What to do When You Catch Your Supplier in a Lie


Maintaining a healthy business relationship across great geographical, cultural and language barriers is tricky, to say the least. But when a buyer suspects a supplier of being less-than-honest with them, a tricky situation can quickly become an international incident. Luckily for us, ancient Chinese folklore offers a solution that may even help to strengthen the buyer-supplier relationship, while at the same time demanding accountability. Here’s how.

Three men make a tiger

Ancient Chinese folklore often comes in the form of a chengyu, or a four-character idiom. For people not intimately acquainted with Chinese culture, chengyus may sound meaningless. But when understood within their historical and cultural context, chengyus actually carry a world of meaning.

One such idiom is 三人成虎 (san ren cheng hu), or “Three men make a tiger.” Here’s the story:

During the time of the Warring States period in ancient Chinese history, King Mei met with one of his kingdom’s subjects to discuss kingdom politics. The subject was to be sent to a far away territory to act as the kingdom’s ambassador. Fearing his political enemies at home would seize upon his absence to spread false rumors about him, the subject pleaded with the King not to make him leave.

“My Lord,” said the subject, “What if a man came running into your palace to tell you a tiger had gotten loose in the marketplace. Would you believe him?”

“Of course not!” replied the king hastily.

“My Lord, what if a second man came and told you the same story?”

The King, still not amused, replies “No.”

“My Lord, would you believe there was a tiger in the marketplace if a third man claimed to have seen it too?”

“Well,” replied the King, “If so many people came to tell me that a tiger is in the marketplace, I would surely have to believe them.”

“Ah ha!” exclaimed the subject, “My Lord, it would only take three people to make you believe such an outrageous story! If I am sent to a far off land, my political enemies at home, of which there are many more than three, would fabricate outrageous stories to discredit me. What’s to stop you from believing them if I am not here to defend myself?”

The subject was unsuccessful in persuading the King, and was sent far away to act as ambassador. Upon his return years later, he found that his political enemies had indeed spread lies about him which, over time, the King was made to believe. The subject was stripped of all political power and influence, having fell out of favor with the King in his absence.

The moral of the story? A lie repeated enough times can start to seem like the truth.

But what does this have to do with you?

If you’ve caught your supplier in a lie, tell them, “Supplier, I know the story of 三人成虎, three men make a tiger. I won’t fall for such tricks.”

This accomplishes three goals: First, it lets your supplier know that you are not willing to tolerate any dishonesty, and that you are not easily fooled. Two, it will likely cause you to stand out in the supplier’s mind as a buyer who is unusually savvy about Chinese culture. This creates the conditions for a strengthened relationship into the future. And three, it gives the supplier an important opportunity to save face after having been caught in a lie. They may shift the discussion at this point to how you became so knowledgeable about Chinese culture. This is another chance for you to develop more of a rapport with the supplier. Once this part of the discussion runs its course, your supplier may feel more able to change their tone and be more upfront than previously, without outright admitting their deceit.

In general, the more knowledgeable a buyer is about Chinese culture, the better position they will find themselves in to negotiate and develop mutually beneficial business relationships overseas. But of course, business is business, and buyers should not be overly permissive either, to the point of letting unscrupulous suppliers take advantage. For more tips on weighing cultural openness against business savvy, try our article 5 Things to Know About Chinese Culture When Negotiating With Suppliers.

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