The concept of mianzi (reputation or “saving face”) has long been in the blood of Chinese people, but even so, there are different opinions about its value. Some people say that mianzi is an irrational value with absurd elements, while others believe it is a critical part of the social fabric of Asia. Regardless of these differences of opinion, mianzi remains an important part of Chinese and East Asian culture.
One will find that in China, individuals, their friends, family, and social and professional networks defend mianzi fiercely. When an individual’s talents, skills or social position are unknown, he will be judged according to the “face” he has in front of others. People who have face are regarded as capable, which is why so many people in Asia are so focused on it. It is the Chinese foundation of social psychology and the unspoken rule behind social culture. To protect another’s face is to respect the person; to lose the face of another by your actions or comments is a severe violation of his or her dignity.
Face is never a question of fact, but always of form – to say something appropriate at the right time and to avoid inappropriate, degrading or embarrassing comments or actions. Chinese are ashamed of disappointing others, of being ignored and of being interrupted in front of others because these each are seen as a loss of face.
It is easy for Westerners to get into trouble when they forget the significance of Asian-style honour and dignity. Not rigid in definition or form, mianzi depends on local customs. Take the mediation of a neighborhood dispute, for example. The “peacemaker” is no less skilled than any European politician. He knows how to keep balance among the disputing parties and how to protect the face value of each. The predominant concern is not for justice, but rather for peaceably settling the matter while maintaining the dignity of all parties.
The Prestige of Face Value
It is not uncommon to “borrow another’s face” or take advantage of knowing someone in order to connect with someone else. A job applicant will have better success at a job interview if he can drop the name of someone that the interviewer knows. Even if he’s only met the person mentioned once, his chances will improve according to the reputation that the name holds.
People are happy to provide such introductions for others, not only in order to grant the favor and build their guanxi, but also to test their own reputation (face value). It is also common for people, especially in casual social settings, to introduce a guest as “my sister,” even when everyone knows full well that the person does not have a sister. The truth of the matter is much less important than the face that is given to the guest.
“A matter of face” is often the reason that explains an undesirable act. For instance, in one popular story a repulsive young man gets invited to a banquet because his father is a senior officer and the banquet master needs to keep up the good relationship with the father. Another example is when one pays a New Year’s visit to his boss’ home. Inviting the son mentioned in the previous anecdote and taking time out on a holiday for the boss are both things that one would perhaps prefer not to do, yet performing these actions improves the father’s face and the boss’ face and thus nurtures the connections – and matters of face. This should not be confused with a personal sacrifice that one might make to help a close friend, which is done without hesitation and out of friendship, not as “a matter of face”.
Offering a gift of significant value is another way of giving face value, but there are right ways and wrong ways to receive gifts as well. If the gift is something that can be easily shared, such as a box of moon cakes (small cakes that are a traditional Chinese dessert), the receiver should only take part of it and share the rest in order to not be seen as greedy, thereby losing face.
The Other Side of Saving Face
There are individuals who, no matter how blatant the evidence is, will never admit to something that would cause them to lose face. An employee who makes a mistake that will no doubt cost him the job illustrates such behavior when he resigns first, rather than losing face by getting fired.
It is also not uncommon for dismissed employees to send scathing emails up and down the management chain and across customers and suppliers. This activity is best seen as a transparent attempt to restore face and is frankly just best ignored, as it is widely perceived by recipients for just what it is.
Excessive or disingenuous efforts at “saving one’s face” by an individual can temporarily cause a reputation to improve beyond the actual status of the individual, but once this has been exposed, the individual is shamed and in fact loses face. Mianzi can be a delicate balancing act indeed!
The importance of face value varies according to the different social environment that individuals participate in, with face having less importance in families and close personal relationships when compared to external or business relationships. However at the same time, family status, personal relationships, professional status, connections and the ability to influence others are key elements that contribute to an individual’s face value.
Mianzi is to be treated with delicate care in China, and ALL efforts should be made to avoid transgressions that lose the face of others. This point is applicable on both the business development side where one may be dealing with senior executives from one’s clients as well internally when dealing with staff.
Frankly there are too many scenarios to describe in detail, but a basic approach that is respectful of others and being always sensitive to avoiding creating situations that may be embarrassing to others is a good rule of thumb to follow.
A certain amount of bumbling is expected and easily forgiven of foreigners provided one’s actions are viewed as having positive intent.
We’ll discuss some examples in Part 5 – On the Ground.
Read the Series: CHINA: Cultural Insights for Business Success
CEO | Rain8 Group LLC
Managing Partner | CHC Couture Hospitality Concept