By now, we're all familiar with the same basic tips on how to succeed in China—speak Mandarin, increase your skill set, utilize guanxi... Yet it's this last item that has the nagging tendency of being rather difficult to clearly define and explain. While the debate over guanxi translating directly as "networking" is a valid one (it certainly has deeper cultural implications than "networking" does in the West), if we look past all of that, a new, more quantifiable question emerges: how do you make the most of networking in China? With competition increasingly fierce over here, it's important to start focusing more on taking those extra steps that set you apart from the growing hordes of expat job seekers here in China. In the past, we offered some tips on succeeding in the changing job market; consider this article its companion piece, more specific to networking. Don't worry; most of the following suggestions aren't terribly difficult; they just require a little bit more attention to detail than most people usually give.
1) Mandarin is not enough
It's no secret that with China's emergence as a global player and its increased consumer power, more and more foreigners are flocking to China to take part in the—let's say harrowing—journey to fluency in Chinese. Maybe four or five years ago you could get away with only "taxi Chinese", but it's becoming increasingly difficult to get ahead in China when everyone in a room full of foreigners is at least conversationally fluent in Mandarin. So, how to set yourself apart from the rest of the Chinese-speaking wai guo ren crowd? If you already speak Mandarin, one suggestion is to learn the more difficult local dialect used in your city/region. This will undoubtedly surprise the local Chinese and will set you apart from other expats in their eyes; which is extremely useful when fishing for guanxi especially since local dialects are still quite often the primary means of communication used in the Chinese workplace. While learning the local dialect may not be as useful if you live in a smaller city, for dialects like Shanghainese (14 million speakers) and Sichuanese (a whopping 120 million speakers), the extra networking possibilities are endless. Not to mention that there will certainly be no shortages of language exchange partners available to help you study. Moreover, some dialects even have textbooks and study materials readily available to help you on your way (as opposed to, say, learning from your neighborhood ayi in passing).
2) What's in a name?
This may seem like a very minor, obvious part of dealing with people, but it is remarkable how many folks make up excuses for not learning other people's names. No matter what social status or job level someone has, their name is no doubt the sweetest sound in the world to them; this is just as true when dealing with Chinese partners. Further, while it's fairly common now for young Chinese to have an English name, it's more rare for the older generations of businessmen and women. Regardless of whether they have an English name, to help build guanxi with Chinese people it's crucial to learn their Chinese name—tones, characters and all—and use it every time you see them. It's a subtle show of respect for them and their culture. And if the person is in a higher position than you, it's often equally important to address them with their proper title—something less common today in Western businesses. Again, this may seem like a small thing, but because so many foreigners forget about this critical step, it can definitely set you apart from the crowd.
3) The follow up
Like most people who have been in China for a few years, I've met a wide number of people from a myriad of different backgrounds. At the end of a night out, it's not unusual to have your phone bursting with new numbers and dozens of business cards crammed helter-skelter into your wallet. Chances are that you'll forget about all of them the next day and everyone will just continue on in their separate directions. That's pretty normal here in China. If you really want to set yourself apart from the crowd, take the time to send a quick text message or email to these people, thanking them for their time and how nice it was to meet them. Think of it as an investment. Sure there is a chance that nothing will come of it, but because the practice is so often neglected, it will set you apart from being just another random face in the hazy Chinese expat scene. And especially around this time of year, don't forget to send them a simple Chinese New Year greeting!
4) Outside-the-box networking events
Networking events tend to divide people into two camps. People who love them and people who think they are a waste of time. Regardless of what side of the fence you are on, there are certain networking avenues that should prove to be more useful than the events put on by the countless networking companies here. For example, one of the coolest China experiences I've had came when I got to be an extra in a Chinese movie. The gentleman who invited me to tag along in the movie I'd actually met while we were both judges in a Chili Cook-Off in Shanghai. So, you may never know who you might run into outside of networking card swaps. Besides these sorts of right-place-right-time opportunities, consider using your alma mater. Many large foreign universities have set up branch schools or special programs in Mainland China. These programs may have valuable resources available to alumni to help you connect with people and businesses in China. Many other universities have local chapters that meet on occasion for casual networking/mixer events, particularly in larger cities. A few quick web searches is usually all you need to find out about these events. Even if you didn't go to university or your school lacks representation in China, there are other options available to you. For example, consulates and embassies for many countries often hold public events that can be useful for networking with your fellow countrymen living in China. If none of these suggestions work out for you, a final networking option is to join a "club" or a "league". In most of China's larger cities (and many of the smaller ones) there's no shortage of individually organized activities—softball, football, badminton, dance, cycling—that are a great informal way to open up new networking possibilities. And the best thing about these kinds of events is that people don't usually have their "I'm-trying-to-avoid-getting-screwed" defenses up like they would at a normal business card swap. Which is to say, you can actually develop a relationship with these people while you network—something that's sorely missing from the "speed-dating" nature of traditional networking events.
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Keywords: Chinese networking tips China networking events Chinese guanxi and networking
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