Why American-Style Networking Doesn’t Work in China

November 5, 2011

10:30 am

In China, LinkedIn trails far behind professional social network Tianji and its 8 million members. Meanwhile, Tianji is growing at 380,000 users per month and plans to expand from 80 to 200 employees next year.

Its success traces back to cultural differences between Western and Chinese networking, detailed in Tianji’s recent infographic. While Americans are content to trade favors with new acquaintances, the Chinese believe in building a personal relationship first.

“In China, you have to become ‘friends’ first,” says Tianji founder Derek Ling, who spent 15 years in the West. “Once you know people, business follows.” Ling has surely experienced this in his past jobs, which include VP of Sina, senior positions at Apple and Motorola, and founder of a successful entertainment startup called Qzone.

“Many contracts are signed in KTV [karaoke] rooms and not in offices,” adds Ling.

This means that searching for and messaging contacts on LinkedIn is not a widely accepted form of networking in China. Instead, Tianji focuses on building community through discussion forums and groups, on topics as varied as psychology, green living, and singles. Ling says that LinkedIn groups are much more business-like: “LinkedIn groups I’ve joined are often very up-front: I’m looking for this, can you help me? I want this, can you help me? In our context, that would be an affront.”

Tianji also features a Facebook-like poke to initiate conversations. Started in 2005, the site focuses on mid-level professionals, with an average age lower than LinkedIn’s.

Another difference is the Chinese preference for face-to-face interaction. In fact, Ling thinks that online professional social networking in China lags years behind its US counterpart, in terms of people’s habits. “People don’t see the Internet as a place for business tools,” he explains.

This divide is something that anyone doing business in China – including startups or international companies – should know. And that is especially true as pleading ignorance becomes a less viable option.

“Now, you don’t speak Chinese, it’s your problem,” says Ling. “As a nation, people are more confident in themselves and asserting their own way of life and doing business.”

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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