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Understanding Mianzi: The Concept of Face

Mianzi (面子) or face, is a key motivator among Chinese business people. Face factors in to many actions and decisions taken in the business world, as well as in day to day life. In loose terms, you can think of face as reputation, honor or respect. You could also think of it as public image, particularly through the eyes of one’s close connections. To do business in China, you need to have at least a basic understanding of face.

One of China’s most influential writers, Lu Xun, referred to face as “the guiding principle of the Chinese mind”. It is a term Chinese understand intuitively, while Westerners seemed to struggle to grasp its concept. In reality, the concept of face exists in many societies, however it more prominent and nuanced in Chinese culture.

In the Qing Dynasty, foreigners would threaten court officials when their requests were rejected, who would then comply out of fear due to the power of the West at the time. However when it was time to leave the Ministry, the foreigners were led out not through the main door, but the side door. This was done to not give foreigners face and implies that on a psychological level – China was superior.

A current application of mianzi is when your boss treats you to meal, you have to go. If you don’t give face, you can forget about advancing your career in that company. The concept of face can also be taken out of the business context. Traditional Chinese social roles dictates an embarrassment if a man’s partner is better educated or earns more than him. In this relationship dynamic, the man is losing face and suffers considerable social pressure.

Face can be given, gained, lost or saved.

It’s easy to lose face. For example, face can be lost through a public insult or public contradiction or by failure to receive the proper level of respect. It is not really the act that causes a loss of face but the fact that the act is public, and there is public humiliation or loss of prestige involved.

Loss of face must be avoided. Sometimes, Chinese go to great lengths to preserve face. It’s acceptable to lie to preserve face. In fact, lying is considered the better option, especially when it is understood that it is being done to preserve face. You may have noticed how Chinese business people don’t like to say “no” outright, even when that is their answer. This is because saying “no” would cause the rejected party to lose face. By not saying “no” directly they are preserving face.

One good reason for not doing anything that would cause someone to lose face is that it could result in some form of retaliation. The face loser may attempt to regain face by doing something to cause the initial infractor their own loss of face. Face can be gained through public showings of respect or praise to a third party. See again how the simple act of giving praise isn’t what gives face, it’s the fact it is done publicly or via a third party. Face can also be gained by doing what others cannot do or by being exceptionally knowledgeable or wise.

In China, it is not just individuals that have face, the concept applies to companies and government ministries too. In this case, think of it as the organization’s good reputation that they aim to preserve.

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