To celebrate Chinese New Year, a post about the importance of 'face'.
Q: What, in your opinion, is the most important thing to remember about doing business in China?
A: There are two concepts that are vital to know about if you’re going to be doing business in China: the first is ‘mianzi’ or ‘face,’ and the second is ‘guanxi’ - which we’ll call ‘networking’. Let’s start with ‘face.’ It’s probably the most important concept to grasp when doing business in China.
Q: What is it, exactly?
A: ‘Face’ is prestige - respect received from others and respect given to others. One’s reputation is also part of ‘face.’
Losing face for the Chinese has a far greater emotional impact than what we in the west understand as ‘shame’ – and in China, everyone has to preserve face at any cost. A public insult, a reprimand or a personal affront will obviously lead to a loss of face. But a contradiction, a rebuff, or refusing an invitation might also cause a loss of face. Even accepting a new idea can be perceived in some quarters as a loss of face. Losing your temper, or in fact showing any strong negative emotion, constitutes a serious loss of face for both the one losing his temper – and anyone caught in the crossfire.
Q: How does this apply to me and how I behave?
A: It may be worth keeping in mind that simply saying ‘no’ to a request could be perceived as an insult – and hence, a loss of face. So if you can’t grant a request, propose an alternative.
Q: Such as?
A: Let’s say that after a long and successful meeting, your Chinese colleague asks you to dinner. This would mean that he wants to conclude the agreement at a more personal level. But let’s say you can’t accept his invitation, as you need to meet with his competitor or review the accounting papers he gave you. Both are valid reasons – but you can’t use them.
Q: What should I say instead?
A: Use words like ‘inconvenience’ or ‘difficulty.’ You could say something like, ‘I’m very sorry, it will be difficult this time,’ or ‘it’s not very convenient today.’ Then add something like, ‘Why don’t we do it another time? What about next Friday? Let me invite you.’ In which case, of course, you would host.