Guanxi: Thoughts on Building Relationships for Professional and Personal Success

Over the years, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have some great friends from other cultures. Back in the late 1990s, I was lucky enough to have my time on this earth overlap with a wonderful guy from China, a guy whose laughter could fill a room at certain times, a man who would have your back whenever you needed it, a person who always seemed to have the right question to ask, an individual who seemed to click in any group he was in.

Most of the time, when I spent time with him, he would dress very casually and seem very loose and humorous. He usually wore a rumpled sweatshirt and blue jeans. At other times, I’d see him with other groups and he might be dressed to the nines in a business suit and seem as serious as can be, or I might find him with a group of his peers, dressed in sharp business casual clothes while engaged in thoughtful conversation.

I asked him about it once and he told me that the most valuable lesson he learned from his parents is that it was always well worth his time to put himself in positions where the people around him felt comfortable with him as a peer, because from there he could start building relationships that felt equal on both sides. For him, that often started with clothing.

He called this “guanxi,” and spelled it out for me. I jotted it down in my notebook next to his own beautifully written characters, ruminated on it, and then eventually it spilled from my mind.

The other day, I was leafing through some of my old notebooks and found that page of notes. All it said there was “guanxi,” along with the term written in simplified Chinese characters that he’d written on the page for me. Back then, I wrote it down with the intent of remembering it and looking into it later… and, I guess, almost twenty years after the fact, “later” has finally come around.

Wikipedia offers a great introductory explanation of guanxi: “Guanxi (Chinese: 关系) describes the basic dynamic in personalized networks of influence (which can be best described as the relationships individuals cultivate with other individuals) and is a central idea in Chinese society. In Western media, the pinyin romanization of this Chinese word is becoming more widely used instead of the two common translations of it – “connections” and “relationships” – as neither of those terms sufficiently reflects the wide cultural implications that guanxi describes.”

It goes on: “At its most basic, guanxi describes a personal connection between two people in which one is able to prevail upon another to perform a favor or service, or be prevailed upon, that is, one’s standing with another. The two people need not be of equal social status. Guanxi can also be used to describe a network of contacts, which an individual can call upon when something needs to be done, and through which he or she can exert influence on behalf of another.”

“Guanxi also refers to the benefits gained from social connections and usually extends from extended family, school friends, workmates and members of common clubs or organizations. It is customary for Chinese people to cultivate an intricate web of guanxi relationships, which may expand in a huge number of directions, and includes lifelong relationships. Staying in contact with members of your network is not necessary to bind reciprocal obligations. Reciprocal favors are the key factor to maintaining one’s guanxi web, while failure to reciprocate is considered an unforgivable offense (that is, the more one asks of someone, the more one owes them).”

To summarize, guanxi refers to the network of relationships you have with people and the reciprocal favors that are done within those relationships.

As is natural when one learns about something like this, I immediately translated this into my own life.

I have a pretty wide social network, encompassing people in a lot of different locations, with different backgrounds, in different career paths, and at different socioeconomic levels. If needed, there are several dozen people I feel like I could tap for a personal or a professional favor and reasonably expect it to have positive results. Most of those favors are on the back of favors done in the past, often a chain of favors that we’ve shared over the years. Those favors and relationships add up to a lot of value, something I can tap if I ever need to do so.

This brings me to a few observations.

First of all, it’s almost always worth my while to do a favor for someone else, particularly when the favor has low cost for me personally. If someone I know needs help and I can provide that help without exceptional effort, I almost always do so without even thinking twice about it. I’ll offer advice in an area I know well. I’ll introduce people. I’ll lend a book. I’ll give a recommendation or write one. I’ll listen to their story and give the best suggestions I can. I’ll help people with tasks like moving furniture or boxes. You get the idea.

I do those things without any specific reciprocity in mind. I don’t expect anything for doing things for other people, not at all, unless there’s an extensive personal cost of time or money or energy for me. When someone needs a hand, I give it.

Sometimes, those favors are in fact completely invisible. I have recommended friends without their knowledge. I help friends out of trouble without their asking. I’ll sometimes just offer things if I see that they’re needed. I don’t just wait to be asked, and I sometimes do positive things without the person even knowing about it.

I come to view people I help as then being part of my larger social network. If we’re not already friendly, I expect that we will be if I’ve done a favor for you. If I see people I’ve helped in public and they’ve not wronged me, I’ll greet them.

Of course, when the time comes and I need help, I feel okay asking almost anyone in my network for a favor, though I try to look for someone for whom the favor is low effort. If I need someone to watch my children for a bit when I get off the bus, I’ll ask my neighbor. If I need help with dog care, I’ll talk to my dog lover friend. You get the idea.

I don’t mind it if complex favors are declined, but if simple ones are declined, I begin to doubt the relationship. If I ask for something from someone and the favor seems trivial and they just don’t bother without a very clear reason, I tend to start to view them as someone who wants to just use me, especially if the lack of reciprocity is repeated.

That’s how I view practical guanxi in my life.

Now, guanxi isn’t a cultural thing in America as it is in China. It’s merely something I value personally. I think that many relationships are often made of a long series of small favors, and that those favors actually add up to a lot of value, because favors are usually things that are hard for the person asking but easier for the person that’s asked. Over time, if you have a lot of people who you’ve built relationships with who are willing to do favors for you, things that are hard for you but easy for them, you’ve got a lot of value in those relationships. It doesn’t need to be a cultural thing.

So, how do you cultivate this in your own life?

First of all, treat others as you’d like to be treated and help them, especially when the required effort is low for you. If you can do something that will really help someone and it doesn’t take a lot of time, effort, or money, then you should do it almost without thought. Not only does this build your relationship with that person, it puts them in a better place. You’re helping to raise the tide, and a rising tide lifts all boats, yours included.

Seek out potential friendships in your own life and don’t be afraid to be the first to help. Put effort into building real-life relationships, even if it’s uncomfortable. Go to community events, especially ones where you will have the opportunity to meet people. Don’t sweat meeting everyone, but focus on building just a few relationships each time. I’m an introvert, so in those situations, what I usually do is just commit to having a meaningful conversation with at least two people, enough so that I might have something to follow up with. That’s the start of a relationship, and I’ve built many over the years that have blossomed into great community relationships and even some lifelong friendships.

Put yourself in positions where you can start building relationships without crossing a cultural bridge. This is one of the interesting lessons my Chinese friend taught me. You’re going to always find it easier to connect with people if you’re willing to bend a bit to their cultural expectations. If you want to “challenge their expectations” and change their mind, you’re going to have a much better chance at it once your relationship is already established. Start by being palatable – dress appropriately for the situation, don’t throw up controversial opinions (even if you harbor them), and look for commonalities. Build the bridge first before you cross it. For me, that does mean that sometimes I keep my mouth shut when I might express a particular viewpoint, and that does mean that sometimes I dress in ways that aren’t perfectly comfortable for me.

Accept that some relationships aren’t equal and reciprocal ones. Most relationships you have in life are going to be fairly equal, where people help each other out from time to time in a roughly reciprocal fashion. Some relationships are even ones where the other person is incredibly giving. Both are good. However, not all relationships are like that. Sometimes, people take and take and don’t give back. Unless there is a strong reason to do otherwise, you should de-emphasize such relationships in your life. There are times when friends are down and you need to give far more than you receive, don’t get me wrong, but there are relationships in which otherwise normal people do nothing but take and take, and you should divest yourself from those relationships. It’s not a relationship, then; you’re merely a tool to be used, and no one deserves that.

In the end, I appreciate guanxi as a personal principle, even if it’s not a truly embedded cultural one, and practicing it in my life has been a huge personal and professional boon. I’ve developed great friendships and relationships, saved a ton of money and time over the years, had some career doors open up for me, and been a positive influence in the lives of a lot of people around me, putting all of them in better places in both large and small ways. I now have a large circle of people I know I can ask when I need help, which is incredibly valuable. All it really took was doing favors, particularly ones that were easy for me but really helpful for others, and doing it without question.

It turns out that maybe I did remember guanxi after all.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.