Deconstructing the Myth of Chinese "Face" - 27th November

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Professor Wang Labao from the University of Western Sydney asserts that the Chinese ‘face’ is a very complex topic. One misconception is that it’s all about the physical appearance. It’s not! The ‘face’ in this context is actually what we present to others. It determines how we are perceived by other people and how we want them to see us.

In China, ‘face’ is very important. It determines whether you will enjoy a good reputation within your community. If you have ‘face’, you’ll be able to influence and lead the people around you and, most importantly, within your company.

When you have social standing and ‘face’, people respect you, look up to you and give you what you need. If you lose face, you will experience stigma and shame. ‘Face’ in China can be granted, given, lost and can even be presented as a gift.

Why is it so important for the Chinese? This has something to do with Chinese social values which are based on ‘Confucianism’. Some of the pillars of Confucianism are:

  • Courtesy

  • Sense of shame

  • Righteousness

The ‘face’ brings real material benefit. Those who have ‘face’ will be more likely to meet people with influence and build special relationships with them. Having ‘face’ not only brings honour and respect to yourself but also to your whole family and/or organisation. China is a collectivist society which means that everybody lives with the pressure applied by others (eg to get a good job, to achieve high marks or even to get married). In China, it’s never just about yourself.

Tips from Professor Wong...

  • Always be polite to your Chinese counterparts. Never lose your temper.

  • Pay attention to names and titles so as to address people properly/formally (eg Teacher Wang, Lawyer Tang, Chairman Yang)

  • Always be prepared to build a deep personal relationship. Be willing to talk about your private life to allow the Chinese to get to know you at a personal level

  • If you want to move the relationship forward with a Chinese person, invite him or her to dinner. In China this is regarded as a way to progress the relationship - a coffee or a beer isn’t.

Questions and Answers…

Is this phenomenon around losing face repeating itself in younger generations?

The economic reforms in China, and the impact of globalisation, is changing the way people see themselves. The phenomenon of ‘face’ arose from the fact that the Chinese used to live in villages, close to other people who would ‘apply social pressure’. Nowadays, the Chinese are free to move around the country, and even overseas, and they spend less time worrying about their neighbours. When everyone is a stranger, the issue of gaining or losing face is no longer such a serious issue.

How can you make a distant relationship work?

Face to face communication is a luxury. To a certain extent, a distant relationship has to be considered the same as a face to face. There’s a complication nonetheless: the level of English that is used by most people in China remains too poor for a deep relationship to be developed remotely.

How is technology changing the way we communicate? What role does technology play?

Over 60% of the Chinese based in Australia are using WeChat. It’s developing itself into a huge information dissemination channel. A lot of Australians who deal with China also use WeChat, it’s really powerful to link people together. You can give face on WeChat.

What about regional differences in China?

The regional differences in China are striking. You can find places which are struggling with the lack of opportunities and young people have to move to the east coast to find work. A lot of people in the western provinces are still carrying on older Chinese traditions, so you do have to apply some of the more traditional principles when conducting business meetings in more regional areas.

Coming Up

This was our last Roundtable for the year and we hope you were able to extract great value from attending one or more of our events in 2018. We are excited about what’s coming up in 2019, which includes some changes to the format and approach of our regular Roundtables, so please stay tuned here. For more updates, please subscribe to our newsletter here and follow us on our social media pages below.

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