Three expert tips for successful networking in China

The non-extroverted majority of ambitious business leaders consider networking, similarly to public speaking, a dreadful and inevitable prospect of seniority — like death, but more likely to make you look silly. And if networking moistens your palms, doing so in an unfamiliar culture gives you nightmares. China, intercultural self-help authors assure you, poses one of the worst challenges: weird, secretive and defined by millennia of convention, ‘guanxi’ can become face-loss by a thousand cuts for expat leaders. During my fifteen-plus years in China I have seen many executives fail the guanxi game, but none because they couldn’t quote Confucius. China, like most places on Earth, is populated by people who want to do business with outsiders and expect them to be different. Here is how to approach China executive networking accordingly.

Start from your comfort zone

Fancy words are a great way to intimidate smart people who happened to miss that one particular vocabulary item. Once I dared to ask my teacher, I was somewhat disappointed to learn that Homo Sapiens just meant ‘people’. You might be similarly resentful to hear that the Chinese word ‘guanxi’ (关系) means ‘relationship’ in the broadest sense of the word, between humans and abstract concepts alike. It is not a delicate Confucian art, and definitely not a secret society. You have a network at home that was difficult to build too, because all people prefer business with acquaintances — believe me, I am Hungarian. Expat networking is harder for two reasons: because expats lack an organic local network, and because they get contradicting advice.

Should China expat leaders, for instance, approach managers of equal rank, or build a wide vertical network? Make or avoid eye-contact? Represent their firm’s core values or drink and gossip with clients until 4am? Although such questions inspire entire volumes like Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands, keep such nuances for a later stage. Building human connections requires confidence, and confidence comes from your comfort zone. Treating the vice-mayor for a bottle of Chivas yields a good story (mostly forgotten), but your first meaningful opportunities will come from existing clients, suppliers and indirect colleagues, especially if they are like-minded people. Many will come from other expats. Awareness about your own personality is invaluable here: temperament cuts across cultures, and amusing personal habits bond people regardless of background, ethnicity and even language.

Ignore the bigger half

I coach China expats who wish networking to hell, and ones who mentally pick their outfit the moment they hear ‘Chamber of Commerce event’. In cities that hardly ever sleep like Beijing and Shanghai, both affiliations risk wasting their time unless they approach the task pragmatically. Pareto’s rule applies to networking too, therefore 80% of opportunities will come from 20% of your network, and expats should avoid their gut feeling when acquiring targets. Extroverts tend to join loud gatherings and get lost in the crowd; introverts love the social isolation of theatre-style events where they can reserve most eye contact for the speaker’s brochure photo. If either bothers to collect business cards and keep them, few expats track how much credit each card yields.

They should, because now they know something crucial about their new-found contacts: their social engagement style. Despite China opening up to the world in recent decades, a resilient demarcation remains between local and expat business communities, and few local businesspeople crisscross it with confidence. An expat who finds himself in a casual chat with a Chinese General Manager one day, and queues for another’s handshake and card the next, should carefully record which type of encounter bears results at all, and how efficiently. Few China businesses rely equally on the country’s local and multinational circles — persevering in the less lucrative half may result in investing four-fifth of your networking time in one-fifth of the results. Keeping track allows you to secure your seat (or chardonnay) at important events and follow the rest on LinkedIn feeds.

Cross-sell yourself

What is the cutest story you know about a job interview leading to marriage, or parents to a primary school romance starting a business together? On home turf, human relations, or ‘guanxi’ if you insist, develops organically across social functions. But expats tend to stick to a close circle of colleagues, and China expats work all the time. Private life is a rare commodity, and many of us crave silence at the end of the day. This often results in daily routines as predictable as washing machine cycles, and equally exciting. Whether abroad for six months or indefinitely, silencing the workaholic’s guilt and initiating a healthy social cycle invariably boosts business networks, whether the source is gyms, cooking clubs, golf courses, pubs, baby-clothes swap-meets, language lessons, tango milongas, model train clubs or pole-dancing classes, all of which are real examples from executives I coached.

A universal advantage is that hobbies cut across industries the way business events do not. Accidentally cooking together with an approachable intellectual property lawyer is a far more enjoyable way of finding one than an event with fifty of them. A China-specific benefit is that in this country, everyone always sells and networks anyway. People are poorly protected by the country’s neglected social security system, and they have high expectations, thus diligent nosiness is considered a virtue. While fellow party-goers in Barcelona stare at a business card as if you sold drugs, in China I have acquired clients in post office lines (remember those?) and saunas. The selling record of parents waiting outside their children’s frequent private lessons puts pharmaceutical sales reps to shame. In a few months, expats will start running into the same people under wildly different circumstances — a sure sign that the range of their comfort zone has widened.

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