On any given day, I may meet with over a half-dozen international students, the majority of whom are from China. One of the most common conversations I have with my students is on the topic of networking. While networking can be awkward for domestic students, it tends to be far more uncomfortable for many international students. The most common perception of networking is that students are expected to reach out to people they have no business reaching out to, pretending to be their friend, and then somehow fooling them into giving them a job. To most people, this would be very uncomfortable and awkward. I propose that networking can be a lot easier than most Chinese students believe, and that in particular, having knowledge of their own cultural assumptions will make it easier to excel at networking in the US.
I have found that simply changing the definition of networking can be very helpful to students across the board. I define networking as the intentional cultivation of relationships with people who have common interests, be they personal and/or professional. Throughout people’s lives, they acquire friends who share the same interests, and by extension, anyone with friends is already good at networking.
Similarly, a universal rule that I would recommend anyone adopt is to be intentional about managing ones language. In my experience, people create the conditions for rejection all the time by not managing their language. When you ask someone to give you something, like a referral or names of colleagues, you put them in a position where they could easily just say “no,” which would be embarrassing for everyone involved. Whereas, if you limit yourself to asking for information about those same things, it becomes impossible for you to be rejected. Consider the difference between “Will you introduce me to your colleagues?” and “If I wanted to meet other people at your company, how would you suggest I do that?” You will find that the first question is likely to end badly. Conversely, the second question allows the other person to volunteer help without the possibility of anyone being rejected.
Even with these tips, the idea of cultivating relationships in a relatively short amount of time will seem uncomfortable, particularly to people from cultures with a long-term time orientation like China. The US and China are identical in at least one aspect of networking, most notably that if you know the right people, you will likely have access to better jobs. In China, if your family is friends with Jack Ma’s family, then your odds of working at Alibaba are pretty good. Similarly, in the US, if you have a friend who works at Amazon, you also stand a good chance of getting a job there. The difference, however, is that the family’s relationship to Jack Ma’s family almost certainly pre-dates the job candidate altogether and likely took a long time to cultivate. The US in turn has a short term time orientation, and so relationships are formed and sometimes only maintained so long as they are functional (Geert Hofstede). Hence, the idea of quickly cultivating a relationship with someone who would then help you secure a job would, at best, seem superficial to someone from a culture with long term time orientation.
From a Chinese student’s point of view, the typical solution to the above problem is to delve deeper into their knowledge of how Americans behave, often without understanding the underlying assumptions and values that inform those behaviors. This is understandable, as most people will do the same, but Dr. Gary Weaver’s research (ISSN 1923-6700) suggests that relying only on learning the do’s and don’ts of a new culture will likely invest the student with a false sense of intercultural competence. People’s instinct is to read-up on the “strangeness” of other cultures. The reason for this is that we are all raised with our own Unique Cultural Lens (UCL) through which we know how to interpret the world (Zaldivar pages 9-18). This ethnocentrism lends itself to judging behaviors informed by others’ cultures based on what we understand to be “normal” when in reality, there is a plurality of “normal cultures.” It follows then that rather than relying on becoming well versed in the new culture, an international student would be better served to first understand what their own UCL is so they can interpret cultural difference as difference only, rather than as deficiency. In the absence of this, expecting a Chinese student to cultivate relationships in a short amount of time is unrealistic, particularly for those who are relatively new to US culture. It’s worth emphasizing that Chinese students who have been in the US for a longer period of time are more successful at navigating networking in the US. Chinese students who are new to the US, therefore, may want to accelerate their cultural acclimatization by first understanding their UCL.
In his article, Enrique Zaldivar goes into further detail on developing knowledge of one’s UCL. At the very least, it would be prudent for Chinese students to first visit Geert Hofstede’s website on the dimensions of Chinese culture to understand their starting point, before delving into its American counterpart.
I have seen a number of Chinese students take to networking in the context of the US, and the most successful ones have been those that have developed a richer understanding of both their culture, and the underlying assumptions and values of American culture. It’s time we take a hard look at how we encourage international students to network, rather than just telling them to behave like an American would.