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China is a group-oriented culture, and Face represents a person’s reputation and feelings of prestige within those groups.

Everybody will tell you how important it is not to make Chinese counterparts lose face, and this is undoubtedly good advice. But what, exactly, is Mianzi (面子)? And that is where the problems start. Most Chinese are very quick to tell you how important Face is – but most of them find difficulty in explaining exactly what it is.

The concept of ‘Face’ is something that we are not so familiar with in the west. Mianzi may be translated as ‘honor’, ‘reputation’ and ‘respect’. It is so important in Chinese social/political/business circles that it can literally make or break a deal.

China is a group-oriented culture and people belong to a myriad of groups – family, university peers, the Party, work teams, social club etc. Face represents a person’s reputation and feelings of prestige within these groups.

 

‘Losing Face’ and ‘Giving/Gaining Face’

Losing Face – Showing a weakness or criticizing someone in public will damage his reputation resulting in the loss of Face.

Giving/Gaining Face – Giving someone a compliment or giving an expensive gift will earn yourself or someone Face.

For example, Chinese employees are often scared to approach or talk to foreigners. 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 are used to straight forward answers from partners or clients whether it be a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’. On the contrary, 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…’. A tricky situation may be even 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. The best thing to do is be patient, take a deep breath and try resolve the situation privately.

The great danger of being seen to make somebody lose face is that the injured party is unlikely to want to do business with you. Furthermore, all the witnesses of such situation will consider you a potentially ‘dangerous’ person. If you can make one person lose face, you are likely to do the same to others.

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.
  • Criticizing, disagreeing with or questioning someone’s decision.
  • Directly refusing an invitation to a dinner or event.

 

Sources: businessmag.co.uk, internchina.com