Even if you are not a learner of the language, but need to deal with Chinese people or are interested in their culture, it's crucially important to familiarize yourself with the concepts of harmony and face. Almost everything that seems odd, illogical, or downright weird for us about Chinese people interacting with themselves or with others, could be explained in relation to these two ideas.
Since both of these are large concepts, this article will focus just on face. I will discuss harmony in my next post.
Face, 面子 miànzi, or 脸 liǎn can be summarized as one's perceived position (or level of prestige) in society. It's not an internal, individual value (such as one's experience or expertise) but a very visible quality that has more to do with appearance. Some people like to compare it to a suit you wear. This is how you look from the outside, and it affects your interactions with others.
Hierarchy is an important idea in Chinese society (as one way to preserve harmony, the other big concept), and face shows one's position in that hierarchy. Age, power, fame and of course wealth all increase face. Connection to people who possess these things also can give you more face. Or even the illusion of having any of these can give you face. That's why so many Chinese people buy cars, phones or brand name clothes way beyond their actual financial abilities — because these items can make them "have more face," they can appear to be higher on the social ladder than they actually are. And while this may seem odd for Westerners, it's important to understand that it's not only about someone's vain attempt to look more rich, but these things can actually affect how that person is viewed by his or her peers and the level of respect s/he receives.
Knowing how to give face (and how to avoid losing face) is very important for all foreigners. As outsiders we are often treated with more leniency when it comes to the social code — more than native Chinese speakers are. Still, Chinese people are very sensitive about the issue of face, and not understanding this concept can seriously damage personal or business relations.
If you would like to build a good connection with a person, especially if it's a business relation or a person of higher social status, give them face. The easiest way is to treat them to nice meals and/or to give them gifts. Praising the person in front of others and doing favors are also great ways to give face. Formal politeness is also a sign of giving face. To the Western mind this might seem like an exaggerated form of "sucking up," but in Chinese culture, it is not viewed this way. Rather, it is a social requirement, and failing to give respect where respect is due would be considered rude.
Any kind of confrontation ruins face, usually for all parties involved. This can be very unfamiliar for many foreigners, especially Americans, but face is more — much more — important than honesty. Criticizing someone, or anything related to the person is considered rude, especially if it's done in front of others. If there's no way around it, any criticism should be discussed privately and in a polite and positive manner. The same rule applies to rejection, even those that seems banally simple for Westerners. If a person of face invites you for a dinner, you should not say "no," even if it's your wedding day! You can try to avoid answering on the spot, but even agreeing right there and finding a polite way to cancel later is still more acceptable than openly rejecting. This kind of behavior is often seen by foreigners as not only illogical but even downright repulsive because the lack of honesty. Yet, it's very important to understand that, according the rules of the face-game, the person was actually being thoughtful and polite by avoiding an awkward situation that would cause loss of face for someone else.
At this point, it may not be surprising that losing one's temper is another way to lose face, and it's also a way to cause others to lose face too. Getting angry is seen as a weakness of character and a lack of self-control. So even if you are justified in an argument, losing your calm will put you on the losing side. Also, if you get openly mad at someone, you will not only lose your own face, but you will damage the other person's face as well.
Another, even more subtle way to cause someone to lose face is to make a person appear as incompetent. This might sound complicated but if you ever experienced the situation where a Chinese person insisted on speaking English to you even when you were able to speak Chinese, then you can understand how it works. In this case the person is probably not only trying to gain face for themselves by speaking English (especially if their English is not good) but also trying to avoid making you lose face which would happen if you tried to use Chinese but failed. Would you have ever thought of that?
Of course, this delicate game of face-giving is only present in somewhat formal relationships; you don't necessarily need to keep it in mind when dealing with strangers on the street (though it won't hurt). In friendships the amount of attention given to the face-game decreases as the friendship grows stronger and more intimate. That's why it can look like Chinese people are more rude to those closer to them — the lack of politeness actually signals the closeness of the relation. You usually won't see family members saying "please" and "thank you" to each other for the same reason. This logic can be very challenging for foreigners, even when they know about the idea of face.
Now let's take a look at a few phrases about face:
给面子 gěi miànzi -- "to give face," i.e. to do something that makes someone else look more respectable
丢脸 diūliǎn — "losing face," i.e. any kind of failure or misbehavior that makes someone look bad
不要脸 búyào liǎn — "not wanting face," used when someone has done something shameful
Finally, here are some links to other articles about face:
I hope you found this post helpful. Next time I will talk about harmony, the other main concept that guides Chinese society.