Gaining and Losing Face in China

Gaining Face and Losing FaceMost Westerners who are planning to China for business have almost certainly heard of the concept of Face,” or Miàn zi (面子). China’s more traditional  society indeed places a great deal of importance on Face within society, business, and politics. However it can be difficult for Westerners to understand the specific rules relating to Face in China, as well as the different contexts where it should be used. For example, what actions will cause someone to gain or lose Face? In what situations should Face be given? How can Face affect your business and daily life in China? In the following article, several of the basic points surrounding Face will be explained, which all Westerners need to be familiar with to succeed in China.

What Is Face?

In China and much of Asia, Face represents a person’s reputation and feelings of prestige within multiple spheres, including the workplace, the family, personal friends, and society at large. The concept of Face can be understood more easily by breaking it down into three separate components: the individual view, the community view, and actions. The “individual view” pertains to the amount of prestige individuals feel based on their accomplishments, and the amount of respect they feel they are due based on their position and status, such as in a company or the home. For example, in the modern Chinese economy there are many opportunities to buy status symbols, which help a person gain prestige.  And in China’s hierarchy-focused society, the respect a person is due is determined first by status relative to another person’s, not necessarily by personal achievements.

What is Face? The “community view” pertains to the amount of respect individuals feel necessary to give to someone else based upon that person’s position or status, such as in a business, the family unit or within a group or friends. For example, status in a Chinese family is divided by very distinct roles; there are even separate terms used to address older and younger cousins, aunts, and uncles. Giving the same amount of respect to older and younger aunts or uncles might be viewed as a serious breach of etiquette.

“Actions” pertain to the various activities that can cause an individual to gain or lose Face. Based upon one’s position relative to someone else, several different actions can be employed to either cause a loss or gain of Face. In some cases these actions might occur unintentionally, or instead be used as tactic to achieve a specific result. For example, giving someone Face (e.g. more than they might deserve) can be used to build relationships and influence decisions. Also, causing someone to lose Face can reinforce one’s own authority and status, or pressure someone toward a desired action, such as quitting their job or fulfilling a promise.

Face and Business in China

Face is very visible in the Chinese business environment and plays an important role in inter- and intra-company communication, business negotiations, and the development and maintenance of relationships. In China, company hierarchy is much more important than in many Western countries. Not only are leaders and managers placed on a higher pedestal, but the distinction between different levels of management is much clearer and more important. Many Chinese leaders and managers expect respect from their subordinates and in many cases expect to be obeyed without question, no matter the rationality or fairness behind a request.  Not obeying “the will” of a Chinese leader or manager does not give them the perceived necessary prestige they (and others) feel is deserved. Indeed, survival in a Chinese company depends on knowing one’s place, and Face plays a very important role in facilitating that function.

why do the Chinese care about face?When Chinese business people build relationships with one another, Face is very important. On one hand, relationships in China are built and maintained through giving Face and increasing the prestige of one’s friends and contacts. With two business people of the same relative position or status, Face is often given and received equally and is the cement that holds a relationship together.

“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 achieve something through your personal contacts that others cannot 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’s  ideas or opinion in a public setting would cause that person to lose face.”

– James Tan, Sales Manager, Shanghai

On the other hand, when a client relationship is established in China, the client more often than not receives more Face in the early stages of a relationship from the “seller.” Face must be given to the client to make him or her believe that the seller is worthy of their money and time. Sometimes giving Face to a contact entails simply words and compliments, though sometimes gifts are required and invitations to dinners, entertainment, or other social events. To the Chinese there is a natural order in society as well as business, and if one is unwilling or unable to show the proper amount of Face to those that feel they deserve it, then one will likely be judged to not have good character. This has the potential to wreck business deals and sour relationships, so with regard to the issue of Face most Chinese business people tread with care.

Examples of Gaining and Losing Face

Even after understanding the basic mechanics and uses of Face, it can be difficult to understand how the concept actually works in practice. Below are listed several specific examples on how giving and losing of Face plays out in everyday life and business in China.

  1.  A Chinese company director is leading a team of researchers to complete a consulting project for a client. At the project’s end, the director’s subordinates successfully present their findings and reference and praise their superior’s role in managing and leading the project. The actions of the report being completed successfully as well as being praised in front of the client give Face to the director.
  2. A Chinese mother makes many efforts to give her child with the opportunity for a good education, both through financial and emotional support. The result is that the child is accepted at a prestigious foreign university. Not only do the parents feel proud of their child’s achievements but also feel that they have gained Face through the child’s achievement.
  3. A young Chinese man is trying to find a woman to marry but has met with no success. After reaching his early thirties, all of his close friends have already married, some even have children. In light of his failure to marry when his family,  friends and society expect him to, he feels a significant internal loss of Face. In addition, the young man’s friends may look down on him due to his failure to marry and hence give him less Face through their actions and words during social gatherings.  These actions would then further compound the loss of Face.
  4. A young Chinese woman is stuck in a stressful job with an abusive manager at a local Chinese company. Through no fault of her own she is constantly blamed for her manager’s failings and shortsightedness. Through  being berated daily in front of her coworkers, the young woman continuously feels she is losing Face. In the end she feels she has lost so much Face that she cannot bear to face her coworkers, and decides to quit her job.

Advice for Westerners

It’s true that Face sounds complicated – and it is – but there’s no need to despair. First of all, foreigners are not always expected to adhere to the same exacting standards of respect and prestige as locals in China are. The influx of Western culture into many of the larger Chinese coastal cities (and other more developed areas), along with greater numbers of local Chinese with experience dealing with Westerners, has led to more flexible interpretations of business and social etiquette. Also, Chinese culture in and of itself has both liberal and conservative interpretations, even before China’s modernization. Just as there are highly conservative Chinese managers, executives, and leaders who demand respect be paid to them at all times, there are also Chinese who have a less formal attitude, and focus on getting results over respect.

Related Article: Applying Face in a Chinese Company

面子, Face is important in ChinaHowever, when the issue of Face cannot be avoided, there are several things that should be kept in mind:

  1. Whenever someone outranks you or is older than you, it’s probably a good time to show them more respect.
  2. Don’t forget to give Face when you want something from someone in China (e.g., a business deal or a favor).
  3. While giving face is always important, don’t forget to develop the relationship over the long-term.
  4. Giving Face will always be appreciated, even from Chinese people who have a lot of experience interacting with Westerners. Face is deeply rooted in the Chinese society and mindset, and its importance will not fade over time.

While it’s true that some Westerners protest that they won’t “play the game” while in China, it is important to remember that when you are in someone’s house it’s only polite to play by their rules, or you may be asked to leave. At the very least, small gestures of respect are easy and go a long way toward demonstrating that you understand the importance of Face (and are willing to make an effort to understand Chinese culture), and that you are committed to a long-term relationship with the Chinese. Something as simple as this can be a crucial factor which can land important business deals, and lead to rewarding friendships that will last a lifetime.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any other useful examples of Face in China? Do you have any additional questions about Face and how the Chinese use it? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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48 replies

  1. Fascinating article. It may shed some light on current movements in the international currency and gold markets. China massively lost face last July when the British government called in the Hinckley Point nuclear project. A planned celebratory lunch was abruptly cancelled. The project will now go ahead, but with tough safeguards. It may be coincidence that the sterling US dollar exchange rate was hit by a flash crash triggered in the Far East last night. Revenge can be sweet if eaten cold. But meanwhile the Yuan is sliding steadily, and may soon breach the crucial 6.7 RMB level against the dollar. China is selling off foreign currency reserves and gold to support the Yuan. One imagines president Xi jing-ping, and premier Li ke-qiang must be watching a little anxiously. The raid on sterling might well trigger counter measures. The concept of ‘face’ exists both in the East and the West.

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  2. Thanks for the very thorough discussion of face.

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  3. I appreciated your article.

    If you cause someone to lose face in the Chinese culture, how can you repair the relationship?

    Can a country cause China to lose face? If so, how can it be repaired? For example,
    I have been told that many Chinese believe the U.S. humiliated their country in the 1800’s. Can this ever be repaired? If President Obama had atoned for our actions when he visited China would that have sufficed or would it cause China to see the U.S. as weak?

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    • Hi Mike,

      Fixing relationships in China is not always straightforward, as it may not always simply relate to the relationship between two people, but potential public losses of face. So even if you apologized to a person privately, it may not be enough if they feel they have lost face in a public setting. Sometimes in China i’ve seen public apologies and companies or among families. Sorry if I can’t give a more comprehensive answer here.

      Regarding your second question, countries can indeed cause China to lose face, which is exactly what happened over the last 200 years starting with the Opium Wars. Western countries DID indeed humiliate China, though I believe the US played a lesser role than that of European countries. A US president would not be directly expected to atone for those actions, but China would appreciate acknowledgement of the humiliation, as well as respect as it continues to develop on the world stage.

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  4. I’m chinese but was brought up overseas. The concept of face is a strange idea to me. The fact that you need to gain approval from others for your action is silly.

    If you disagree with your supervisor, it’s just that, you disagree. It shouldn’t be viewed as a challenge of authority but rather a different way of looking at the same thing. The world does not operate in monotone.

    More importantly, face turns things into being subjective when being objective is what gets you results.

    Status symbols are also just an illusion. Do you really think that by driving expensive cars, you are automatically rich? Let’s think about that for a moment.

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    • Thanks for commenting. From my own point of view I can certainly agree that certain aspects of the Chinese concept of Face don’t always make sense. However, our own points of view do not, and will not, change how the Chinese people view things.

      You mentioned “getting results”, which I also agree is very important. So what will get us results in China? Stubbornly sticking to what we view to be “the right way” to do things? Or, perhaps adopting methods that the Chinese find easier to accept? My own experience shows that the Chinese appreciate attempts to adapt to and appreciate their own culture, as opposed to someone telling them that “their way is wrong.”

      After all, the world is not shaped by one objective definition of right vs. wrong. Instead, it is shaped by the subjective opinions of millions and millions of people. Our own opinions will not often line up with others, and that’s ok. We simply need to find the patience to try and understand others, and figure out the best way to get things done, wherever we are.

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  5. A Chinese colleague (my same age) aligned herself with an American ‘bully’ in the workplace and I believe over time the American had ‘soured’ the Chinese coworker against me, when for many years we got along very well. In a recent circumstance, the Chinese co-worker scolded me in a crowded hallway full of others for something I truly did not do. I was hurt– feeling a tremendous amount of injustice. An honest apology would have remedied the circumstance on my end. I waited more than a week. None was offered.

    I had suffered at the hands of the American bully for so long, that the latest incident led me to seek help from the boss; NOT as a tattle tale, but to help me survive the vicious organizational culture. I simply wanted to know how to navigate these tumultuous waters. In the spirit of leadership, the boss suggested we all gather to sort through this. In short, the Chinese woman lied and I sat there stunned. I looked at her and respectfully said, “You and I both know the truth. Evidently you choose to remember it a different way.” I could see that this was going no where and the boss’s efforts for a peaceful resolution crumbled. We all left the room in silence and the Chinese coworker has not spoken to me since (It’s been a year).

    I’ve made repeated attempts to be respectful and polite—not forgetting what she did, but trying to take the ‘high’ road. I am a forgiving person and we’ve all made mistakes. She walks past me in the hall or ladies room like I am invisible. I understand the concept of “face,” but she embarrassed ME—so how is it that she sees this as my fault? I am a very productive employee and I don’t need her to validate my role. I am just trying to understand the extended cultural nuances here.

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    • Rita, thanks for commenting, and I’m sorry to hear you had this experience.

      First of all, there may not be any specific Chinese cultural element to this problem. Just like in other countries (e.g. your American bully), there are Chinese people who are rude and abuse others. If this woman you mentioned has taken up with negative elements in your office, that may explain her rudeness and willingness to blatantly lie.

      I can’t comment too much more as an outsider to the situation, but it is also possible that what may have been a minor situation (to her) or a simple cultural misunderstanding, was then escalated when you brought in the boss, which in theory could have made the woman feel even more that she lost face (if that was even what happened to begin with).

      There are indeed many differing understandings of Face among the Chinese, so it is not always clear why one give person acts a certain way. If possible, it might be more useful to consult with Chinese coworkers in your office (who you are on good terms with) and see if they can provide you with any insights.

      Hope this helps!

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  6. Thank you for shedding some much needed light on this very sensitive topic. Much appreciated.

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    • Thanks very much for commenting! Face can indeed be a sensitive issue and its always helpful to be able to grasp its implications when doing business in China. As many countries outside China, especially in the West, have less traditional views on respect, honor and the like, experiencing Face in China can indeed be shocking. So its always best to prepare – I am glad this article is able to help serve that purpose.

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  7. This sounds like the old South (USA) way of life. Respect and honor you parents. Don’t walk with people that are doing bad things or you will be viewed as one. Respect the police, or anyone else in authority. Put on a positive face and work to resolve your problems. Solve your problems your self. Don’t rely on the government to support or control you. We have this here, most of USA just does not want to use this concept because they have lost face.

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