Guanxi Management: Building an Atmosphere of Trust

From Strangers to Acquaintances: When Trust Begins

Family, familiar and acquaintance ties are indeed interchangeable in the Chinese cultural context, though in ways that vary with times. In the Chinese history, the framework of the guanxi management remains changeless, as favor-exchanges, long-term guanxi-oriented thinking, governance mode of self-organization, and network structure are always important characteristics of Chinese society. Since relationships in the differential modes of association are highly open, however, the ways in which relationships are structured keep changing with times.

Also, relationships among Chinese may change from this ring to another. A typical example is how to turn a stranger into an acquaintance. Chinese have a large number of meals for social purposes, mainly including getting closer to those with whom they already familiar and getting to know new people. Few Chinese would trust strangers, and turning a stranger into an acquaintance is the first step to establish trust.

In China, people get to know strangers with whom they have ―nine similarities‖ (in Chinese, Jiu-Tong), on the one hand, or introducers, on the other. Nine similarities include the following: the same surname, growing up together, being born and growing up in the same hometown, having the same ancestry, getting enrollment into the same school in the same year, being colleagues in the same working unit, being in the same profession and being persons of the same interests. Comparing China with the West, we may see that identification among westerners is mainly built upon some inherent factors that are hard to change, such as gender, geographical region, nation, religion, social status, class, age and race, etc… By comparison, the important identification among Chinese is often based upon non-inherent factors, such as nine similarities—i.e. the same school, profession, working unit, cohort, and interests, in addition to inherent, unchangeable ones such as blood relations and geography. In other words, Chinese tends to create identification based on intimate relations. Categorical thinking is typical of westerners and associative thinking of Chinese, according to Fei Xiaotung's theory and the current studies in the field of cross-cultural cognitive psychology.

Religion, status, age, race, etc., are categorical, while the factors upon which relations among Chinese are built, under the action of associative thinking, ranging from blood relations to kin, geography (people, when away from their hometowns, are usually glad to meet townsmen) and even relations with the same school, profession, working unit and interests. The similar life experience, rather than the same social category, is important for a Chinese to build up guanxi. More people are therefore covered on the basis of family ethics. And that's why there is a Chinese saying: ―Any stranger may be your maternal relative (when you want to build up a new relation).‖ You can manage to establish ties with someone even if you have no relationship with him at all. Blood relations and geography are of course inherent, and the most effective sources of relationships, but the same life experience in professions, schools, companies, cohorts and interests can also be good reasons to connect.

With regard to the process of establishing ties, I have added the tenth ―similarity‖ to the list of the nine similarities, that is, the common friend of both persons as an introducer. It is often occurred for a Chinese that he or she needs to rely on an introducer to establish ties with others. An introducer actually plays dual roles. Firstly, he may act as the mediator between the two persons in dispute because he is well known to and trusted by both. Secondly, he may act as an assurer. Specifically, if the two persons fail to settle the dispute, then the assurer may have to assure, with his reputation, the aggrieved party of the latter's betray from any loss. And to avoid any damage to his own reputation, the assurer has to indicate that he is not on the latter's side, thereby punishing the latter with the friends' voices.

Why is it so important to get to know strangers by having meals with them? This is because the process of turning a stranger into an acquaintance will change the rules of exchange for both sides. Only after getting to know each other through a common friend as the introducer, will the two persons begin to follow the equity rule. Chinese are, to a great extent, rather distant to real strangers. And ―Mind one's own business‖ is actually the traditional attitude to strangers in Chinese society.

For example, if two vehicles collide with each other in China, for example, both drivers will typically get off their vehicles and have an altercation with each other, or begin to call the police for record and arbitration. But the story would be very different if they find that they are in the same uniform. At this time, they are more likely to say ―Forget it‖ or give reasonable compensation than to have an altercation, simply because they are working at the same organization. In a word, they will generally and ultimately settle the dispute in a friendly manner.

That is the very difference between a stranger and an acquaintance. The equity rule applies when the other party is an acquaintance, but not necessarily does when he or she is a stranger. Instead, there tend to be more doubt and hostility in the latter case. And that is why people in the business world spend much time establishing egocentric guanxi network, or egocentric guanxi network. This indeed is a process of turning strangers into acquaintances.

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