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Entries in Sandy Skoglund (1)

Friday
May042012

Guanxi

 

"Fox Games" by Sandy Skoglund, Denver Art MuseumIn Taiwan and China exists a concept of social and business interaction called guanxi (GWAN-shee), which translates roughly as “having the connections necessary to get things done.” All social and business interactions create or destroy guanxi. You increase or decrease your guanxi with others depending on how you treat them. 

If you have no guanxi, you can’t get your ideas off the ground; you have no support system or person you can call on for help.

If you have guanxi with someone, it is because you have done a favor and you are “owed” a favor in return. A favor thus returned increases guanxi between the two people. It continues to grow by reciprocal turns, starting small and gaining strength and importance over time.

Guanxi never ends, and it pops up when you least expect it.

For example, after a cocktail party in graduate school, I noticed several Taiwanese classmates getting on the wrong bus to return home. They were living in the U.S. for the first time and did not speak or read English very well. And they were tipsy from the wine-fueled function.

I got them off the bus, explained the schedule, and—after seeing it would take over 30 minutes for the right bus to arrive—gave them a ride home in my truck, via my house, for a few beers and a game of darts in my garage.

That began a friendship, but it also began guanxi between me and these Taiwanese guys. I did not realize how much guanxi had been created until I visited Taiwan years later and called these guys up on a whim, to see if they wanted to meet one night in Taipei for dinner.

Not only did they want to meet, but they wanted to host me in their homes for several days, cook me authentic meals, introduce me to their wives and friends, and show me some of the best night markets and sights only local Taiwanese know about. 

I asked them why they would drop everything and host me on the spot. “Because we have guanxi,” they said, and they explained about how I fostered it when I gave them a ride home years ago.

I had no idea I was creating such an impression. That’s how guanxi works.

Another example occurred on that same trip to Taiwan when I wanted to make a stamp as a gift for a friend. The Taiwanese use ink stamps, usually in red ink, as their official signature or personal mark. I wanted to have a stamp made as a thank you to a friend for letting me visit and stay in his apartment (small gifts are a good “guanxi” move).

I needed a stamp maker to scan my friend’s actual signature, which required more photoshopping and graphic design than the shops I asked were willing to provide. I told this to my Taiwanese friend, who thought for a moment and then mentioned a guy he knew who could help us. 

Why would this guy help me? Because the two men had guanxi from years ago when they served in the Taiwanese military together, and I was connected through guanxi now, too.

Sure enough, this man worked after-hours in his shop to make my stamp. He did all the scanning and cleaning up of the image. He gave us beer and cigarettes and whatever food he had, as we hung out with him in his printshop amongst scads of random banners, standees, and boxes upon boxes of forgotten business cards—the byproducts of his business. He handled everything and gave me the finished stamp later that night after getting someone with whom he had guanxi to stay open late in order to manufacture the stamp.

Guanxi connects to guanxi connects to guanxi...

That web-like connection is one of guanxi’s most important aspects. To make one $5 stamp called on many relationships to operate without question or excuse. If I were unthankful for the work of any of the chain of participants, it would not reflect badly upon me, it would instead damage the guanxi between my Taiwanese friend and the connection he first called upon.

Damaged guanxi results when you recommend someone to a third party, and the recommended person does not maintain the highest standards of thankfulness and courtesy. That is, damaging guanxi doesn’t immediately affect the person who did the damage; it affects the guanxi of the person who recommended him in the first place.

This not only creates a sense of duty, but a strange sense of guilt, because you will rarely know if you did harm or good to the guanxi of another relationship. Guanxi leaves you in a state of constant effort to reciprocate, and no direct information as to whether you were successful or not. No one will tell you.

Guanxi is unspoken and works similar to fate or fortune, with the same ability to make or break you, before you even know it’s playing a critical role. You never pay it off. You never call it even.

Imagine how different our society would be if we tended to the unspoken rules of guanxi. It is like karma in the popular sense or perhaps like the golden rule, only without the individualism: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto your friends.”