Guanxi (关系) is the Chinese word for relationship. In China, relationships are everything. The word Guanxi, is as nuanced and deep as an American’s attachment to the idea of Freedom.
The topic of relationships in China is a big one. For the purpose of this post I will just discuss it within the context of the workplace. Specifically, how to understand and manage your relationships with Chinese coworkers while working in a Chinese company.
I have worked full time in China since 2013. During this time I have made bonehead mistakes which made me want to buy the first plane ticket home. You don’t have to make those mistakes, well, at least not as obtusely as me.
Why Your Guan Xi Is Important
Did I mention relationships are important in China? Let me reiterate… relationships are very important in China. You need them to secure pay raises and better jobs. You need them to bypass troublesome corporate bureaucracy. Having good relationships in this context is like spraying a rusty nail with WD-40 before removal.
I am not suggesting that relationships in China can replace your actual work output (although you could make that argument…). It is merely a strong suggestion that paying attention to this area throughout your China career will help to make you an effective and productive member of the workplace.
The following five points are suggestions to help you develop better relationships with your coworkers.
- Choose the time and place to disagree. Know when to stay quiet and speak up.
When you disagree with a coworker, think very carefully about how to present this to him or her. The worst thing you can do is to make him or her lose face in front of everyone. One on one discussions and talks over messaging services are a great way to present your point respectfully.
You also need to understand hierarchy and your relationship to it. If causing a co worker to lose face is a bad idea, think about what it would mean to your boss. I have seen many foreigners put themselves in very awkward positions by calling out their bosses in front of everyone. Don’t try it. You are not different.
- Know when to say no.
As a general observation, working in a Chinese company means that your job description is much more flexible than if you were at a western company. This means that you need to set your boundaries early on about what you will and will not do.
Early on in my career I thought the only way to get ahead was to work more than everyone else. Therefore, I always accepted the extra jobs my bosses wanted to give me.
I gained a lot of experience, but I also worked for five months straight nonstop. My personal life suffered and I almost went mental. That was how I learned the importance of setting boundaries in the context of working as a foreigner in a Chinese organization.
The silver lining here is that because you are a foreigner it is easier to duck out of these supposedly “mandatory” commitments. This is called using the “Chinese no” and I will talk about it in the next point.
- Learn how to give the “Chinese no”.
In America people, for the most part, understand and respect a firm no without any other excuses. However, in China it is often considered rude to simply state that you won’t or don’t want to participate in something. This goes back to face. People lose face if you tell them their activity is not worth the time.
Learning how to say no in Chinese is the best way to deal with this. Basically what I mean here is to simply make up an excuse that both of you know is not true. One that I often use is that I have a date with my girlfriend and she would really kill me if I don’t go. Another good “Chinese no” is, ironically, to say you have Chinese language class.
It is important to note here that you are not being rude. Sometimes people from the West are confused about this. That is because truth is relative to culture. Giving these kinds of excuses is just the proper way to say no in Chinese culture.
- Help your coworkers with English.
As a foreigner, a lot of times I feel my bosses don’t know how to manage my workload properly. This means that I need to take a more proactive approach towards helping my team.
What your boss and coworkers really want is for you, as the Foreign Expert, to help them develop their global reach.
What your boss and coworkers really want you, a Foreign Expert, is for them to help the company develop more internationally. They don’t want to change the actual working process.
A good way to help a Chinese company develop more of an international flavor is to help your department with their English (assuming you have a good handle of the language). After all, English is the language of commerce. So, when coworkers ask you language questions or to help them edit documents, help them! That is why you are there.
I emphasize this point because often foreigners don’t feel like they need to help with this. After all, it wasn’t written specifically in their job description when they were hired. (Believe me, I am no saint here). However, a little good faith and twenty minutes out of your day is not going to kill you. After all, these little transactions are the basis for how all relationships begin to grow.
- Share your snacks.
Speaking of small transactions as the basis for growing all relationships…. In China, these transactions are often skewed towards the edible.
One curious habit of working in a Chinese office is that your coworkers will constantly share their snacks within the department, and with a more select group of “friends”. This is a subtle, yet important detail to both know and employ.
Participating in the communal sharing of food will improve your relationships by showing both your understanding and fluency in Chinese culture.
Although I still find it odd to share my own treats, I do make an effort every couple of weeks to pass around a small snack likes cookies or something else. The neutral territory of snacks shows that I both understand Chinese culture and am interested in being part of the community (albeit on my terms).
A side note is that in my early days I was very gungho about being seen as a Sinophile. One evening, when my department and I were working overtime, I went downstairs and bought everyone fancy drinks from Starbucks. When I offered the drinks to my coworkers I was dismayed to see a mixture of both embarrassment and confusion.
Reflection on this event has led me to the conclusion that my coworkers thought the gift was too extravagant and, most likely, they didn’t like coffee in the first place. When passing out snacks it is a good rule of thumb to keep it low key. Fruits, chocolates, or cookies work nicely.