When coming to China, two of the most difficult cultural concepts to grasp are Guānxi (关系) and Face; both of which are quite interlinked. In the west Guanxi (or networking) is becoming more predominant in business (not to the extent that is in China), but still, it is growing.
The concept of ‘Face’ however, and gaining and losing face, is something that we are not so familiar with in the west. MiànZi (面子) or Face as we know it, translating there or thereabouts as ‘honour’, ‘reputation’ and ‘respect’ is so important in Chinese social/political/business circles that it can literally make or break a deal. If you are coming to China for business or any activity for that matter is it important to be aware of ‘face’ and how you may come across it in your day-to-day life here.
Face can predominantly be split into 2 parts: ‘Losing Face’ and ‘Giving/Gaining Face’.
- Losing Face – Showing a weakness or criticising someone in public will damage their reputation and both them and yourself could lose face.
- Giving/Gaining Face – Giving someone a compliment or giving an expensive gift will earn yourself or someone face.
In Chinese business circles hierarchy is more predominant than what we may be used to; the distinction between different levels of management is much clearer and more important, and with this in mind respecting superiors is well observed. In a Chinese environment a subordinate would rarely question, interrupt or disagree with their manager, especially in a public setting. This would cause a huge loss of face for the manager and potentially the company. When dealing with your superiors or elders in China it is always important to respect their position and ensure that they ‘keep face’. So if you are making a toast with your manager make sure that your glass is below theirs-this way you maintain respect and give them face.
You may also find that as a foreigner Chinese employees are scared to approach or talk to you. They may not be so confident in their English skills and fear that by talking English with you, they might show a weakness and lose face. If you come across this kind of situation, assure them that you are impressed by their English skills, give them compliments, and even try your own hand at Chinese, they will automatically feel a lot more comfortable around you and at the same time you will be improving their face.
Westerners, when conducting business and trying to seal deals, are used to straight forward answers from partners or clients whether it be a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’. This is not always the case in China; negotiations can often seem quite drawn out and sometimes a conclusive decision may not ever be reached. Direct refusals or disagreements are uncommon in China, there is a fear that a negative decision may cause both sides to lose face. A more common response is ‘maybe’ or ‘I will think about it…’, or it might even be that a tricky situation is ignored until it is forgotten about. In Chinese circles they know how to read between the lines, but foreigners may find this situation more awkward or frustrating. Sometimes an initial ‘yes’ to save face might mean a ‘no’ in the long term. The best thing to do is be patient, take a deep breath and try resolve the situation privately.
If you’re coming over to China here are some tips on MianZi 面:
Tips for giving/gaining face:
- Paying someone a compliment.
- Inviting someone out for dinner (and picking up the bill).
- Giving an expensive gift when meeting someone.
Tips to avoid losing face:
- Calling someone out on a lie.
- Criticising, disagreeing with or questioning someone’s decision.
- Directly refusing an invitation to a dinner or event.
Whilst a lot of companies in China have experience dealing with Westerners and vice versa, face is deeply rooted in China’s society and history; its importance will never fade. If you are able to uphold the fundamentals of face and give your colleagues and managers face it will always be appreciated.
If you have an urge to learn more about face and Chinese business culture during an internship, then apply here.