All Is Well E28: “My hands are tied”

Previously, on communication as manipulation: “Consensual and Non-Consensual Manipulation,” “All Communication is Behavioral Manipulation,” “All Communication is Manipulation,” “Linguistic Fit,” “Is strategic interaction Machiavellian?,” “A Landscape of Communication,” and “ACiM is a Natural Extension of Cybernetic Theory.

Timestamped link to clip under discussion, beginning 16:05 in.

Su Mingyu has recently been released from the hospital after an assault by her brother, Mingcheng. Now, as the right-hand man of President Meng—head of her consulting firm—she has been assigned to do Meng’s dirty work, firing several employees who have been kept around, despite poor performance, because they are Meng’s in-laws—his estranged wife’s siblings, cousins, etc. After a recent coup attempt, and threats from his wife of divorce, President Meng has decided the in-laws must be removed from the company and the board.

Meng’s wife visits Mingyu with the goal of getting her desist from the evaluations which which legitimate the employee’s removal. Mingyu is sitting working at her desk when Mrs. Meng arrives and is announced by Mingyu’s secretary. Mingyu stands, greets Mrs. Meng while asking after the purpose of her visit. She asks Meng to sit on the office couch, next to a coffee table, and orders her secretary to fetch them coffee. Then she joins Meng on an adjacent lounge chair.

“How have you been recovering?” Meng asks, all smiles, legs crossed. She claims she wanted to visit Mingyu in the hospital, but her husband, the President, wouldn’t let her go. Already, she is trying to manipulate Mingyu’s loyalties. “You’ve been on my mind,” Meng smiles again, attempting to establish sorority. “I’m sorry to worry you,” Mingyu responds—”There’s a lot going on at work, I wanted to hurry back to keep an eye on things.” Meng continues her full-court press: she sighs, shakes her head, narrows her eyes, speaks chastisingly. “That darn old Meng really exploits his employees. Who uses people like he does?” Mingyu laughs, looking down at her hands, folded on her lap, and closing her eyes; her smile is wide, even her eyes are smiling, keeping the tone of the interaction light, but already it is becoming adversarial, and if her guard was not already up, it is now.

“When it comes to work,” Mrs. Meng continues, “some minor details shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Just turn a blind eye.” Her tone is crafty now, full of implication. There is a pause: Mingyu’s smile does not drop, even for a second, but she is no longer laughing; she leans forward as she calmly inquires: “You wanted to see me about something?” “Ah,” Mrs. Meng emotes, combing her side-parted hair out of her eyes, sounding almost tired, as if a subject of some delicacy and embarrassment were being raised, perhaps from obligation more than enthusiasm. “It’s about those people in my side of the family,” she continues. “About the evaluation. Try to loosen up on them if you can. Everybody makes mistakes. Forgive them if possible. No?” The logic follows smoothly from her previous comments—when it comes to work, some “minor details” ought not be taken too seriously.

And Ming Yu, literally truthful, says she cannot do anything about it, she is following her boss’s wishes and her hands are bound. She closes her eyes, still somewhat smiling, though her expression is pained as if expressing regret, communicating: I would if I could—although we know that, in reality, she is equally desirous that the family members be fired, that she in fact has helped formulate this plan for their removal. Mingyu: “My boss put in this new policy. I’m just carrying out orders. I do what my boss says.” “Do it!” Mrs. Meng insists, “I’m not telling you not to. But not to those in my family.” She squints her eyes as she delivers this last line, playfully conspiratorial. Mingyu’s regret is becoming less intimate and more formal, the facade of friendliness slowly dropping between them as the encounter becomes professional and cold. “I don’t have that much authority,” she insists. She cannot be blamed for her failure to act, if action is not in her power.

And so the exchange becomes a battle over defining the extent of her power. As the space of possibility defines the strategic, so the descriptive “can” defines the normative “should.” Mrs. Meng wags a finger at Mingyu, smiling, with that disbelieving c’mon tone she used earlier: “You can do it,” she laughs. And she opens her purse, sliding a credit card across the glass, thanking Mingyu for all she’s done “for the Meng family.” Mingyu picks it up, and moves it to the other side of the table, barely looking, since to show temptation would be to provide her combatant hope, would be to prolong the exchange. “How [your relatives] will be dealt with has already been put in [their] file. I don’t have the power to change it. Madam, I just work for Chairman Meng and the shareholders. If I tweak things for you, how will I keep a footing there? Please don’t put me in a difficult position.” Schelling speaks of this in Strategy of Conflict, but we understand it intuitively already: Mingyu’s hands are tied because creating an exception would establish precedent. Like her earlier claims to hierarchical deference and lack of authority, the rebuttal continues her strategic performance of powerlessness. Mingyu rises, bows, still courteous, but signaling the interaction is over. Mrs. Meng walks out, purse clutched to side, furious.

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