Everybody will tell you how important it is that you do not do things that are likely to make Chinese counterparts lose face and this is undoubtedly good advice. But what, exactly, is Mianzi? And that is where the problems start. Most Chinese (and other Asian business people) are very quick to tell you how important face is – but most of them find difficulty in explaining exactly what it is.
What is Mianzi?
What Mianzi is not, is the mild embarrassment a Westerner might feel if they are seen to make a mistake – it goes much more to the self-esteem somebody feels and the way in which they feel they are viewed by the groups they belong to. (China is a group-oriented culture and people belong to a myriad of groups – family, university peers, the Party, work teams, social club etc.)
The concept of face can be better understood with reference to China being a massively hierarchical society. The position a Chinese person occupies relative to others (eg a boss to an employee, or a parent to a child) commands a certain degree of respect and demands certain behaviours. Thus, a director within a local Chinese company will expect their subordinates to politely greet them in ritual fashion on arrival at work in the morning and a parent will expect his or her child to achieve high marks in school. If these expectations are not met, the director or the parent will potentially feel slighted or embarrassed. This would then mean they potentially lose face in the eyes of their co-workers or family.
The great danger of being seen to make somebody lose face (even inadvertently) is that the injured party is unlikely to want to do business with you in the future and their peers are likely to view you as a potentially ‘dangerous’ person. If you are the type of person who can make one person lose face, you are likely to do the same to others.
The typical actions which a Westerner might undertake which could make the Chinese lose face are:
- Directly pointing out mistakes (especially of a senior in front of subordinates)
- Directly disagreeing with a senior in a meeting
- Becoming angry in a meeting
- Not addressing the senior people in the meeting (because their English is weak)
- Over-use of humour in serious situations
- Pushing for a decision too soon
- Asking for things to be done which are outside of the remit of the person you are asking.
Side-by-side with the concept of losing face, sits the concept of gaining face. Many things can ‘give face’ including being praised by a superior, having a good job, working for a prestigious company, becoming a Party member or driving an expensive car – all of these can lead to being admired by one’s peers and society in general and that leads to ‘gaining face’. It is always a good idea to help counterparties gain face as they are much happier to work with someone who is a known face-giver than somebody who is oblivious to face-related issues.
Keith Warburton is CEO of Global Business Culture, world-leading cultural awareness consultants. Based in Hampshire, he trains business people for multi-locations, and is a keynote speaker on cultural awareness. Contact Warburton vie email firstname.lastname@example.org,