Lost in Face?

Lost in Face?
Jun 01, 2009 By Andrea Hunt , eChinacities.com

Etiquette in different cultures is important, and going to China bears with it a certain responsibility as a foreigner. On one hand, you could argue and say that as a foreigner you can get away with a lot of dysfunctions when it comes to cultural etiquette simply because you are clueless. Still, do not let your ignorance make you rude. Aside from mannerisms and customs in China that contrast exponentially from what we are used to, there are other things that are subtler. For example, you will notice as soon as your plane hits the ground in China that four people jump up, open the overhead bin, grab their suitcases and run to the front of the plane, a sign of hasty tactlessness. You might not, however, notice that the person has given you their business card with two hands instead of one with their name facing you, a sign of politeness.

confused guy
Photo: Brian Lane Winfield Moore

There are always 80 billion ways to mess up cultural etiquette in travel, and China is no exception. One of the most important issues when going to China or living in China is the concept of "face." As Westerners, this is a novel idea that is hard to understand and at times downright baffling. Some argue that we have very similar notions of dignity, but the Chinese take it to a whole other plane that even after living in China many years, can be hard to grasp.

In China, as we have discussed in other articles, when you are in China long enough, you get used to humiliating yourself on a regular basis whether you are at the restaurant, riding a train, or having an allergic reaction. It’s pretty hard to be self conscious when you get used to being stared at, or blatantly having someone next to you covering their mouth to hide laughter while shamelessly pointing right at you. Not having any dignity in China carries with it some sense of peace, however. If you have no face- you can’t lose it. I think it must be unfathomable for Chinese people when foreigners do things that blatantly make them look like blundering idiots, and on purpose. For example, for us the idea of dressing up like pirates and renting a paddleboat is not stupid, humiliating, and a face-losing endeavor; it’s fun.

Let’s investigate the concept of face and try to dissect it: for starters, face is a concept of dignity and reputation and with it you gain or lose respect from others. You can lose face, save face, and give face. This concept is present in virtually everything so knowing basics is important.

Diu mianzi refers to losing face, when what you do has been exposed to other people, and therefore a loss of pride.

Gei mianzi- this refers to the idea of giving face by treating someone with respect.

Liu mianzi- this refers to avoiding mistakes.

Jiang mianzi- refers to face given to you by others.

There are immeasurable common circumstances where foreigners could easily get confused. One of the main ones involves simple "yes" and "no" questions. This outlines a stark difference, because many times for us, direct answers are the most obvious route. However, in China, a straight-"NO" can be considered rude. Therefore, someone will respond with a "round-about- yes" to avoid having you "lose face." Sometimes this can be frustrating for Westerners when all they seek is a straight answer. For example, the airline may say the flight is delayed and not canceled. Furthermore, sometimes we prefer the truth and to deal with it accordingly instead of having someone protect our "face."

In addition, many times in Western cultures, we will tactfully disagree and present a different point of view, whereas sometimes in China, silence is used instead to prevent causing someone else to lose face. Do not contradict someone outright or correct him or her in a group as this can also cause someone to lose face.

One of the biggest differences, I think, is that in Western societies, when one person makes an error, they are expected to own up to the mistake, apologize and then fix it. The mistake is usually not reflected on the rest of the group but instead, only on that individual. Contrastingly, in China, someone might not point out a mistake so as to avoid causing someone else’s loss of face and the person who erred will not admit the mistake to save his own. This is very delicate and so pointing out mistakes even if you have intentions of helping someone can cause loss of face whether you realize what you are doing or not.


Man being silly
Photo: Lazurite

In China, usually people do not openly make fun of each other or joke in a way that would make one lose face. In many Western cultures, however insensitive, it’s completely acceptable to humorously criticize your friends or colleagues. People point out defects and make, whereas here that would in general not be acceptable. In England, you might point out how badly Johnny played in football that evening in front of all of the guys-not OK here. It is, however, OK to comment on weight gain and acne. Also, in Western society, we tend to laugh at ourselves when we have done something stupid and don't mind joking about how klutzy we are or how stupid our decisions were. Westerners tend to enjoy hearing about other people’s misfortunes and see character flaws such as clumsiness as "human."

Books and dissertations have been written on this subject and yet few Westerners will actually be able to unlock the vault of the "Face" cupboard. All you can really do is try to be respectful and do your homework before you came to avoid making an idiot of yourself or being disrespectful to someone else. Remember, you didn’t’ leave your country for more of the same, so be patient in understanding with the Chinese culture, and remember:

"The recipe for perpetual ignorance is: Be satisfied with your opinions and content with your knowledge."- Elbert Hubbard quotes

Stay tuned for the next article on Etiquette in China!

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china gives lousy face

Sep 20, 2016 09:06 Report Abuse



and never forget, you're our slave, and deserved victim!

Sep 20, 2016 09:05 Report Abuse



Yeah, not every action of the Chinese people should be ascribed to "face". After all, different Chinese individuals have different motivations and reasons behind their actions and behaviors.

Dec 12, 2012 00:57 Report Abuse



Also, "face" itself means different things to different people, this of course complicates the situation even further, as different Chinese can have different definitions of the concept.

Dec 10, 2012 20:14 Report Abuse



Well, "face" is a complicated subject, and I doubt many Chinese really understand it and can explain it well. In addition, different Chinese can have different opinions, morals and values, characters and personalities, and they also tend to behave differently. Some people are straight-shooters, others are not. Some people care more about "face", others, less so. I've lived in China for many years, and I have definitely encountered all kinds of Chinese from different regions/localities, different age groups, and different social/economic/cultural/education backgrounds. They can all be different. Just a few weeks ago, I went to dinner at the home of a new neighbor, and we had a quite honest chat about social issues/problems in today's China, including the problems many Chinese have. My new neighbor, a husband and his wife, were quite open and honest about these things in our conversation. I don't think this couple fits the Western stereotypes of Chinese people at all. There are many people in China that's like my new neighbors, as I know and have encountered many other people who are like them. Many of these people also tend to treat Chinese and foreigners alike.

One thing is for sure, values, moralities, culture, and things in general have been changing in China. Many things that are accepted now were not accepted in the past, and might not be in the future. And again, different individuals can also have different notions of the right and wrong. Region/local differences can also play an important role in all of these things.

As I said, I have ran into many Chinese who will take and also like a more direct, honest and straight foward approach. Many Chinese will also admit their mistakes outright and criticize others directly. I've also pointed out the mistakes of my colleagues in a quite open fashion before, and they were fine about it. They didn't have a problem with what I did, and still don't. I've also seen the Chinese doing the same thing to each other, and the results were fine too. These people didn't exactly become enemies because of some direct, frank and honest communication. So, it really all depends on the people and the situation. As for one poster who said that one can ease into a situation and make new friends by stealing someone else's food while they are eating, I am not sure about that. I think that might have been an exaggeration, or at least works only in very specific situations. I don't think it will work in general in China. Also, many people, especially the young Chinese, have been learning how to do things the Western way, whether in business dealings or any other things. And many of these people have good abilities, and they also know how to deal with Westernerns in general.

Finally, even in the West, things are not that absolute. There are many Westerners who would also prefer the indirect approach. "Face" is not a concept that does not exist in the West. Sure it's much more rampant in China, but it's also there in the West and other places as well.

Dec 10, 2012 20:10 Report Abuse



I should add that throughout her history, China has always been changing and new things have always been coming into China from the outside. Given changes, all kinds of chaos, and foreign influences have been earth-shattering and incredibly strong from the 19th century onward, to the present day, it is no wonder many Chinese have been thinking and examining many of the stuff in their culture, such as face, values, the proper etiquettes...etc. for some time now. Many people have also been working to change things for a long time now. Given China is still changing, it would be interesting to see how things are in the future.

Dec 10, 2012 20:56 Report Abuse



Just to be clear: in my previous post, I was talking about the many Chinese who have been and still are self-reflective and who have been and still are thinking and working to improve themselves and anything related to China. While China has always been changing and opening to and influenced by foreign things throughout her history, her changes and the influence from the outside have been much bigger in the modern times than before, which of course created a lot of uncertainties and chaos. That's why I wish these many good Chinese I've been talking about the best of luck. I hope they can succeed in bringing China out of the chaos she has been in and is still in right now.

Dec 12, 2012 00:05 Report Abuse



"In China, usually people do not openly make fun of each other or joke in a way that would make one lose face."

"It’s pretty hard to be self conscious when you get used to being stared at, or blatantly having someone next to you covering their mouth to hide laughter while shamelessly pointing right at you."

Based on my common sense, these two statements are contradictory.

Serious question: In China, does shamelessly pointing right at someone and laughing at them to their face not cause that person to "lose face?"

Can someone please explain?

Nov 13, 2012 16:58 Report Abuse



Been all around china,had a fair share of the sexy and pretty ones but none qualified as my better half like the one i met in Hefei.Its a shame hefei is not on the list

Oct 12, 2012 23:55 Report Abuse



I wanted to add something. Compared to your Chinese equivalent, you are a wealth of knowledge and experience of the world far deeper than they could have imagined. Use it. I flat disagree with the article based solely on the fact that you are not Chinese. There is nothing written down that you must play by the Chinese rules. Use good old fashioned merit, explain the culture difference, expose the face to them, speak directly about face. They know face quite well. It will serve you to bring it to the front of the conversation. Tell your boss, "You didn't hire me because I'm Chinese, you hired me because I'm not Chinese. If you want me to be Chinese, then I'll sleep during lunch. I'll work 1/4 as hard. I'll play on QQ when you are not in the office. I won't give you the straight answer. I will give you an answer that is not really an answer. I will avoid giving you a committed point- of-view. No, that is not me. My main advantage to you, is that I will tell you the truth. I will admit fault. I will work harder than any other employee at this company. I promise to always speak directly to you. I promise that I will not be Chinese." You will shock him, but he will think about what you said. He will return with more respect for you. I am absolutely convinced that even if you have zero management experience, but you were educated in the west, then your ability to manage is still far greater than any Chinese middle manager out there. I was at lunch with one of our Chinese (clients)investors, I turned to him and said, "an investor that doesn't do his homework is like driving a car blind-folded. We can help you with the research and analysis so really you don't have to do anything." Then I proceeded to tell him that large international corporations are taking over China, the small businesses will not survive, and that he is directly competing with companies who have teams of lawyers, experienced marketing teams, the most efficient management styles, people who do their research and know about Chinese culture. I told him it is his money and we are here to protect his investments. Afterwards he said, thank you, you speak from the heart and you speak from an investors point-of-view. Then he told my boss to keep me working closely on his project. We signed the contract. I tried the gentle, lies on top of excuses approach. The Chinese get mad when a foreigner does it. If you speak the truth, you will shock, but you will also impress. You're not Chinese. You're different. My family has a common belief, "The heart responds to truth." No one can disagree with you when you speak the truth. Heck, even Chinese bosses get sick and tired of not being able to get a direct answer from their employees. "I asked you a yes or no question! The answer is either yes or no!" That is what they're screaming. The west is moving east. Chinese bosses are watching and learning.

Apr 27, 2012 08:12 Report Abuse



Damn Right!!!

Apr 27, 2012 19:36 Report Abuse



You know what? Screw face! Go balls out. Living here for several years now and who cares? You're a foreigner. If you do something weird, or something to lose face, they are still mesmerized by you being a foreigner. The Chinese may not have the same quality of education as the western world, but they aren't flat out retarded. Really, despite all the TV shows and streaming videos of western culture, the Chinese are still learning about western culture. You can virtually be as vulgar as you want and just blame it on culture difference. Trust me, they still will want to be your friend in hopes of using you as their personal English trainer who works for free. Again, they're not retarded, just curious. They know you're different because you are different. China is not an up-tight society. The quicker you learn that it is ok to fart or belch around your co-workers the better. You can smell awful, you can pick your nose and wipe it on the seat next to you. They won't say anything. Actually, it probably won't phase them a bit. Just stay away from the three T's and your good. Tibet, Taiwan and Tiannamen. And really, you can talk about the three T's but at an appropriate time. Next time you're at work and you're feeling a little gassy, just let it fly. No one will flinch. A great way to break the ice, steal someones food while their eating. I'm serious, just walk up and start eating their food. Everyone else laughs their asses off and you come across not as an asshole but easy-going. Then let out a huge belch. You'll have 10 new friends by the end of the day.

Speak bluntly, they expect it. If you're wrong about something and they catch it. Just admit it. They find the honesty very refreshing. They know you're different, they are not sensitive people. Quite the opposite actually. You're a foreigner, so be one! Otherwise you will come across as up-tight and stuffy. "I don't want to offend anyone." Ha! My boss, in front of the whole company, pointed his finger at an employee and yells, "she's an ugly ghost!" Everyone starts laughing, and the poor woman is about to cry. Face? Blow it out your ass!

Apr 27, 2012 07:20 Report Abuse



I have been here for over 2 years and I agree 100% with Chaching. Manors are for the west, so just leave them in the west TIC. Watch and learn from the Chinese, then just do your own thing as to them you'll always just be a foreigner anyway!

May 25, 2012 20:13 Report Abuse


John Trimmer

After 16 years in and out of China and being married to a Chinese lady I am not sure of how many ways there are to loose face. Your relationship to your family and close friends is completely different than your relationship to that of a stranger. I tend to be very careful how I speak and react to a Chinese person until I know them well enough to where they know that I will not intentionally hurt their feelings.
In cases were I was asked advice about applying to American Universities really had to know the person well before I felt I could tell him the truth.
I advised Chinese student and other foreign students at the University of Florida for thirty years and know that they are not always prepared to enter our American academic system. My own nephew from Trinidad was completely unprepared to enter a premed program because of a lack of laboratory experience in both physics and chemistry. As an adviser I often had recommend remedial English or special courses to fill their educational voids.
At the University I could do this. In China I had to be very careful, especially if other people were present.

Apr 24, 2012 18:23 Report Abuse



I was taken for a " Beijing Duck" lunch by my friend on my first trip to china, my Skill with chopsticks was....ok, but obviously i probably need those training ones, anyway, my friend politely said nothing of my inept use of them,
A fter dropping something i made a comment as to her ability, she then quietly showed me " her " method, I improved .... a little.
A s it was my first time in china ( and yes i did do some reaserch) i was greatful for the face saving, and the quiet instruction.

going back this year.......more cities, more friends, more mistakes, i like the face saving, i know when i'm an idiot......mostly

Apr 10, 2011 10:25 Report Abuse



yes, face is important here in China,beause sometimes we feel that maybe it is not polite to point other's defect directly.but it is ok with friends,it is common we make fun of eachother here too especially between friends.

Jun 15, 2009 22:32 Report Abuse