The importance of Face in Chinese culture
We’ve all heard of ‘face’. Even in English, it’s common to talk about losing face, or saving face. But face in Chinese culture is far more important. Understanding how it works can be very useful.
Different Kinds of Face
The commonest Chinese word for ‘face’ is ‘mianzi’. ‘Mianzi’ relates to ideas of status, prestige and authority. One’s position in society. This is the kind of face most relevant when doing business. It is ‘built up through initial high position, wealth, power, ability, through cleverly establishing social ties to a number of prominent people, as well as through avoidance of acts that would cause unfavorable comment’.
The second most common Chinese word for ‘face’ is ‘lian’. Its meaning is subtly different. ‘Lian’ is less concerned with social standing, more concerned with moral and ethical standards.
If you lose ‘mianzi’, your status and authority are weakened. If you lose ‘lian’, your network – everyone with whom you have guanxi – is less likely to trust you.
In English, we talk about saving face and losing face, but we rarely consider giving face. This concept is much more important in China.
Giving someone face can raise their social status in a hierarchical society. So for example, a popular student may reach out to a new student and involve them in a project or activity. This gives the new student social status and ‘face’. (It also creates guanxi obligations. Giving face is in some ways like investing for the future in a relationship.)
So how do you give face?
- Avoid public criticism and disagreement.
- Give gifts and praise. Seek out opportunities to do this proactively.
- Use titles. Treat business cards and other symbols of position with respect.
- Be humble. Downplay your expertise and praise other people’s. Be modest when complimented.
- Be ethical. Remember the ‘lian’ aspect of face. You may have power, but if you throw it around, you will lose trust, respect and face. On the other hand, when you demonstrate ‘lian’, you give face to those who associate with you.
How Face affects Chinese Business Behaviour
If you’re a Hornet client visiting China, you are almost certainly the customer. You have status simply because of that. The supplier or potential supplier will want to recognise and acknowledge your face. That’s why they want to give you gifts and take you out to dinner. It’s not all bribery and corruption.
A trickier issue is how to handle disagreement. From a Chinese perspective, disagreeing, or even saying you can’t have something you’ve asked for, means you lose face. That makes it hard for them to say no to you – especially in public. Most likely, they won’t say no, they’ll just avoid saying yes. That’s something to watch out for.
For example, you want a particular type of plastic used in your product, which is not the supplier’s standard. Maybe the supplier says, ‘That’s interesting and worth considering. Have you thought about your initial volume?‘
You might think he’s really going to investigate your preferred plastic. In fact, he knows it’s not available, or it won’t fit within the prices he has quoted. He just didn’t want to disagree with you publicly. So he changed the subject instead.
You need to note occasions like this and follow up later in private. A good option would be to say, ‘I mentioned xyz plastic as an option to use, but with your expertise in different plastics, you may know more than I do.‘ Now you’re giving clear permission to disagree. You’re also giving face by praising his expertise.
Or perhaps you’re further on in a project and a small detail is not going quite as you’d like. However frustrated you are, try not to shout and scream in public. If you cause someone to lose face over a small matter, they’re not going to be honest with you when something major happens. Face in Chinese culture, is not ‘just business’. It’s their personal face as well.
For Hornet as a sourcing company, it’s interesting to note how ‘face’ affects client-supplier relationships. The Western relationship is traditionally adversarial. The client pushes to get more, at a lower price. The supplier fights back and negotiates to keep margin. In a Chinese supply chain, the approach is more about ‘how we partner to deliver the best possible product at the best possible price to the end consumer.’ The pricing negotiation is still there, but it’s framed in a different way. And more and more, we’re finding that Western procurement takes this approach too.