The concept of “Face” is one of the most striking illustrations of the many cultural differences between China and the Western world. The meaning of this word has not always been clearly understood, sometimes leading to disastrous consequences in the world of works.
Most of the people doing business in China are familiar with the concept of “face”, or mianzi (面子). Nevertheless, Westerners have sometimes struggled to fully grasp the importance of this vital factor, as well as the situations in which it applies. This misunderstanding can have very negative outcomes, as a Chinese person may be unwilling to collaborate anymore once (s)he feels (s)he “lost face”, cutting short to any potential business opportunity. This article aims at enabling the readers to better understand the place of face in the Chinese society as well as show some usual situations where it can apply.
What is face?
In the Chinese culture as well as some neighboring countries, face can be defined as someone’s reputation and feelings of prestige. Face can occur in different areas, such as within the sphere of family, personal friends or even in business or politics. Face firstly occurs at an individual scope, as each person will feel a different amount of prestige resulting from their actions. As a result, they will expect people to show them some respect according to their position or status. For instance, as hierarchical power is very high in China, status in a workplace is a key driver of respect people expect from others. Face should also be considered at an interpersonal level, as individuals will show more or less respect to one person according to the latter’s position or status. As an illustration, Chinese people tend to give a high importance to seniority, and will therefore show more care for the elderly than in Western countries.
Loss of face
One key takeaway is that face does not remain at the same level, as it tends to fluctuate. Indeed, it can be “lost” as a consequence of different actions undertaken by external stakeholders. Keeping this last point in mind is vital for doing business in China, as making someone gain face can significantly affect the nature of the relationship between two parties, and change the outcome of some negotiations or partnerships. This is mainly the case because Chinese people attach a great importance on relationships while doing business. Therefore, China’s important cultural differences should be known by all to make sure enough respect is given to everyone. The way to handle an argument is an interesting example, as direct conflicts are less usual in China and disagreements tend to be expressed more indirectly than in the Western culture. Whereas arguing may be seen as common for some foreigners, it is not the case in China and can therefore result in a face loss. Another cultural difference sometimes overlooked and leading to a potential face loss is the high hierarchical power in Chinese companies. In other words, not obeying the orders of a manager is likely to be more severely judged, as it will be interpreted a strong disrespect and undermine a person’s face.
Good news: face can also be used as an advantage in business as it can be gained too! Indeed, face can be gained by showing more respect to a person than what is expected. It can therefore be a very powerful tool to build solid and sustainable relationships in the world of works or obtain something from a person. This is also one of the reasons why offering presents is a very popular practice in the Chinese professional world. Face is so rooted in the Chinese culture that even people often interacting with foreigners will appreciate receiving more respect than necessary. To summarize, showing enough respect or even more than expected can play a crucial role while doing business in China. This respect should especially be more visible when interacting with older people as well as employees enjoying a strong professional status.
Face is only one of the many cross-cultural differences China has compared to Western countries. If willing to experience it yourself, you can apply for our internship program at Shanghai Metal Corporation ( http://www.shanghaimetal.com/ ), one of the leading businesses in the manufacturing of metalworking industry. We can produce and export the best quality of aluminum, steel and other metal products, keeping an eye on manufacturing efficiency and environmental sustainability.
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