. But home ownership in those groups lagged at 56.8 and 65.7 percent, respectively (average: 66.2 percent).

Selling these cultures an American home, however, is not a simple matter of installing wok kitchens for the cook and in-law units for the extended family. Audience members gave the panel of Mathur, Rebecca Weiner and Marian Stetson-Rodriguez a long list of obstacles they encounter when dealing with clients from other cultures — ranging from the bartering mentality to gender bias to even just saying, “Hi, how are ya.”

“We get accustomed to thinking people are going to adapt to doing business in the United States the way that we do it,” Weiner said. “And that’s the challenge. Somebody says they’ll be there at a certain time and they arrive 45 minutes late — well, does that mean they don’t respect my time, they don’t respect me?”

Not necessarily, said the Indian-born Mathur, joking about “IST, Indian Standard Time or Indian Stretchable Time.” Mathur said that in India, if a guest shows up for a party on time he’s likely to find the host still in his underwear — it’s rude to arrive sooner than 30 minutes after the appointed hour.

So, what’s an American-raised mortgage broker to do when escrow has to close by 5 p.m. today?

“If it’s an important appointment you very politely say, ‘Now this is rigid California time, sir, not Indian Standard Time,’ and they will know what you mean,” Mathur said.

The panelists delved into the attitudes of the Chinese and Asian Indians toward Americans (both groups are convinced that American food is terrible) and explored how cultural differences are most likely to surface during tricky negotiations for homes, probably the most expensive purchase anyone will make.

In the United States, Weiner said, we have a “low context” culture, where truth is the priority: “We just want the facts, ma’am, and we want them in writing,” she said.

Other “low-context” characteristics: egalitarianism; separate work and personal lives; results-oriented, explicit communication; and valuing independence.

But the high-context cultures of China and India value interdependence and the group over the individual. They’re hierarchical as opposed to egalitarian, process-oriented as opposed to results-oriented. Work and personal lives bleed, and communication is often nonverbal.

The priority, Weiner said, is harmony, not truth. Which is why the direct and truthful American salesperson might be better served by learning the passive way to reject a negotiating demand.

” ‘No’ is like a slap in the face,” Mathur said. “This can become a difficult thing to deal with in closing contracts. ‘It’s very difficult,’ that means ‘No.’ “

“With the Chinese, you don’t ever lose your decorum and say the answer is ‘No, N-O!’ ” said Stetson-Rodriguez, the well-traveled president of Charis, who lived in Taiwan for a time. “Face is everything. You go back and forth maybe six times. This way, they know they’ve tried their very best to get the best deal for the family.”

Stetson-Rodriguez’s suggestions for doing business with Chinese include using formal titles, sharing a property’s history, and, in fixed-price settings, reserving a few items for compromise in barter. She said a feng shui master often accompanies a buyer to assess the energy flow in a prospective home, which had better not have an address ending in “4,” a numeral she said connotes death in some Chinese cultures.

For buyers from the “chaotic” culture of India, where houses tend to be built with steel, concrete, brick and mortar, Mathur said, “It’s solidity and value that are important. You want to emphasize the solidness of the structure. “

If it can withstand a monsoon and an earthquake, that’s a key point. Low- maintenance features rate, too; Mather said that his culture’s high emphasis on education means that Indian children are raised to be good and study hard, not to clean the bathroom.

“So most are pretty inept when it comes to repairs, and any help or guidance in that area is of immense value,” he said.

He also stressed the normalcy of three generations of family living together in a house. It’s not unusual in that multigenerational setting, he said, for the senior male to be handed the pen to sign on the dotted line — even though it’s the senior male’s son or daughter who’s taking the title.

“The tactful way to handle this,” said Mathur, “is, ‘Sir, we need your blessings, but we need your son’s signature.’ You have to be very, very careful about upsetting parents.”

Mather noted that builders can serve the parents by adding guest suites to home designs.

“A lot of the things that flow from these differences are important in home design,” he said, adding that shoe closets and coat closets need to be large enough to accommodate all those guests, whatever time they arrive.