During the Shanghai course, we had many speakers mention “Guanxi.” This is basically the relationship you have with someone, whether that be friend or business relationship. This guanxi is crucial to building a personal brand in China and it goes even further to address the reputation you achieve through these relationships. At it’s basest level, it’s networking but unlike the networking we do in America in 3 key ways.
The Bragging Trend
This is not a society of “I”s but “We”s. When our highly accomplished speakers came to talk to us about their companies, even if they were President of the entire organization, it was always about what “we’ve” accomplished. Rarely, if ever, did I hear them mention what awesome thing they’ve been able to achieve or how they’ve come so far in their career. That being said, they were very, very proud of their accomplishments, going so far as to show long slideshows detailing what their company has achieved and all the milestones they’ve reached. There is a definite bragging trend in the way they present themselves, however, it’s a communal accomplishment and that seems to be a key difference from Americans. I know that I have personally waxed on about all the achievements I’ve made and how far I’ve come. In fact, it is not an uncommon interview question in the US and one that I think most people answer with some huge personal achievement. So how can you build a personal reputation in China if you don’t talk about yourself?
A “Doing” Reputation
When we network in America, we are always looking at what someone can ultimately do for us. And when we figure out how we can connect and potentially build, it is rarely about getting to know each other and the excitement of working together, as people. However, part of networking in the US is that, because of this lack of personal stake, some things never get done. It’s all talk. In China, you have no relationship, no reputation until you do something about it. This goes beyond just the relationship but to the way deals are negotiated. We were told that “Yes” means “Maybe” or sometimes, “No,” and “No” means “Maybe.” The reason for this ambiguity is largely due to the fact that no deal is really done until the work has been commenced, and even then, sometimes deals are negotiated further if someone has not been forthright with the amount of effort or resources needed. In the US, once the contract is signed, we assume someone will follow through, and if they don’t, they broke the law so we’ll just sue them. This is not how things are done in China, the relationship comes first, and therefore, mediation and respecting the actual work is what achieves things and builds someone’s “doing” reputation.
So, you know what you’ve achieved and can talk about it in a humble, communal way. You follow through and understand how that factors in to creating relationships. The third component to building guanxi is managing “face.” In China, everyone is highly sensitive to the impact a certain action can have on their “face” or reputation. This could be as simple as accepting a meal or drinking with a potential business colleague, where they are trying to demonstrate respect and trust toward you, and if you decline, you have embarrassed them or made them regret that decision of trust. Or, it could impact whether or not you get a job. In a country of over a billion people, resumes are not enough to differentiate you. You must be keenly aware of the relationships you are building and if you are respected, trusted, and have a solid reputation. This is why someone’s “face” is so important. Almost everyone in China is hired because they are referred to the position. Family and village relationships play a key role, like what region your family is from, as well as who you have helped in the past or who you have shown respect toward. If you can be trusted AND if you can demonstrate that you know how to respect others, then you are more likely to be hired or selected for a project or acknowledged as a business colleague. Managing both your “face” and giving weight to other’s “face” is a key component to building guanxi in China.
Alright, Grandma. You win. I will attend a seder in China. For those who don’t know, tonight was the first night of the Jewish holiday, Passover. This is the story of Moses and the Jewish people’s flight from Egypt that eventually led to the 10 commandments. This story is retold every year on Passover. This is one of my favorite holidays and I was sad to miss it in the US, however, I figured it would be difficult to find a seder in Shanghai.
Apparently, I was wrong. My grandma, adamant that there would be Jews in Shanghai, found me a seder at the historic Ohel Rachel, one of the two oldest synagogues in Shanghai from 1920. Chinese citizens are not allowed, as religion is still monitored in China, however, ex-pats could enjoy the holiday together. So, at 25 tables of 10, people from all over the world dined together, many living now far from their families or visiting, like I was, for a couple weeks or months.
The people at my table were from the US, England, Spain, and Israel. All of them were there to teach English or work, myself being the exception. It was wonderful to learn their perspective on doing business in China or how they liked living in Shanghai as well as sharing the unique experience of a Shanghai seder. The Rabbis went around the room, helping each table navigate our way through the haggadah, and Chinese (Zhongguo Ren) helped serve and assist us in our seder rituals, like the washing of the hands.
The best things about this experience, besides the fun, lively 4-cups of biblical wine conversations, was practicing my Mandarin around people who also were once familiar with the lack of confidence I was experiencing with my Mandarin skills. They helped me navigate some of my pronunciation mistakes and gave me some pointers as to how to begin learning the characters. It was easier for me to speak around them, because I felt there was no judgment.
Unlike in the cab ride there. This cab ride was horrible, frustrating and terrifying. The cab driver not only said he knew where he was going, then kept asking me for the cross-street, which I didn’t know, but he also tried a short-cut through a parking lot that got us stuck for 5 minutes (which I had to pay for!). In a chaotic manner, I kept repeating the street address and telling him what neighborhood I believed it to be in. He eventually had to call his cab service to ask for directions. It cost me twice as much as the cab ride home, if that is any indicator. Getting around Shanghai was extremely nerve-wracking, but after my dinner conversations, I actually feel a little bit better about it.
If you are Jewish, or just fascinated by Western religion in an Eastern country, try to visit Ohel Rachel. This building stands as a testament to the perseverance of this community and a reminder that Shanghai was very good to the Jews during World War 2. Even at Graziadio’s Hannukah party back in December, it brought me great pleasure discussing my culture with the Chinese students. The Chinese have great respect for tradition and many would argue, at the end of the day, that Judaism is a culture more than a religion, with deeply ingrained cultures that supersede nationality or even religious devotion. This ability to understand familial relationships and obligations as well as the traditions that reinforce the fabric of our society, this is what doing business in China is about. Finding that common bond. And it may just be in a very unexpected way, that in a sea of Jews, in a 90 year old synagogue, in the middle of downtown Shanghai, you can discover that similarity and revel in its simplicity.
I am an avid reader. I have been since I was a little girl and a stack of books sat perpetually on the nightstand. I’ve always prided myself in my strong communication skills and my ability to find the right words to describe almost any situation. The second I got on the plane to China, I realized how my greatest strengths would do me no good in China. And that is terrifying.
I’m surrounded by words I just can’t read. Having studied Mandarin for the past four months, I was focused primarily on pinyin writing, with phonetic English letters and tonal accent marks. The characters are still completely foreign to me even though my speaking vocabulary is slowly growing. Luckily I know the character for woman, so at least I won’t walk into the wrong restroom.
Beyond that, I feel like a child again. I’m sure part of this terrifying lack of language is due to my relatively little international travel experience. This is only my second time traveling outside of North America. Even then, my first trip was to Israel and I was familiar with Hebrew because I’m Jewish. Even when I read some French or Spanish, the letters are familiar and I can sound it out or attempt to decipher it’s meaning due to the romantic language similarity. This is something completely different though, and I hope it doesn’t completely unnerve me.
A huge part of doing international business, the theme of my one-week intensive in China, is becoming comfortable with being in another culture. At the basest of instincts, that starts with language. It is difficult to be confident in your ignorance and, in fact, that is exactly what seems to work best. I believe that upon arrival, my greatest asset will be humility. It is more important to adapt through humor and honesty then to struggle and make much bigger mistakes. I’ll let you know how it goes, as I begin two weeks of complete illiteracy.