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Building Relationships Across Cultures In Today’s World

A look at navigating the complexities of fostering networks and relationships across different cultures around the world.

The following is a guest piece by Michael Landers.

The power and importance of building relationships with others is something that’s seems to be universally understood by people from all cultures. Our web of relations creates the foundation for our lives as social creatures, no matter what culture we come from.

However, the way that we establish and expand this web of relations can vary from culture to culture. And even within a particular culture, people may network differently depending on whether or not they are doing it for work (and what kind of work they do), or to cultivate relations with friends or within other kinds of communities. Networking is a nuanced game, and it can be challenging for an outsider to learn all the subtleties of networking within another culture.

Think about why you would want to add someone to your network. In many cultures, connections are often made to accomplish a specific task, like finding a babysitter or candidates for a job. Sometimes it’s because the person has a particular expertise that is relevant to our own work, personal interests, or communities. These connections are often established—and set aside— fairly quickly, requiring little maintenance.

In other cultures, you might be more likely to add someone to your network because of their group affiliations than for their individual expertise or achievements. The networking goal is more likely to be about developing deep and long-term strategic relationships than for completing short-term tasks.

In cultures where group dynamics are paramount, the process of building networks tends to be much more elaborate, well defined, and long term. Developing these networks—and the influence that they afford—is critical to success.

In many parts of China –– the art of networking in business revolves around a system of building social capital known as guanxi (gwan-shee). Loosely translated as “relationships,” your guanxi is the measure of how strong your individual relationships are and how many relations you have. The stronger your guanxi with someone, the better the relationship. To say that someone has a lot of guanxi implies that their network runs wide and deep.

The process of gaining and growing guanxi is highly nuanced, requiring perseverance and strategic foresight. But just having a basic understanding of the general concept is a great first step into how networking works in many parts of China.

Guanxi is largely accrued through a process in which two people – or two companies — offer and request services from each other on an on-going basis. Inherent in the guanxi building process is the expectation that these requests for services or favors will not be refused – and that both parties have an obligation to maintain the relationship. If you don’t reciprocate, it can cause the other person to lose face – and an opportunity to build guanxi.

Building guanxi is like cultivating a garden – it’s something that must be consistently maintained in order for it to continue to grow and bear fruit throughout your life. If your guanxi garden lies dormant for a while, you may have to start from scratch.

In many parts of the Arab World, for example, there is the concept of Wasta; a term which refers to the ability to use one’s connections and/or influence to get things done. This could include navigating government bureaucracies like getting a visa or business license, being recommended for a job, getting a good deal on an apartment, etc.

Similar systems exist in countries throughout Latin America like Chile, Colombia, and Mexico where they may call this kind of social capital “Palanca.” In Brazil it tends to be called “Jeito” while in many parts of India it will be “Jugaad”.

In these cultures, the process of building, expanding, and strengthening your network can require considerably more time, energy, and effort than in cultures that tend towards the task side of the spectrum. This difference is especially evident when it comes to how we build relations with coworkers.

In many cultures, employees are expected to socialize with colleagues after work frequently – sometimes several times a week or more. And it’s not just to grab a quick beer; long, alcohol filled nights are not only condoned in certain cultures, but encouraged and expected.

A friend of mine from Japan in his late twenties told me he goes out with colleagues three to four times a week. As long as you show up to work the next day it’s all good, even if you’re wearing the same clothes as the day before. I find it to be a prevalent theme in countries like China, Japan and Korea.

In other cultures, people tend to do much less socializing with colleagues. In places like the United States, Canada, and many parts of Europe, relationships with coworkers are more often strengthened by having lunch together during the workday, or at holiday parties and annual offsite retreats.

Sure – we go to dinner or out for a few drinks once in a while, but the idea of sacrificing personal or family time to spend long nights with co-workers would be a hard sell. In many of these cultures there tends to be clearer and harder lines drawn between work and personal relations. Spending lots of time with colleagues after work simply isn’t expected.

Another way in which networking varies across cultures relates to why we choose to build connections with certain people. Think about why you would want to add someone to your network. For many of us its for the purpose of accomplishing a specific task – or because the person has a particular expertise that is relevant to our own work, personal interests, or communities. Connections tend to be established – and forgotten – fairly quickly.

For others, you might be more likely to add someone to your network because of their group affiliations as opposed to their individual expertise or achievements. The networking goal is more likely to be about developing deep and long-term strategic relationships as opposed to completing short term tasks. As a result, the process of establishing connections is relatively slow going, but longer lasting.

I’ve seen these differences play out in the way that people use social media to build networks. After I finish speaking to a large American audience, I often receive requests from people to join my LinkedIn network. I usually haven’t met these people, but they want to be included in my network because they liked my talk. I generally accept their request and then I never hear from them again.

Occasionally someone will send me a note through LinkedIn for a potential business engagement. The fact that we have not interacted for years — or that we don’t really know each other– doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we have a mutually beneficial need.

This kind of interaction rarely happens with people from more relationship-oriented cultures. People only try to connect with me on LinkedIn if we have actually spent time together in person; socializing after work or as part of a small, multi-day workshop. Once this relationship is established it is rare for them to contact me months or years later with a mutually beneficial opportunity if neither of us has done anything to build or maintain the relationship.

These are extreme examples, of course, and the nature of the job or task at hand may influence the duration and style of the networking process more than cultural nuances. But it would be a mistake not to consider cultural orientation when building business networks across cultures.

Here are some Culture Keys to optimize your chances for success while networking across cultures:

1. Recognize
Identify your personal preferences and expectations around the networking process.

2. Open Your Mind
Consider that people may have networking protocols and expectations that differ from your own.

Look for cues that suggest the best way to proceed (or query someone else from that culture — even a quick online search could yield some useful information).

3. Identify Ways to Adjust
Be prepared to be patient or move faster than usual depending on the culture within which you are trying network.

Accept that you may need to nurture connections in ways that might feel out of sync or unrelated to what you are hoping to get out of the relationship.

Michael Landers is the Director of Culture Crossing, a global consulting organization dedicated to finding innovative solutions for groups and individuals working in challenging global contexts. Landers is author of “Culture Crossing: Discover the Key to Making Successful Connections in the New Global Era”. To learn more about Michael’s work, visit his website: www.CultureCrossing.net.

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