Giving Face

Why is giving face crucial to your success in China?

I have shared my insight on Guanxi in my last blog and want to continue the subject by sharing the other major component and that is giving face (Gei Mian Zi). Guanxi and Mian Zi (Face) are complementary and one cannot establish Guanxi without understanding the art of giving face. Many westerners are bewildered by the intricacy and somewhat mythical on giving face in China.

Giving face is to consider feelings of others and to give respect to the person. It is no different from the mannerism and social etiquette found in every country and race. As long as one is approaching the other party sincerely and graciously, he or she needs not worry about causing the other party to lose face. Because of the unique Chinese culture and customs, many foreigners are concern of offending the Chinese unwittingly and causing embarrassment to both sides.

Why is giving face crucial to establish Guanxi? I like to link it to its heritage in Chinese history. Traditionally Chinese man is chauvinistic and takes great pride of being a man. He carries the family name and it is important for him to have at least a son to ensure the growth of the family tree. He is the symbolic figure head of the family and will not tolerate any humiliation to him and his family.

In ancient time, daughters or sisters were killed or driven out of the house if they had caused embarrassment to the family such as having committed adultery, pre-marriage pregnancy or even as a rape victim. The man felt so lividly that he had lost his face and could not face up to his relatives and friends. Now you know why it is known as losing face! In my opinion, the teaching of Confucianism emphasizes male chauvinism; and man must protect his honor, reputation and duty to his family and country. You will find such chauvinism in Taiwan and Korea too where Confucianism is prevalent.

Man was encouraged to take on a concubine if the wife could not bear him a son. Besides continuation of the family tree, he felt shy of not able to perform the task of manhood to enable his wife to get pregnant. He is losing face in front of his relatives and friends. Fortunately most men were poor and could not afford to have concubines; otherwise the earth is half populated by Chinese. And thankfully, the interactions with the outside world and the rise of woman liberation have degraded such mentality. The Chinese government installed monogamy marriage. It is the chauvinistic behavior that Chinese man does not take losing face lightly.

Thus it is utmost important not to belittle a man in front of others. It is intolerable and often leads to fights, hostility and breakups. If you need to speak up to him, do it privately and tactfully. Unfortunately most Chinese men are not accustomed to constructive confrontation and one must be careful on the choice of words.

There is another aspect that one needs to understand. The mentality and behavior of a leader has not changed since medieval times. Emperor could not accept any criticism on his mistakes or wrongdoings. This would demean his emperorship and open to possible revolt against his throne. He wanted to be worshipped as the Son of Heaven and all should bestow him with praises and loyalty. No one should question his decision and his instruction had to be carried out loyally. Any failure to carry out the emperor instruction would lead to execution.

These emperor mentality and behavior had been cascaded to all levels down to government officials and family heads by varying degrees.  A more senior position a person holds, a more authoritative he is. Respect is downright demanded and not earned. He is deemed to have the right to lead in his capacity as a leader and no one should deride his authority. After all, Confucius also advocated strict (or blind) obedience to leaders and elders. That is why he stressed the virtue and righteous of governance to win the support of the people.

Any insult or belittlement is considered damaging to a leader’s pride, status and legitimacy to lead. It has become habitual for junior staff not to voice any objection when the leader is making a statement or announcement unless he or she has been asked to offer frank feedback. The authority cannot be challenged. One may find many Chinese staffs like to refer to their leaders for final decision. This is a big setback as it impedes empowerment and proactive nature of the staff.

Henceforth one shall not ridicule a manager in the presence of his staffs if Guanxi has to be established. Notwithstanding, one need not have to gratify or faking acknowledgement with the Chinese manager either. The Chinese also need to listen and understand the position and views of his visitors. Most Chinese managers and leaders are aware that they cannot impose the submissive manner upon their foreign visitors. It is the good intention, amiability and tactful diplomacy to win friendship and trust. Giving face is a two-way process and must be consciously strived for.

I have listed some of the etiquettes below as guidelines to prevent making unwitting offence to the Chinese during encounter.

1.        First business meeting

a.       Do not try to be too friendly or casual in the first meeting with the senior management. They like to be formal and dignified.  On the other hand, you need not have to be stern and rigid. Just relax and make the meeting cordial.

b.      Hold the business card with two hands when forwarding it to the Chinese.

c.       Upon receipt of the business card, it is courteous to read the business card to know the person name and job title before putting the card on the table.

d.      Proper addressing is important. The Chinese get offended easily if they are addressed wrongly by their name and job title. The Chinese family name (last name) is often in front of the first name on the business card. For example if the person name is Chen Dawei and his position is a manager, it is polite to address him as Chen Jin Li (Jin Li is manager in mandarin). If he is a deputy or general manager, then he would be pleased to be addressed as Chen Zong (Zong is the first word for general manager, Zong Jin Li). Otherwise, “Mr. Chen” is sufficed to go by.

e.       It is good to have an interpreter to help you to pronounce your name and job title to the other party if you do not have Chinese translation on your business card.

f.        Sitting position. It is common to have a rectangular conference table with parties sitting on each side. The leaders of the groups sit in the center facing each other. The next key persons sit on the left and right of the leader.

2.       During discussion

a.       Try avoiding assertive words. The forceful approach could only make them more defensive and break the chance of compromising.

b.      Avoid forcing an issue outright and try not to accomplish all objectives in one meeting. Negotiation is a long process with the Chinese. Many times, the agreement is reached not in the conference room but on dining table when both parties are more relaxed and getting acquaintance.

c.       Giving a little praise or appreciation of what they have done for you will help to make the meeting amiable and constructive.

d.      On the other hand, avoid giving superfluous compliments as they would feel you are insincere and superficial.

e.      Listen and understand well of what the other party is saying. It is alright to have them repeat or clarify their statements if you do not fully comprehend. The interest in understanding the matter discussed depict your keen interest to engage them.

f.        Be factual and polite. As long as there are mutual interest and benefits, the meeting cannot goes astray.

g.       If you are planning to have a top down and one sided discussion, have the meeting restricted to one person from each party with a facilitator. This will ease the awkwardness from both sides.

3.       Lunch / Dinner

a.       The host would like to invite the visitors for lunch or dinner when meal time is approaching during the meeting. In this case accepting the invitation is essential as it is considered an appropriate thing to do. If you have an important appointment to make, be sure to let the Chinese party know at the beginning of the meeting that you need to leave at specific time. Rejecting an invitation is considered not giving face and would jeopardize the mission.

b.      Some American corporate has policy forbidding its staff from socializing with suppliers even accepting meals. This practice is not feasible in China. I will like to share a story from my ex-staff. He was from a very poor family when young. His parent could only afford to feed him meat at Chinese New Year only and it was a miserable small slice of dried pork. Unfortunately his relatives would visit them on the day and his parents would serve the meat to the guest. His mother would tell my ex-staff to look at the meat only and let the guest to eat the meat. Hospitality is a deep rooted culture in China and the Chinese would bring their best food to the table for his guest. Rejection from the guest is seen as despise on their status and would lead to termination of the relationship. It is not uncommon for some Chinese to invite his guest for a dinner out of his own expense instead of using the company expense. Take up the invitation and be sure to return the invitation the next time.

c.       The Chinese love to impress his guest with an extravagant and sumptuous dinner. It is usually held in a private room of a lavishly decorated restaurant. It is a sign of their hospitality and their sense of importance they have upon you.

d.      By protocol, the seating arrangement at the dining table is that the host (the most senior leader) will take the centre seat which is at 12 o’clock position facing the entrance to the dining room. The seat nearest to the door is at 6 o’clock position. One can find the napkin at the center seat folded differently from the rest of the napkins and it is usually the tallest and most elaborate.

e.      It is an act of courtesy for the host to let the guest to take the center seat. However you need to reject it politely and insist the host to take that seat to show your due respect for him. It never fails to please him. If the host insists persistently that you must take the seat, then thank him and take the seat.

f.        Seating arrangement goes by ranking and seniority. It is best to wait for the host to indicate the seat for the other members.

g.       Do not sit down at the dining table until the host takes his seat. This is a common etiquette in every culture.

h.      There would be many dishes of various kinds bringing to the table. The host would normally want the guest to taste first. It is courteous to taste the food and alright to tell the host that the food does not match your liking if you find the food unpalatable. Otherwise, tell the host how much you have enjoyed the food. Honesty is a virtue and the importance is to deliver it in a polite manner.

i.         If there is food that you want to avoid or cannot consume, you need to inform the host as soon as possible before he order the food. However by not eating most dishes and display of disgust at the food would upset the host greatly.

j.        The host will keep the dish coming as long as you are eating. It is a pride to the host to leave unfinished food on the table as a gesture that he has kept his guests well fed. Let the host know that you are really full and he would stop ordering more dishes.

k.       As drinking is an essential part of dinning, be sure to tell the host upfront if you cannot drink due to medical or religious reason. Otherwise you are expected to drink as a sign of fostering friendship.

l.         Toasting is ritual and you will find them taking turns to toast with you. Likewise you need to return the toasting individually starting from the most senior person in between their toasting. Dinner is a long process with all these eating and toasting. Be open and candid and you will find yourself enjoying the dinner with the accomplishment of establishing Guanxi and giving face.

m.    There is one subtlety about raising and touching the glass during toasting. It is a common practice for a junior person to lower his glass when touching the glass. It is a sign of showing respect. Hence if you are in the same senior position as the host, you can either touch his glass at the same height or lower slightly to show your humbleness.

4.       Accepting gifts

a.       Like giving dinner, sometimes the Chinese party would like to give you gifts as a token of friendship. With the understanding of foreign business ethnics, the gifts are usually of small dollar value such as tea, mementos or locally made souvenirs. It is a good gesture to accept the gifts to demonstrate the cordial relationship. And it is wise to bring some home souvenirs or company mementos with you for gifts exchange. This will delight the host wholly.

b.      However if you find the host is giving you a very expensive gift, you need to turn down politely citing the company policy as an excuse. Accepting an expensive gift is not face giving but an act of accepting bribe.

I hope the above guidelines provide a general understanding of how to engage the Chinese without making him feel awkward. The rule is simple. Respect is mutual and has to be earned just like any other places.

There are tangible and intangible benefits in rendering good face giving. Not only have you developed good Guanxi with a happy Chinese partner to seal a business deal, but also a long term friend who would help you in future when you could get into some distress or needing some advice. A good friend in China is definitely a plus factor.

Have fun in China!

    Posted on 24 Aug 2009

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