Losing Face in China – What Does It Mean?

There is a value that has penetrated through every aspect of Chinese culture – the concept of “face”.

Definitions of Face

Scholars have offered various definitions of face. Coggin and Coggin define it as a mixture of an individual’s self-respect and confidence; Leung and Chen believe face is “the respect, pride, and dignity of an individual as a consequence of his or her social achievement and the practice of it”. Professional communication scholar St. Amant explains it to be “an individual’s external public appearance”. Cardon and Scott concluded, “face relates to a person’s image and status within a social structure”. While most of the definitions here are straightforward, the definition of David Yau-fai Ho, the first Asian to serve as the President of the International Council of Psychologists, best shows the complexity of the Chinese concept of face: “the respectability and/or deference that a person can claim for him or herself from others, by virtue of the relative position he occupies in the social network and the degree to which he is judged to have functioned adequately in the position as well as acceptably in his social conduct”.

Ho also says, face is “a concept of central importance because of its pervasiveness with which it asserts its influence in social intercourse. As a result, it is virtually impossible to think of a facet of social life to which the question of face is irrelevant”.

Impact of Face in Business

The concept of face is, beyond all doubt, the root of overpromises in Chinese business culture. The promises of all the best deals – the most efficient service, the most professional team, etc – made by Chinese businessmen are designed to gain respect and reputation, which could be best described as “yao mian zi” in Chinese (Hu 1944:58). They firmly believe that parading their abilities and competitiveness, though they may not be as capable as they claim to be, can deeply impress foreign clients and will help drum up business.

The same is true of denying potential risks. Showing incompetence means weakness, and is a sign of losing face.

Losing face is more sociodynamically significant than gaining face, explains Ho. Losing face brings into question one’s moral decency and societal adequacy. Therefore, Chinese businessmen try through all means to maintain their face; namely their self-esteem and prestige. They do not point out the chances that they may fail to deliver something they have promised; they do not admit potential risks, claim that they can resolve every problem amid the transaction; and don’t even bother to ask for clarification when they are confused about an issue. All this is to avoid losing face, but results in promises that cannot be delivered.

As technological and economical changes bring the world closer together, business people who currently operate or plan to launch businesses in the Asian market, specifically in China, must be aware of the influence of face in business communication.

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