- Published on Thursday, 08 December 2011 10:00
Suppose you're a Westerner newly arrived in China. As you're leaving a business meeting with a Chinese associate, he offers you a lift. But as you're staying far away, you politely refuse. Now in the U.S., no one would think twice about this. But in China, by declining your associate's offer you've just made a serious mistake. You've cost him great Face.
What is Face?
One way to describe Face is that it is the prevention of embarrassment at all costs. But that is insufficient as Asian cultures emphasize a concern with loss of Face for the individual personally, and for others as well. For example, a son would never disagree with his father in public, a colleague would never criticize another in public, nor would a subordinate point out an error made by a superior.
There are many aspects of Face: one can lose Face, gain Face, and lose Face for others. One can also get the most unfortunate reputation of one who does not want Face, or worse, one who has no Face.
Face is important in Asia in the same way that an American's Self is important. Both Face and Self are at the core of the persons being (with some very interesting implications for Asian-U.S. personal and business relationships.) Just as many Westerners get extremely concerned and threatened when their self-respect is compromised, Asian people are very concerned about losing Face, which means losing the respect of others.
Here we will focus on the Chinese culture, understanding that the same may apply to other Asian cultures.
It is important to remember that many Chinese see themselves as seamlessly integrated with a wide range of other people, including their schoolmates, co-workers, and extended family, as well as their social, professional, and friendship networks.
Since Americans don't have this same strong sense of integration with an extensive community, the concept of Face is based on a kind of relationship between people that is literally foreign to us.
By explaining Face as shame, embarrassment, or loss of honor we are individualizing and personalizing the concept in a very American way, which prevents us from truly understanding it the Chinese way. An individual's loss of Face can unravel the complicated, carefully woven fabric of social relationships, what the Chinese call Guanxi, upon which every person's success in society depends.
One of the most damaging reputations any person can have in a Chinese community is to be called bu gei mianzi, which means one who does not care enough to give Face. Such a person can easily offend others because he appears not to care about their Face. This description, unfortunately, is most frequently applied to foreigners who don't know any better. Conversely, a person who is proficient in the art of Giving Face not only enhances his own Face, but also ensures the most effective possible professional and personal relations with others.
Losing Face is much more intense than suffering embarrassment or shame. In extreme cases it can be like losing all the senses, or losing one's place in life. Complete loss of Face is like full exile - you become a non-person, even to family and close friends. You can't speak or be spoken to. You can't be heard or seen. You are just not present.
Keep in mind that gaining Face in all Chinese communities worldwide enhances what is most precious, the nurturing bonds which comprise one's whole identity.
When a person gains Face by the act of another, there is no gift more appreciated or significant. Regardless of the business or technical concerns of your Chinese associates and colleagues, it is very likely that (on a deeply personal level) nothing you can offer them is more important than for their Face to be enhanced by the act of dealing with you.
An important part of maintaining good Face in China is to understand that as a foreign businessperson or professional, you will automatically be respected and shown deference. In turn, you will be expected to show deference and formality, especially in your relationships with Chinese who are superior in rank to you within their own organizations.
But this does not mean, as too many foreigners assume, that you must "kow tow" to high-ranking Chinese. It does mean, however, that you should learn (and use) appropriate phrases of respect and pay close attention to preferred titles and forms of address. It also means that junior members of foreign business teams should learn the appropriate signs and phrases of respect for their elders and use these when interacting with older Chinese.
This concept of reciprocal deference to maintain everyone's Face will affect your personal and professional interactions in China in many positive ways.
That being said, here are a few examples and suggestions for you to consider:
- You should actively seek subtle opportunities and ways to show respect for higher-ranking Chinese, such as keeping your opinions to yourself unless asked, or expressing humility at a compliment.
- You will be wise to maintain an attitude of politeness toward every Chinese of whatever rank.
- On every public occasion, use polite behavior, speak softly, and most of all, ask intelligent questions and then listen carefully.
- Downplay any outright superiority you may have in knowledge and technical skill so as to bridge the gap between yourself and your colleagues.
- Understand that your respectful and thoughtful behavior means that their association with you brings them Face in the eyes of others.
In return, high-ranking Chinese who you meet are expected to:
- Show kindness to subordinates, applicants, supplicants, etc., and this includes all foreigners.
- Be helpful in all ways possible, provided that the help is properly solicited and is proportional to circumstances.
- Act as a model for ethical behavior and as a counselor and adjudicator as well.
Before moving or making a pleasure or business trip to China, it is imperative to have some knowledge of the concept of Face. While it is totally foreign to Americans, understanding what it is, how it works, and its implications within Chinese society will serve you well in your dealings with your Chinese counterparts.
[Those who'd like to read further on the subject may wish to pick up "Cultural Dimensions of Expatriate Life in China", a book written by Bill. Also, James Clavell's novel "Tai-Pan" is an excellent and enjoyable reference for learning more about Face and its role in Chinese culture. Although its 1841 setting may make it seem outdated, the historical context it provides is helpful.]