Face? What?

I’ll be the first one to admit that I just don’t get face.  My wife would certainly confirm that as well.  After I graduated and for my first few years working in Asia, I thought I knew what was up.  But as the years have passed and I’ve learned what the Chinese words I’m saying actually mean to Chinese people, I realize more and more that I have a long way to go before I’m fluent in Chinese Culture.

I’ve heard some people simplify dealing with face into “just be polite and you’ll be fine.”  This is certainly part of it, but has nothing to do with things that you can’t say in Chinese that are perfectly acceptable to say in America.  And how do you politely and professional discuss lies, broken contracts, sub-standard samples, non-disclosed changes in production and unapproved production locations (sub suppliers)? Even if you can manage to speak like Pollyanna you’re going to be nailing someone’s keister to the wall, canceling contracts, changing ship dates (enforcing late penalties) or rejecting thousands of dollars worth of product all in a second language or through a translator.

Face is not just being polite, it’s more than that.  It’s complicated.

We’ve had two factories in the last year try to change out approved product with cheaper un-approved product after we’ve had testing completed.  In both cases the tested product was clearly marked in sealed boxes, wrapped in shrink-wrap, labeled (in Chinese and English) and set aside.  Yet somehow the factory “mistakenly” used part of our product for someone else and then “replaced” what they used with substandard, un-approved inferior product.

When asked about it, there is always an excuse.  And we of course, since we live in the PC 21st century, we listen to all BS politely.  But even if we could agree that it was an honest mistake, how do we not get notified about a problem this large after 6 months of stringent testing?  How do the sealed boxes get “re-sealed” with our special tape?  How does our signature over the seals get copied?  How does product get replaced just coincidentally the day/night that we pass the tests?

One of the tricks to working in a very face-conscious culture is to let others know that you know their lying without actually saying as much.  You have to show that you know more than they realized without publicly pointing fingers.  Even when you’re in the right, you have to give them a way out and you have to keep your cool.  It’s a VERY tall order.  Sometimes too tall for me to deal with.

I’m reminded of Jim Gaffigan’s comedy routine when he laments that ethnically he’s “nothing.”  He claims that if you’re a Latino and you get mad it’ll be said that you have a “Latin Temper.”  But if you’re white and you get mad then you’re just a “jerk.”  The same is true here.  If you’re Chinese and you say “Chinese people lie” it means you understand your own culture and you’re being street smart.  If you’re a foreigner saying it, you’re a racist bastard (trust me here; personal experience).  If you’re Chinese and you’re angry and threatening to foreigners in China it’s because you’ve been offended and oppressed for 1000 years.  If you’re foreign and you’re angry it’s because you have no culture/class and you’re making yourself and others lose face.

Over the years I’ve gone ballistic more than once when I’ve been straight-out lied too.  Sometimes we plan the fights, sometimes I can keep it cool and sometimes it’s like a 2×4 to the side of the head—out of the blue and almost deadly.

Sometimes people get fired, relationships are damaged beyond repair and all the previous work is lost (worst case scenario).  Most of the time, there is a big fight, a show, a reconciliation and then things move on.

Yet with all these pot-holes in the cultural landscape, what amazes me is that sometimes after what I consider a fight, a single phone call can “solve” it all.  For example, we had a supplier that decided that since we tested his product, we had no choice but to order from him despite the contracts (written by a Chinese lawyer in Chinese) he’d already signed. Other than one cultural unacceptable outburst in which I had a few choice words for him, I calmly laid out all reasons why he couldn’t raise the price (contracts in China and the US, personal agreements).  He responded that he had “invested” a lot of time into the sample process and needed to recoup his costs.  I then outlined the mistakes and problems in the sample process that he was responsible for.  Of course, being the boss, he had no clue what had actually gone on in the trenches during the 6 months of samples—he’s only been shown the bills and been told that we were locked in due to the testing we’d done.  But instead of helping, my phone calls and emails that pointed out all the details about his employee’s mistakes made him lose face.  We went from “best friends” to “we will never do business” with “foreigners like you” in two emails.  But one call and it was back to “we are businessmen, that’s how we talk” and “we’ll just work on the future not the past.”

While everyone is polite now, and we still have the same price as agreed, my professional issues with the processes were never addressed.  Of course, a factory employee has probably been dressed-down, but how do I know that anything has been taken care of?!  And worse case scenario, what if the anger has just been transferred to the employee who will now sabotage things later?  This is where having a savvy and trusted Chinese employee is invaluable.

When dealing with heated and potentially face-losing situations and their aftermath, just remember,  just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.  Sure, fear is irrational but it’s usually based on some actual previous experiences—in my case 10+ years of these kinds of experiences.

Face is public, but retaliation is private and discrete.  Problem solving “western-style” is completely unacceptable in Asia—confrontations, “open” discussions about the merits of various plans, brainstorming, finger pointing for problems and praising individuals for success, email trails with names and dates, etc.  In short, personal accountability in a collective face-conscious society is not something you should expect to encounter.  (I know, I’m a racist bastard for saying this.  Oh, well.)  But hey, now you know and so you can prepare for it.

13 Responses to “Face? What?”

  1. Hi David – a very interesting post.

    > But one call and it was back to “we
    > are businessmen, that’s how we talk”

    I’m quite curious about how this call went. Who was it made by? What was said? What wasn’t said? 🙂


  2. Douglas,

    Thanks for asking. It was me calling and apologizing–giving him face. It took less than 30 seconds and we were back to talking business. My Chinese staff told me that we had no chance either waiting for them or trying to resolve concerns issue by issue. I called and told him that I was sorry if anyone was offended (true) and that, us “straight talkin'” American’s are just sometimes like this (true). I said Chinese culture was very complex (also true) and a few other comments that seem to be what people want to hear. I was sincere–I was indeed sorry that we were not working together as I need what we’ve tested. Further, if telling the truth offends people then I am truly sorry about the current climate for communications. The whole call lasted maybe 2 minutes and we confirmed all the details within then next couple of hours. DD

  3. Thanks for an interesting post.

    Assuming you gave him back his “face”, did you maintain yours? In other words, you have written about “their” face in the course of making business but surely our face has importance which would reflect on their decisions?

  4. No, I lost face (in the Chinese perspective), as I apologized for things that I didn’t think were my fault or offensive. But I got what I wanted–the order placed at original prices so I’m not sure how to read this yet. You’re right, my face is an under-explored issue in all of this. I need to write a post on what I think US face is–it’s certainly real, and somethings I’ve found in Asia really are more important to me than I previously understood.

  5. Yes, there is no such worldwide accepted sign of face. It changes over the situation and depends on the individual too. Even a simple smile can express different meaning to different person.

  6. I know how you feel my wife is filipina and I’m trying to learn tagalog and learn the culture at the same time.

  7. Having a savvy and trusted Chinese employee is DEFINATLEY invaluable.

  8. […] Silk Road International Blog » Face? What? […]

  9. Great post. Another title could be “I got your face right here, _____!”

    One thing that often makes the other side stop and usually smile when they are throwing the typical BS your way is to say, “You’re not giving ME face…”

    I’ve had this discussion with close Chinese business friends, and the general consensus is “Business is business. Do what you think needs to get done to get to the next point, and move on. Face shmace.”

    We all have face of varying thickness, but when push comes to shove, it’s your back end strategy that usually saves your butt – and that’s simply experience, a level head, and immediate action.

  10. Hi, David. I am a Chinese teacher, and I am really interested in the culture difference between Chinese and Foreign. I am interested in this aticle. I also write a Dialogue about face problerm at http://languagecollaborative.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=134:module-web-page-cultural-differences-about-losing-face-by-xi-aina-diana&catid=63:chinese-mandarin-for-english-speakers&Itemid=81
    Douglas McCarroll is my boss, I work at http://languagecollaborative.com/. we’ve talk about your aticles about ‘face ” . and i am really interested about this . if you have time, could we talk about this someday in the future.
    my email: xiaina@yahoo.cn 🙂
    could you tell me more about that

  11. I’d love to talk with you any time. Let me know when is a good time for you.

  12. […] Dayton at Silk Road International recently posted a great discussion on the concept of “Face”. I’ve heard some people simplify dealing with face into “just be polite and you’ll be […]

  13. An interesting read. It seems you must have quite a vested interest in your relationships in order to endure such tomfoolery.

    I’m not sure if i agree however, with the idea of playing by their rules. Chinese have next to no business sense as all those managers and owners you deal with were brought up with the iron rice bowl. Now that that’s over, they’ve gone back to their serfiash ways relying on childish concepts like “face” to do business. It’s a bit like if Westerners had jumped from the mindset of the roman empire to the technological age with no chance to adapt new social methods to their new situation.

    Chinese companies and their economy cannot survive without the West. this is an export nation after-all. So it is not the western business that have to adapt to Chinese ways, it is they who have to adapt to ours. Call them out.Assign blame. Embarrass them. Modern China was not created by the Chinese, it was created by the West.
    f they don’t like that rude awakening, make your stuff somewhere else. Really, they have little choice to do anything but to learn how to be ethical and accountable. When someone wants to complain to me about losing face etc., I tell them to “grow up” and all other Westerners should too.