The Importance of Guanxi (关系) in China and How to Cultivate It
The importance of guanxi (关系)
Relationships are important everywhere, but in China they are considered fundamental to success. In fact, they are so important in China that the word in Mandarin for relationships, guanxi (关系), transcends its English translation both in depth and frequency of use. This is to say, to have guanxi with someone is more meaningful and important than having “a good relationship” with him or her.
Why do the Chinese care so much about relationships? The first reason is that Chinese society values harmony within the community over individual achievement. This is cultural. The second reason is that the rule of law is not strong enough in and of itself to be relied upon for help. These two factors, both cultural and legal, have helped to create an environment where people are obsessed with their personal relationships.
Oftentimes you will either fail or succeed professionally in China based on your ability to cultivate relationships with superiors, colleagues, and business partners. I don’t mean to suggest that relationships can replace your actual work output, only that it’s considered a essential piece of doing good business in China.
Now that we have introduced the concept of guanxi, the reasons for it, and why it’s important, let’s look at some of the ways you can develop and maintain guanxi in a professional environment. In the first three subsections I will talk about dealing with conflict, an especially difficult topic for foreigners in China to master. The last two sections will deal with two common ways to establish and grow guanxi with others.
- Be careful when disagreeing with coworkers
To start, let’s talk about dealing with confrontation. Dealing with confrontation and disagreement in China is markedly different from in the West, and is often an area of confusion when cooperating or negotiating with Chinese.
When you disagree with a coworker, you should consider your position in relationship to him/her as well as the present audience. For example, if you disagree with your boss in front of the entire team in a very confrontational manner, then you risk making your boss look bad. If this happen, then your boss can lose face and you will seriously harm the guanxi between both you and your boss (not good).
Losing face refers to making people look bad or disrespecting them in some way in front of others. The ability of one to “keep face” is incredibly important in China and should not be underestimated. Allowing others to not “lose face” is considered very polite and will reflect positively on your character.
If you have a disagreement or something that you want to say to a coworker or boss, then it’s best to do that one on one in a polite manner. If you have to say something in front of a large group of people, it’s better to use the most respectful tone possible. This is very difficult for those of us who have grown up within a western culture, but something that needs to be understood if you are to properly understand and work in a Chinese environment.
- Say “no in Chinese”
This point is slightly tongue and cheek, but is still meant to drive home the point of letting others keep face while maintaining your sanity. As a general observation, Chinese companies tend to place less emphasis on one’s job description. For those of us working in Chinese companies, this means that you will often be asked to do things outside of your realm of expertise, especially in the early days of your job – before you learn how set your personal boundaries by saying no in the correct way.
Saying “no in Chinese” boils down to saying no indirectly, with an excuse that both parties implicitly know is not exactly 100% true. This is a useful tactic for when you are asked to do something which is beyond the scope of your job description or the agreement made by both parties. By providing a small excuse for why you can’t do a certain job, instead of directly saying no, you let the other person save face and it gets you off the hook. Once you have mastered this technique you will have reached another level of cultural fluency.
It’s important for us to acknowledge that this is not considered being rude in China. Actually, if you learn how to give a really good excuse, people will think you’re an expert at cultivating guanxi and respect your ability to understand Chinese culture.
A tip for the China hands that are still green behind the ears and don’t know what kind of excuse to give, use Chinese class. Certainly you should be studying a lot if you still don’t know how to give the “Chinese no”!
- Bend without breaking
In China, it is unfortunately very common to find yourself in a situation where a superior or business partner is asking you to do too much, or produce results beyond what is possible. Oftentimes in this situation, foreigners try to appease the other party or become enraged. What they don’t understand is that, generally speaking, this is simply a negotiating tactic used by Chinese to get a better deal, show dominance, or increase your productivity.
The vital skill of learning to recognize these situations is complimented by your professional aptitude to determine when the asks being made are beyond the scope of reality. Of course, this ability will rely heavily on your relationship with the other party, but can also be drawn from your own appraisal of the situation.
The ability to recognize these situations comes firstly from your ability as a professional to gauge a situation and secondly from your history working with the individual or organization. The best advice in a situation like this is to first maintain your emotional stability. Don’t get rattled. Recognize and understand this negotiation tactic so that you can evaluate the situation with a calm and cool mind. After you have identified the situation, evaluate if what the other party is asking for is really within the scope of your responsibility. Finally, communicate with the other party on your own behalf while keeping in mind the two points mentioned above.
Early in my career It thought the only way to get ahead was to work more than everyone else. Therefore, I always accepted any extra work and never said no to anyone at work. This was a good way to gain a lot of experience and praise from my colleagues and the leadership, but it ultimately left me without a rest day for five months straight. A key part of my own professional journey in China has been learning how to bend without breaking.
- Help your coworkers when possible
Now that we have talked about how, and when, to say no in the Chinese style, it will be worth mentioning the importance of saying yes. In fact, for all of the things that you cannot help your Chinese coworkers and business partners with, there are an equal amount of things that you are equally positioned to be of service for. That’s why you are able to cooperate with them in first place.
Some common topics that you can help Chinese partners and coworkers with by way of explanation are language, cultural differences, best practices in your country for business, and connecting them to the international community. This topics are left very general on purpose, as you are still learning. However the areas where you can help will become more specific with the more professional experience you accumulate.
A tried and true method of helping your coworkers is to speak English with them (assuming that a) you have a good knowledge of the language and b) they are interested in speaking English). This is a fantastic way to bring help your colleagues develop a skill that is valuable in China. It will also “give face” to those who have spent a dedicated a significant portion of their lives to learning the language. Not surprisingly, it’s a great way to build up your guanxi.
- Share food with others
If you’re going to work or collaborate with a Chinese organization, then its important that you take the time to understand the importance of food. In China, food is one of, if not the, main vehicle used to develop and maintain guanxi.
This cultural obsession with food plays itself out in a very curious way at the office. For example, in a Chinese office coworkers will constantly share their snacks within their teams, and more frequently with their select group of “friends”, i.e. those whom they consider to have guanxi with. This is an extremely subtle, yet equally important habit that you can participate in and leverage to develop your own guanxi among your colleagues.
When meeting with friends or attending a business meeting, it’s also a good practice to try and pay for the meal. This will show them that you value their friendship. It will also give you a lot of face. Chinese partners and friends will generally try and fight you for the bill, which can lead to some pretty hysterical moments – which will, in turn, ultimately bring you closer together and further develop the guanxi between you both– which should take precedence over the cost of a shared-meal.
I hope that this post helped to educate readers about some of the basics of building relationships in China, especially concerning guanxi: the Chinese word for “relationship” that transcends it’s English translation.
If you have experience in China, do you agree with my analysis? What are some other things you could suggest for readers when cultivating relationships with Chinese colleagues or partners? Thanks for reading!