When to Hold Your Tongue: The Importance of Respecting “Face”

When to Hold Your Tongue: The Importance of Respecting “Face”
Sep 20, 2016 By ShanghaiCityGirl

Although I have been in China for 2.5 years and feel like I've changed a lot, there is still one thing that gets me into trouble. I am brutally honest and straightforward. And this trait is NOT in high demand in China. If you want to get along with locals, the #1 rule is never cause anyone to “lose face” by telling them the truth and pointing out their mistakes. Even if you do it by accident, it will be an infraction not likely to be forgiven.

And don’t think that maybe in a working environment your Chinese colleagues will be willing to meet half way in order to make a change for better. When I was trying to teach the kids in our high school some basic manners like saying “please” and “excuse me,” I later found out there was a long report written, depicting me as “China’s Public Enemy #1.”

Don't Hurt Me With the Truth

The best example came from last Friday’s staff meeting. One of my European colleagues addressed a hygiene issue. He suggested a boot camp to teach our students to use the public toilet decently. After all, they will go to the USA next year, so it is not only for our sake but for theirs as well,. But the majority of the Chinese staff reacted with utterly disgusted facial expressions. Apparently we crossed the line. Although we did not “challenge” those kids directly, the Chinese staff felt offended on their behalf.

Back in 2013, Taiwanese singer Yoga Lin Youjia pointed out this issue in his song “Lie.” Its popular line that became one of the top 10 Chinese buzz words in 2013 was “rén jiān bù chāi.” It is again an abbreviation of a longer sentence that goes: rén shēn (life) jiān nán (hard) bú yào (not) chāi chuān (expose, unmask, tell the truth). So the full expression is: Life is so hard, don’t hurt me with truth.

Where is the Line?

From my observations, though – even some Westernized Chinese people get confused from time to time. My Chinese teacher- now a class teacher in the same school where I work- couldn’t get over this one fact. She is not allowed to give real feedback to Chinese parents about their kids. Even though she is a local, and believes they would only benefit from the truth, she can’t “hurt” the parents. Just because rén jiān bù chāi. And I know her pain because in my previous job I got in trouble AGAIN for the same reason. After writing the monthly report on our kindergarten students in which I pointed out that some of the kids had “special needs,” I was informed that I seriously insulted the parents.

Yes, life is hard. To us Westerners, it seems obvious that owning up to our mistakes is the best way to learn. And hopefully this makes life easier. But the concept of losing face in China is something we have to accept. There is no compromise. “A person needs a face just as a tree needs its bark,” – that’s what we should have in our minds.

This is China!

Just now, as I was writing this episode, my friend from the US texted me. She said that the parcel she sent me LAST YEAR arrived in China, but for a mysterious reason I never received it and it got directed back to Denver. And it came back AFTER A YEAR. She asked me if I could maybe go to the post office in my previous neighborhood and ask for some explanations, because “it is obviously their fault!” I told her TIC – This is China! And I'm not even surprised. Nor will I dare to confront them for obvious reasons. We are still mystified about the parcel’s fate during the past year, but maybe it's better not to know the truth. Wǒ de rénshēn jiānnán bú yào chāi chuān

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Keywords: China saving face China respecting face


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Interesting subject this remains to be. I myself, being a foreigner, had a similar experience whereby a Chinese colleague was blaming me for misplaced documents that, in fact, he had misplaced himself. This discussion took place amongst colleagues, so really I was the first to "lose face". That said, I do wonder how that would work in the future whereby China is opening up to foreign talent and seemingly expecting those people to comply with creating a distortion field of this sort. Of course, we foreigners are indeed guests that should adapt to our host's culture, but it seems to me that if China really wants the above to become a success some leeway should be given as well and I just don't see that happening, now or in the future.

Oct 25, 2016 17:44 Report Abuse



I will only respect their 'face' when they respect mine. Any Chinese who points out my flaws (that I am aware of, we all have flaws) can expect me to do so in return. Then no amount of stomping and shouting and "you hurt my feelings" will cut it, you are a moron and I hate you, now get lost.

Oct 04, 2016 18:31 Report Abuse



Good article

Sep 23, 2016 17:23 Report Abuse



I do understand one thing about Chinese parents. They will look (most) for any opportunity to extort money from foreign teachers/workers and will look for ways to make themselves look important. I have a teacher friend who corrected a little emperor in his class. The child was disruptive in class but this day he broke parts from a window sill in the classroom. The broken laminate was sharp and could have harmed the child and other children. The teacher spoke to the child about his action and ask him to move from the area. The child started crying. His mother ran to the viewing window and the other parents told what really happened. The boys parent was embarrassed by what her child had done and that the teacher had, publicly, corrected him. She complained to the school and they requested that the teacher leave the school. When he would not accept their offer to end the contract and pay him for the full month, They refused to allow him to the school and ordered him from the school apartment. They then offered pay for part of the month and gave him and his wife till the evening of the next day to sign the agreement and leave the apartment. Holding his pay till he signed and left. You see, many parents in China will look for any reason to get extra money. They will even use their children. This school released the teacher to avoid paying the parent for the embarrassment. They refused to pay the remainder of the contract to save face. (The teacher demanded the contract be paid in full as was in the contract and to have the 30 day period to secure another apartment and to have time to move) And no, the local court would not hear the case. The parents of the child were drinking and card buddies of the main investor of the school.

Jun 15, 2015 13:13 Report Abuse



Great Article. I'd rather be hurt with the truth,than a lie but some people like to bury their head in the sand and pretend problems do not exist .How can we ever change or improve with this attitude? Chinese people in general are not the sharpest tools in the box.They have no mind of their own.

May 24, 2015 12:39 Report Abuse



You're going to change China?

May 24, 2015 23:14 Report Abuse



We get that feeling because the education system in China doesn't allow for the kids to think on their own despite the fact that all of them can. It's even worse when they become adults. Losing your job because you failed to copy everything your boss says even though you know its inefficient is something not accepted in the west.

Jan 22, 2017 03:26 Report Abuse



Bravo. I lost a good job by telling the truth about a kid. Oh well, never again.

May 22, 2015 21:54 Report Abuse



Since your students are going abroad to study, I'm going to assume you work for a private school/center/agency with a high price tag. Most likely you're not allowed to tell parents their kids are special needs because that would mean they'd have to refund the retainer and change to an institution with special ed services (such as expensive international schools or homeschools). As far as a bootcamp for toilet usage...that seems rather harsh. Can you imagine having a bootcamp for "how to squat in China" in the US prior to coming here? I'm sure your employer wants to foster the kids' desire to go to the US, not make them feel uncomfortable or embarrassed of their habits when they already know to expect a culture shock. I think your points are not so much about losing face as they relate to simple sales strategy.

May 22, 2015 15:45 Report Abuse



I would feel even more awkward if I had to teach how to squat properly in a loo. Did the author really intend to demonstrate toilet etiquette in details? Haha. What an idea. For me the idea of teaching kids toilet etiquette is also far behind the education boundaries. Yes, exactly it may be embarrassing for many people so just skip it please next time. Many people that come to China must feel at least a bit superior over the Chinese but in many cases it is the other way round actually.

Sep 20, 2016 22:04 Report Abuse



Eastern Face vs. Western Dignity. Dignity is for everyone, and keeps relations smooth. Face is only for the "welly impotent possum", and keeps the slaves jumping at their whim, as the bullies are justified to take offense at any time. Receiving gratification is not a basic human right, but try telling that to the princelings.

May 21, 2015 21:52 Report Abuse



And yet Chinese love to point at foreigners' flaws or mistakes, it is soooooo funny to call the foreigners fat or giants, it is hilarious to let them know when their Mandarin is not perfect. I guess foreigners are expected to give face to Chinese, but not to benefit from it themselves.

May 21, 2015 21:31 Report Abuse



Said two thousand years ago by a well known chinese philosopher. "The petty man boasts non-stop, yet he asks for trust. He lies, yet expects affection. He behaves like animals, yet demands to be respected." Xun Zi (310 BC-237 BC)

May 21, 2015 11:41 Report Abuse



"Petty Man" is ancient chinese's equivalent of today's hypocrite, low life, scumbag... I am wondering how many of today's mainland chinese fit right into this description...

May 22, 2015 11:15 Report Abuse



I have yet to meet one who doesn't.

May 22, 2015 16:14 Report Abuse



"Life is so hard, don’t hurt me with truth". This is just a pathetic excuse for laziness and is a classic example of the Chinese mindset which tries to justify all their selfish and rude behaviour.

May 21, 2015 10:06 Report Abuse



Just shut up and collect the money.....like the Chinese do....

May 20, 2015 14:53 Report Abuse



Very well written about face. And it highlights the issue facing (lol) China. If everyone is too afraid to rock the boat and disturb the harmony (lol) to deal with some real problems, how much really can China improve? Extreme face will at best lead to "band aid" solution for problems, or at worst will make nobody deal with the problems until it is too late.

May 20, 2015 10:32 Report Abuse



It's already started, look at the new generation.

Sep 22, 2016 13:14 Report Abuse



Liked what I read so far. If you are looking to knock the writer then the fault is yours. If you are intelligent, you can get it. The second example is a perfect example of the uphill battle many of us are facing. Working in education, you would think it would be automatically assumed that we(teachers) are expected to correct and improve habits and skills. I explain to my students why it is necessary for them actually know how to do something themselves versus just asking a friend to do it for them or searching the internet for the answer. Getting Chinese to use their brains is not easy.

May 20, 2015 07:03 Report Abuse



If you are talking about the report with the student with "special needs" then the issue was most likely more to do with how the information was presented rather than that it was said at all. I work at a primary school and have seen first hand multiple instances of parents being brought to the school for a meeting to be told that their child is different and they should send them to a specialist to help address exactly what the problem is. Parents react in different ways but the school or teachers would never shy away from it if is true, they do what needs to be done. The same is done with students whose behaviour is an issue, and these types of meetings occur much more frequently especially in first grade to try and stop it as soon as possible. In my opinion, the issue is that the Chinese teachers understand the culture in ways we do not and are able to present the information in the correct way. It also does not help that foreign teachers generally do not have a very good reputation in China so parents are less likely to listen.

May 20, 2015 19:44 Report Abuse