If you read my previous article about the two concepts to live by in China, for sure you are interested to know more about this. As a powerful tool to understand, engage and flow closely with the culture, it’s important for me to share my knowledge on this topic.
I remember my first job in China, Dongguan. My boss at that time was the classical traditional one. I had no idea how to manage meetings with him. Besides, I’m a millennial and I used to be close with my previous bosses. This was totally different! And there were times I was thinking I was going to be fired. This was my first job abroad and he expatriated me to China thought LinkedIn. (In case you are wondering. YES. The LinkedIn thing works. But that’s another story). I needed to dig deep and understand more about his way of management.
In my experience I learned this:
“Face” or Mianzi is a social currency in China to do with the status of a person in a local community. Quite often it’s related to the title of a person in relation to an organization. Mianzi is socially constructed, which means it has to be evaluated from a social perspective.
This concept has an internal component (self or ego) and an external component (society).
- The first term refers to a person’s self-evaluation in relation to others.
- The latter refers to the moral standards, social hierarchy, and rules of conduct in a given social setting.
- The three aforementioned definitions show that “face” refers to the position, prestige, image of an individual in a society.
The Chinese language uses two different words: lian (臉/脸) and mianzi (面子). Each of them has a distinct, though somewhat overlapping connotation.
Broadly speaking, lian means “sense of shame in relation to social standards of morality and behavior”, while mianzi means “status, prestige, social position”. A person may have mianzi and yet have no lian. Lian reflects the legitimacy that an individual has within a given society.
A person who has lian will fulfill his or her social obligations and will be recognized by society as having moral integrity. The loss of lian, on the other hand, occurs when a person acts in a way that undermines the trust of society in his or her moral integrity.
While lian refers to an individual’s morality, mianzi describes a person’s status in society regardless of whether he or she accepts common ethical norms. Mianzi thus functions like “a social exchange currency” which can be gained, lost and given, depends on the social context in which a person lives and can be regarded as “an embedded aspect of an individual’s relations within a social system”.
Lian reflects the legitimacy that an individual has within a given society.
Mianzi is the measure of one’s position, prestige, and leverage in society. It is built up through initial high position, wealth, power and ability. These through cleverly establishing social ties to a number of prominent people as well as through avoidance of acts that would cause unfavorable comment”. (Chin Hu: The Chinese Concepts of “Face”).
It is important because it is the invisible social value of every individual. We have to note that in the West, too, social roles exist and thus social status is different, yet not to the same extent as in China. Interestingly, the question of whether a relationship can work if a woman earns more than a man is also discussed in the West.
The difference between China and the West is that, in the latter, social status and male superiority are hotly debated topics. To put it simply, there is no consensus on this issue, but diverging discourses. Social roles in China, including love relationships, have always tended to be more rigid, monolithic and pervasive than in Western societies.
For Chinese people, their perception in the eyes of others is very important. It decreases if we don’t know the other person. When relating to a Chinese, the preservation of face must be taken into account.
- Never, never say something bad or critic someone in public (even in private, be cautious.
- Never say no directly, never fire people… this would cause a “loss of face” which is hard or impossible to repair.
The face can also apply to a company or to a country. For example, there was a dispute between the Chinese government and Google. The latter refused to comply, this caused a loss of face for the government, hurting the feelings of the people. As a consequence, Google for many years has been doing a relatively small business in China but is not as big as in Western countries.
Mianzi is important because it is the invisible social value of every individual.
When we talk about status, we talk about face-work. In business meetings or informal gatherings, you need to know how to engage with other people, to give them mianzi.
In Western contexts, we talk about saving face. But we don’t understand what gaining face means. Gaining face is just the opposite of saving face. Saving face means you want the other person to avoid an embarrassing situation. But giving face gives the other party a sense of respect, makes them feel important.
Giving face is relatively easy. It’s about symbolic interactions like a few Chinese banquets, drink Chinese spirits, join company and business sports games and so on.
Although people often claim that Chinese society values harmony, the reality is often quite different. Due to the importance attached to propriety and “face”, people might argue over matters which in other cultures would appear trivial this is a really important issue to pay attention in social, personal an business interactions.