Application & Practice, Business
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What is “Face”?

Western business leaders and their business coaches explain how to gain respect from society, employees, and partners:

“Be yourself. Don’t do what the crowd wants you to do. People value authenticity.”

“Honesty is the best policy.  No matter what: always tell the truth.”

“Be transparent. Don’t pass the buck.  Own your mistakes.”

The CEO who arrives at a black-tie event in an unbranded black turtleneck and jeans wins admiration. The celebrity whose mugshot becomes front-page news shortly secures a new movie contract. The president caught tilting back in his chair, or sneering at another political leader, or misreading from the teleprompter on a national broadcast receives warm praise for being “just like us”. What does this say about the Western concept of leadership?

Legitimacy and authority seem to be enhanced by candor plus a touch of social ineptness. For this reason, authenticity training in business has become the new trend in helping leaders gain points for “realness”. Redemption after a high-profile mistake is a simple four-step process, known as the four R’s: publicly express Regret, take Responsibility, vow to Resolve the issue, and Refocus on growth. 

But China is different.  Try the authenticity approach in China and your “realness” will be rewarded with far fewer accolades – if any at all. In fact, failing to maintain a competent appearance makes you untrustworthy. Consequently, your relationships and reputation may never recover.  This is why Chinese people have a constant concern for “face” (面子 miànzi), meaning reputation*.  Things like impulsive self-expression, social gaffes, and public discussion of private affairs are not welcome. 

Alongside guanxi, “face” is one of the most salient concepts in Chinese business culture.  A voluminous variety of social rules apply to face, making it a perplexing concept for Westerners to put into practice.  In developing business relationships with foreigners, Chinese people have concerns about interacting with people who do not understand face. In this post, I’ll explain face in depth and discuss the importance of mutual impression management activities in business relationships.  To conclude, I suggest some best practices for avoiding common errors in a culture fixated on face. 

*There are two overlapping yet distinct concepts that constitute a complete definition of “face”: miànzi 面子 + lian 脸.  This post refers only to miànzi face.

What is Face?

graduating gaining face
In China, graduation is not solely a personal achievement. Graduates gain honor for family, hometown & country.

“Face” refers to an individual’s reputation. Some synonyms for face are honor, social standing, and respect. “To have face” means to have a good reputation, which results from behaviors and achievements that receive positive evaluation by society. Face ties self-identity to group identity. When someone has face, it means that he can effectively claim a positive value for himself in society.  The image of someone who has face is someone who can “stand up tall” and show his face to other members of his community.

The Philosophical Footings of Face 

Confucius said, “Lead the people …. with virtue and regulate them by the rules of propriety [li 礼], and they will have a sense of shame and, moreover, set themselves right.”

(Analects, 2:3)

The ancient moral philosophy of Confucius (Kǒngzǐ 孔子, 551–479 BCE) resulted in a legacy of beliefs about social values and rules of ideal human behavior within a society.  Essentially, Confucian morality consists of two requirements: an attitude of benevolence and – note the phrasing – the avoidance of improper behavior. A moral person is defined by a quality of “righteousness”.  Confucian beliefs about righteousness persist in modern Chinese culture, and it is by demonstrating righteousness that a person gains face.

Confucian righteousness is different than the Christian notion of righteousness.  Christian notions of righteousness tend to emphasize justice, charity, and faith in God.  What does it mean in Confucianism to act righteously?

First, a righteous person demonstrates self-discipline in social interactions.  Face is gained through the self-discipline of speaking appropriately and concealing inappropriate emotions.  Confucian beliefs dictate, for example, that anger should be suppressed. To show anger is weakness of character:

“[If a man] is under the influence of his passions; how can he be pronounced firm and unbending?”

(Analects, 5:11)

This may come as a shock for Westerners for whom anger at injustice (expressed as indignation, resentment, and retribution) is acceptable and encouraged.

Second, the righteous person demonstrates trustworthiness and benevolence. In China, this means being reliable in upholding the expectations of one’s social roles, regardless of personal inconvenience and discomfort.  Communities must see that a person is willing and capable to shelve his personal whims in favor of contributing to the harmonious functioning of society. Confucian norms dictate rituals and standard behaviors according to social status and identity.  Role-based morality can result in scenarios that contradict Western moral intuitions. For example, Chinese students gain face by unquestioningly deferring to their teachers’ opinions (regardless of truth or falsity), while teachers maintain face by upholding the expectation that they provide satisfactory answers for their students’ questions (or skillfully deflect the question). 

Third, righteousness is found in self-improvement. Confucius advocated the pursuit of education.  Other types of self-improvement in a workplace include promotions, increased personal influence, capabilities, wisdom gained from experience, and dignified behavior.  In the Chinese notion of righteousness, notions of authenticity and individual self-expression hardly come into play; even self-improvement is about the benefit to society and social harmony.

Reflect back to the opening discussion about the ties between authority, legitimacy and authenticity in the West. It should be obvious that the advice, “Just be yourself,” should be applied with extreme caution in China.

Carrot and Stick

Unable to show his face

A person who acts righteously “gains face” and earns praise and social trust – that’s the carrot.  Someone who does not act righteously “loses face” and suffers shame – that’s the stick.  People who publicly fail to live up to social expectations become regarded as untrustworthy in their relationships. Making mistakes in public is a horrifying experience for most Chinese people, much more than for Westerners.  When self-identity is tied to group identity as it is in Chinese culture, losing face is equal to a devastating loss of self – public embarrassment sometimes results in suicide.  After losing face, a person feels as though he cannot show his face to family or society.  The threat of losing face very effectively influences people to control their behavior, and therefore, face is a very valuable concept for the stability of Chinese society.

The above discussion underscores the depth of the concept of face to Chinese people and its role in Chinese society. Strong words have even been used to describe China as a “cult of face”. It is not an exaggeration to say that maintaining appearances is the backbone of social harmony.

Face in the Workplace

Reputation and shame are key for motivating employees. Chinese employees are unlikely to take risks that could result in loss of face, unless there is a clear benefit. Implementation of Western-style “empowerment” policies that require employees to make decisions without approval from managers may cause undue stress. Employees prefer to avoid risks to loss of face, such as trying new ideas, speaking out, pointing out miscalculations, or opening up to a manager about their feelings. However, employees will be diligent in pursuit of face. Public praise of effort and achievement, promotions, raises, as well as group activities that provide opportunities to show off talents are highly motivational.

Trading Faces

Face is about personal reputation, but that is not all.  Face is a valuable social commodity that can be accumulated and traded. It functions like a type of currency. Having more face equates to greater social power.  For this reason, business partners engage in activities to help each other gain face, a.k.a. mutual impression management.  Western businesspersons should become familiar with three actions of face: giving face, causing someone to lose face, and saving face.  Each of the three activities can take place between two people or in the presence of a group.

Savvy CEO of “404 not found”: Zuckerberg criticizes censorship (Facebook is banned in China), but he still studies Mandarin and gives face.

Giving face means showing respect in a way that increases another person’s honor and reputation. Successful businesses in China require intermittent maintenance in the form of mutual face-giving activities, displays of etiquette and communication, and exchange rituals. The flavor of “giving face” is comprehensible from the following examples:

  • The French CEO gave face to his Chinese manufacturing managers when he invited them abroad to attend the tradeshow and sightseeing.
  • Mr. Smith’s company offered training at his business partner’s company to increase their employees’ capabilities and performance. By giving face to his business partner, the company secured loyalty and special pricing on orders.
  • By offering a discount on products for the local government, the telecom company gave face to the local officials, who were happy to offer “special guidance” on correctly filing their application.

To make someone “lose face” is to do or say something that diminishes another person’s honor and reputation. Business examples of causing someone to lose face include:

  • At the lunch meeting, Jessica grew impatient with Wei’s English – he spoke slowly and with a strong accent.  In order to hurry him to the point, she “helpfully” offered words and finished his sentences.  This caused Wei to lose face.
  • Mr. Li was passed over for a promotion again this year on a flimsy excuse, causing him to lose face. 

To save (someone’s) face is to prevent humiliating loss of face.  This may involve covering up or distracting from the mistake, shifting blame, or providing plausible deniability of error.

  • When the American engineer pointed out his Chinese colleague’s mistake in front of a group of his employees, it caused him to lose face.  Another savvy American engineer jumped in to attribute the error to a misprint of an important document, which gave the Chinese engineer a chance to save face and solve the error without accepting blame.
  • The public got wind of rumors about the company’s in-fighting and uncertain future.  When the foreign CEO showed up to publicly congratulate their team’s efforts at a product launch, he helped them save face and put an end to the worrying rumors.

These examples clearly show nuanced Chinese thinking about reputation.  Because face is such an important issue for Chinese, it causes apprehension and initial distrust in cross-cultural relationships.  When Western businesspersons gain cultural awareness and demonstrate sensitivity to face, they will benefit from increased trust.  Although face is a perplexing concept at first, it can become a profitable management tool. 

Participating in face-giving activities establishes the foundation for shared-mindset. Sensitivity to face shows a willingness to cooperate for mutual benefit.  This creates favorable local environments, secures the loyalty of important relationships, facilitates knowledge transfer, and increases one’s bargaining position to unlock special pricing and favorable terms & timelines.  In short, awareness of face is not mere “woke” cultural awareness but has real benefits for a company’s profitability and efficiency.

On the other hand, Westerners who refuse to accept the Chinese mindset of face will have issues in long-term sustainability of their projects;  it will be difficult to acquire the trust and loyalty of key local partners.  Moreover, failure to observe rules of propriety will result in awkwardness and, in the worst cases, irreparably damage reputations and relationships.

5 Best Practices for Face

A synthesis of the aforementioned information yields some general rules about face in business relationships.  It goes without saying that how a person can gain, protect, and give face will depend on context.  Until face becomes second nature, rely on the following fail-proof best practices.

  1. Keep your cool. Aggressive reactions cause loss of face for both parties. Give appropriate time for both sides to reconsider their positions. Keeping your cool means that losing the battle but winning the war.
  2. Honesty is not always the best policy. Think twice before pointing out face-saving lies.  If the lie is obvious to you, rest-assured it is obvious to others (see first example of saving face).  You’ll create nothing except lasting enemies.
  3. Fix mistakes without the blame game. Use phrases like “THIS happened”, instead of “YOU did this,” in order to avoid assigning blame. Privately consult the person at fault, inviting him to think of a clever solution to the problem and save face.
  4. The immediate answer can always be “maybe”.  Avoid openly criticizing, challenging, and disagreeing in a way that reveals someone’s lack of knowledge.  These result in a loss of face. Politely turn down unwelcome or uninformed suggestions with a “maybe” or “we’ll try.”  Say “no” without saying no: drag your feet, delay discussions to an unspecified later time, or suggest that you need to speak with someone else before agreeing.
  5. Don’t be shy about offering (genuine) praise.  Publicly and genuinely compliment important subordinates and superiors to give face. In toasts, always clearly recognize elders and VIPs. If you are a foreign businessperson in China, failing to show up at an event, or showing up late, will cause hosts to lose face.

Terms to Know

Gain face = to improve one’s reputation, honor, dignity

Lose face (丟面子 diū miànzi) = to suffer a loss of reputation

Not want face (不要面子 bùyào miànzi) = one of the strongest insults in China, “shameless”

Give face (給面子 gei miànzi) = show recognition/respect and thereby increase another person’s honor and reputation

Save face (保面子 bǎo miànzi) = to avoid humiliating loss of face (to oneself or others)

Closing

Understanding the concept of face is indispensable for doing business in China. Legitimacy in leadership is the reward of accumulating face and participating in face-giving activities. On a personal level, the effort to keep up appearance signals trustworthiness and an attitude of social responsibility. Gaining, giving, and saving face help to secure trust, loyalty, and harmony.  Activities of mutual impression management must not be neglected as a crucial part of business practice and business strategy in China. 

Face (面子) and guanxi (关系) are highly related concepts. My post, What is Guanxi? discusses this another opportunity for increasing competitive advantage.  For more on the importance of building trust before signing contracts, see my post, Crash Course: Chinese Contract-less Contracts.

References

Kennedy, F., & Kolb, D. G. (2016). The alchemy of authenticity. Organizational Dynamics, 45(4), 316–322. doi: 10.1016/j.orgdyn.2016.09.002

Zhou, L., & Zhang, S.-J. (2017). How face as a system of value-constructs operates through the interplay of mianzi and lian in Chinese: a corpus-based study. Language Sciences, 64, 152–166. doi: 10.1016/j.langsci.2017.08.001

Rodríguez-Rivero, R., Ortiz-Marcos, I., Ballesteros-Sánchez, L., & Romero, J. (2018). The opportunity to improve psychological competences of project managers in international businesses. Psychology & Marketing, 35(2), 150–159. doi: 10.1002/mar.21076

1 Comment

  1. proclus9 says

    This is a very enlightening article. and well worth several re-readings. On reflecting about ‘face’ I rather suspect that the difference between Western and Chinese while different in application is based on an underlying trait of human nature – the need for recognition as a member of the community. Humans, after all, are intrinsically social creatures and reputation in the eyes of others is essential to working in a community. For everyone ‘to be’ somebody requires dignity, being valued, respect, etc. These are all elements of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs – and are universal. That is why in all cultures it is extremely offensive to call someone ‘ignorant’ or ‘stupid’ because it suggests that person is intrinsically worthless and unredeemable. This humiliation is universally unacceptable. From this perspective, Chinese social norms are essentially no different from Western social norms. The differences are accidental, i.e. due to different historical circumstances. Being accidental does not mean that they are unreal but shows that they are not intrinsic and, therefore, subject to change, Indeed, such change was exactly what Mao and the Red Guards sought to implement. In short, I think that many of the attributes of ‘saving face’ are also found in not so different form in Western culture or Muslim culture. Emphasis may vary but this is a difference of degree and not a difference of kind.
    This article has inspired me to write an article of my own comparing these attributes of Chinese ethics to those found in the world’s religions. I do not necessarily see identity but I do see convergence.

    Like

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