Last week a student admitted she hadn’t read the assigned class readings – in front of the class, no less. And one of the managers who I coach also told me he hadn’t done his assigned work after our last session. Not particularly important issues, actually. It would be a rare student indeed who was always up on every reading assignment all the time and business people do have priorities other than their coaching sessions.
But these were not casual, toss-off statements intended to sluff off the situation and get me to move on. In both situations, it was plain from the looks on their physical faces that they’d lost face. Westerners might best understand the concept of face, or mianzi, as something akin to feeling embarrassment. But here, it’s something far deeper, a concept that deals with issues of self-worth, social value, and public manifestation of personal moral standing. And it pervades handling relationships for anyone doing business here.
A few months after arriving here, my secretary was having a problem getting her computer word processor to do something she wanted. She asked my advice. I don’t have a clue any more what the issue was, but it couldn’t have been too complex because I resolved it and showed her pretty quickly and directly. She didn’t like that or it didn’t mesh with what she thought the answer should be. So we invited my secretary’s friend, the receptionist seated nearby, to come over and offer some insight. The receptionist said something to the effect of “Hey, no problem. You just do …..” Which happened to be exactly what I’d suggested. Result: Secretary loses face because she was incorrect in her analysis and which was compounded by a colleague not supporting her in front of the boss.
A pretty small issue, right? Insignificant in the scope of most corporate battles. Five years later, I learned that the two women, with whom I’d separately kept in contact, had given birth within two days of each other in the same hospital. So I made some comment about that kind of synchronization really being a sign of friendship, only to be told “Oh, no. We haven’t spoken since that computer issue…”
Zounds. A perfectly good friendship destroyed over an incident that probably last no more than a couple of minutes and which I didn’t even remember. Different people certainly have different levels of sensitivity to face issues but plainly there wasn’t a high threshold here.
Consider the vast array of business situations – negotiating contracts, working with government officials, deciding organization strategies with partners, delivering performance reviews to local staff – which have the potential to cause a loss of face. Couple that with understanding that face doesn’t just apply to individuals, it applies to organizations. Followers of Chinese politics can certainly see the concept manifest itself in public pronouncements (or lack thereof). It’s often because of face issues in negotiations that westerns see their Chinese counterparts as immoveable and stubborn.
Understanding face and being able to work with and around it is a key component of successfully navigating business and living here. Westerners and western-based companies certainly have similar issues – convincing a boss or an organization to admit a screw-up is difficult under any circumstance – but doing so can be orders of magnitude more challenging here.