The author, Sean Upton-McLaughlin, is a China-focused business consultant with over five years of experience living and working in Mainland China. He consults on strategy, marketing, and cross-cultural issues. For more of Sean’s insights into Chinese culture, please visit http://chinaculturecorner.com/.
UPDATE (10/10/2013): An expanded version of this article can be viewed HERE.
Almost anyone who has done business with China, or is planning to, has heard the term “face.” Western businessmen coming to China for the first time often hear about how important face is to the Chinese, and are advised to avoid offending a Chinese person’s face – but what does “face” really mean?
Fundamentally “face,” or “Mian Zi”(面子), represents a person’s reputation and feelings of prestige (both real and imagined) within their workplace, society, their family unit and among their friends. The concept of “face” can be more deeply understood if one recalls that China has traditionally been (and continues to be) a highly hierarchical society. The position a Chinese person occupies relative to others (e.g. a boss to an employee, or a father to a son) is typically thought to command a certain degree of respect and requires certain types of behavior. For example, a director within a local or state-owned Chinese company might expect their subordinates to politely greet them when coming into work in the morning. A father might expect his son to achieve high marks in school, and a mother may expect her daughter to marry a respectable man and quickly give birth to a child. If these expectations are not met, the director, the father and the mother could potentially feel slighted, embarrassed, angry or all of the above. In effect, they would lose “face” in the eyes their coworkers, family or society.
To me, your “face” is your position and standing in the eyes of others, and it also has to do with the degree of respect you receive. Face can also be saved up over time and used to accomplish things later on.If you drove a fashionable or luxurious car to attend a friend’s party, then the majority of your friends would feel that you had face. Also, if you can accomplish something through your personal contacts that others cannot accomplish through normal channels, you would also be thought to have face.You can gain face if you are praised by your boss, or if you accomplish a difficult task at work. However, if you greet others warmly at social events, but are met only with indifference, then you would lose face. Questioning someone else’s ideas or opinion in a public setting would cause that person to lose face.
Besides trying to avoid losing face, Chinese people also aspire to “gain face” as well. Many types of actions, including being praised by a superior, having a beautiful girlfriend or handsome boyfriend, or driving an expensive car can all lead to being admired by one’s peers and society in general – gaining face. But what determines the level of respect a certain person deserves? The simplest way is to compare various aspects of your own life and background with the individual in question. What is their age in relation to you? What’s their career level? How much money do they make? What’s their educational background? What’s their family background? Additionally, it may be necessary to gauge the level of respect a Chinese person thinks he or she deserves.
This sounds complicated, and it is… but there’s no need to despair. Non-Chinese are rarely held to the same exacting standards of respect that Chinese expect from their fellows, and the influx of western culture in larger cities and more developed areas has led to a certain culturally relaxed interpretation of “face” among some Chinese. And finally, Chinese culture has both conservative and liberal interpretations. Some Chinese worry and fret about receiving the proper amount of respect every day. Others simply choose not to worry.