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The concept of face in China

by: Carmen Lam, Associate Partner of Hofstede Insights

 

Doing business overseas is not easy. Besides dealing with trade, finance and other regulatory issues that must be observed and tackled, it pays off to be informed about your target destination’s cultural idiosyncrasies and be prepared to deal with intercultural differences to avoid unnecessary communication breakdowns.

In China, face or ‘mianzi’ is an important concept that impacts how people interact with each other to achieve harmony, not only for interpersonal and social settings but also for business and professional settings. Erika Visser said that mianzi “represents a person’s reputation and feelings of prestige at work, at home or within other social circles”. When dealing with Chinese people, according to Elizabeth Tuleja, it is the act of “show(ing) respect to others according to the person’s status and reputation in the society”. In this article, the terms face and mianzi are used interchangeably.

Awareness of mianzi provides unwritten guidelines about how to treat and greet people, how to give gifts, how to arrange seating, even how to dress and what to expect at business and social events. On the most basic level, mianzi is about being courteous and showing respect to people. However, it goes beyond basic etiquette to take into account the personal and environmental context of the situation, such as the person’s position, seniority level, his/her role in society or company, who else is present and how your actions will be perceived by the people on the receiving end including his/her in-groups. It is about recognizing and giving credit to a person based on their seniority in age or their role in society or company. As mianzi can be given, lost or maintained, it applies to both the giver as well as the receiver.  It is a reciprocal concept, affecting both parties in the interaction. Understanding the factors that cause people to lose face, gain face or preserve face will help you push the ‘right’ buttons to avoid unnecessary drama and make sense of social behaviours that you may encounter.

 

Where does the concept of ‘mianzi’ come from? An exploration of Chinese culture according to Professor Geert Hofstede’s research findings, the influence of Confucius and the desire for harmony will throw some light.

China has 3500 years of continuous recorded history. Despite colourful stories about its warriors and philosophers, Chinese society is mainly agrarian, predominantly rural and focused on the family. People value their social connections which are interdependent networks based on trust and mutual obligations rather than on codified laws.

 

Dimensions of Chinese Culture according to Hofstede 

According to research by Geert Hofstede, China has a high score for Power Distance. Everyone has their own place in society and powerful people expect special treatment. It is a very Collectivist society and society fosters strong relationships between people within groups. There is a strong sense of responsibility and for group members to protect each other. People who do not do well feel shameful leading to a loss of face. There is a focus on relationships over tasks and individuals try not to make mistakes for fear of damaging their group’s reputation or their own relationships with the group. Due to its high Masculinity score, Chinese people tend to be success-oriented and driven. People strive to be their best and the goal is to win and bring honour to their families and their in-groups. At the same time, they have a low score on Uncertainty Avoidance. This also means that they have few formal written rules and a more relaxed attitude towards experimentation. Truth is not absolute and is dependent on time and context in China. Contracts and agreements are considered guidelines that may be deviated from. People are more willing to compromise if they feel respected. 

You can read more about the dimensions of Chinese culture in the About China article.

 

Guanxi

To thrive in such a collectivist and masculine society means it is important to preserve the in-group relationships that one has. Many authors have written about the importance of these relationships which are known as ‘guanxi’ in Chinese. According to Diego Gilardoni, relationships mean connections and, in China, it includes the entire network of a person, including his family, his friends, his academic life and his professional life. He also said that ‘relationships come before business’ and that generally holds true. This network of relationships can extend across many groups and teams over an individual’s lifetime. These networks can be counted on for support and leveraged in times of need. Hence individuals will try to protect, preserve and grow his position and influence within these networks. It is wise to recognize people’s contribution and in general make people look good in front of other people. Any act that reduces their credibility means a loss of ‘mianzi’ for them and may have a long term negative impact on their network relationships.

 

Clarity of Role and Harmony

Confucius was an influential Chinese philosopher in the 5th Century BC who was a strong proponent of loyalty, righteousness and order in society according to the five main relationships of 1) ruler to subject, 2) father to son, 3) husband to wife, 4) elder brother to younger brother and 5) friend to friend. His teachings have influenced Chinese social fabric and affected the way of life up to today. High power distance and collectivist culture together with Confucius’ influence reinforced the tendency for people to defer to seniority.  Social order depended on people having clarity on how they are positioned to perform their roles and to deliver to their duties and responsibilities. This has helped to create social order resulting in a sense of harmony that expands beyond the in-group to the rest of society. This is not based on laws but on well-ingrained ideas about how one person should relate to another person. Together with high masculinity, these unwritten rules have resulted in the drive for people to strive to do well and look good so as not to shame oneself or to bring shame to the groups that one belongs to. 

 

Six Most Important Things to Know about Mianzi

  1. Communicating and Interacting

In China, individuals identify with their in-groups or teams, show loyalty, respect and support each other. Communication is implicit and indirect. Praise should be directed to the team and not to the individual. By extension, , if one member of the team gets criticized and is made to look bad in front of the rest of the team, i.e., to lose face, his team may be obliged to back him up regardless of whether he is right or wrong, in order to show their support for him..

Hence if you disagree with someone, do try to clarify what you mean but if that does not work, do not directly contradict that person in front of other people. It is preferable for you to have a separate conversation with the individual in private. To lose your temper with someone in public not only causes that individual to lose face but also affects how the rest of your company is perceived as you are considered a part of the company you represent.

  1. Meeting and Greeting

In a highly hierarchical society such as China, people who are more senior in age or position should be recognized and are expected to be given face in the form of more respect and attention.  On top of basic etiquette such as letting them walk first, giving them the better seats and letting them be seated first, official titles reconfirm people’s status so to use them properly is a sign of respect. This applies not only to politicians and the military, but also to doctors, lawyers and civilian managers. Some examples are listed below.

When greeting a Chinese person, you can show respect by using his/her title, regardless of gender. If s/he is…

...then the respectful way to address him/her is to use the surname first and add the following sounds…

A general

…Jiang-Jun

A mayor

…Shi-Zhang

A doctor

…Yi-Sheng

A lawyer

…Lü-Shi

A president

...Zong-Cai

A vice president

…Fu-Zong

A manager or senior member of a company

…Zong

A director

…Zong-Cai

A chairman

…Zhu-Xi

A teacher

…Lao-Shi

 

When attending business meetings or events, it is advisable to dress appropriately. Some Chinese hosts may perceive guests who under-dress for the occasion as disrespectful but to over-dress could also be regarded negatively as a form of one-upmanship.

If you are dealing with a commercial organization and there are members of the organization present who are junior to you, allow them to show respect to you by letting you take the best seat and to walk ahead. Not accepting the honour that they think you ‘deserve’ will embarrass your hosts and create awkward moments for junior members of the team in front of their superiors.  

  1. Dining

When entertaining, it is customary to seat the VIP or most senior person to the side of the host, regardless of gender. Couples are usually seated together. If the guest is of a more senior ranking than the host, s/he is sometimes given the best seat by the host.

Chinese food is normally served family-style except in very formal restaurants where each person is given his/her own dish. It is respectful to let the VIP or the most senior person sample the food and take the first bite before everyone else starts.

  1. Gifting

Gifting is customary in China during festival seasons. The main festivals for corporate gifting are Chinese New Year and mid-Autumn Festival. Many restaurants and hotels develop New Year cakes and moon cakes with special packaging for corporate gifting purposes. Hampers are quite common as the packaging and variety of content inside a hamper can make the gift look more substantial. The boss of the organization can be given a nicer or more specialized version of the gift compared to the rest of the office to show that s/he is more important.

As a gesture of goodwill, some foreigners visiting a Chinese organization may present a souvenir from their home country. Food items that could be shared amongst the team members are usually welcomed. If a memento is given, you need to be careful to bring enough to ensure no one is left without. More traditional Chinese companies also tend to maintain a stock of corporate gifts they can use to reciprocate your goodwill, which is their way of showing appreciation so do accept them with pleasure. Some of these gifts are meant for display in which case try to keep them in a prominent place in your office where it can easily be seen should your Chinese counterpart decide to pay you a visit in future.

  1. Negotiating

There is a lot of literature about the need for patience and to develop relationships known as guanxi to negotiate effectively in China. To maintain mianzi, respect the hierarchy throughout the process. During negotiations, give face where possible and avoid creating situations where people, including yourself, will lose face.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, to negotiate means “to have formal discussions with someone in order to reach an agreement with them”. If your negotiations start with junior people, and more senior people are brought in at a later stage, the more senior people will expect to be given a little more concession due to their ‘mianzi’. If no more concessions can be given, do provide a very good explanation to ensure that the more senior people do not lose face in front of the junior people. If a senior person made a request which you rejected previously, do not concede the same point later with a more junior member of the team unless you have a good reason and can clarify the rationale.

  1. Resolving conflict

When resolving conflict, try to give the related parties some room to manoeuvre. In order words, give them a choice of outcome even if there is no real difference in the options being offered. An old Chinese saying warns us not to chase a dog into a blind alley because the dog will then have no choice but to turn around and attack us. Depending on the perspective, no one is absolutely wrong or right. Sometimes the use of the right words can help to preserve pride and dignity for the parties in conflict so that each can claim to have a small win. Remember, it is the perception that counts.

 

Be especially careful when business discussions and negotiations seem to take a long time without any sign of an impending outcome. There could be several reasons for delays in business decisions. If you have been negotiating with junior level persons in the organization, one reason for delay is that they may have to get through several layers of bosses before they could secure approval to agree to your proposal. In hierarchical organizations, it simply takes more time for decisions to be made and passed down to the front line. Another reason could be that they have not even presented the case to their seniors for a decision because they feel that they should be able to get more concessions from you before they bring your case to their superiors to ensure they are not thought of as incompetent. In fact, their superiors may not even be aware of the lack of progress while they are still holding out hoping to get a better deal. To go directly to their boss will expose their weakness and you may still not get the deal because your offer is still below the company’s decision criteria.


 

References and interesting links

 

·   National Culture (hofstede-insights.com)

·   Forbes – A Better Understanding of Guanxi

·   Dunning and Kim 2007 The Cultural Roots of Guanxi

 

Last updated: 17.03.2021 - 11:02