Culture Shock: Saving Face


You may have heard of a cultural concept that is common in Asia called face. Face or mianzi(面子) is something that you will run into or have to get used to while you spend your time here in China. Face is very important to Chinese and it is important to not only give face to others but to not lose face either. Once you understand why face is important to Chinese people, it may make it easier for you to understand certain behaviors(or only solidify your position). So what is face and how can you deal with it?

What is ‘Face’?
Face equals reputation in most respects but it actually delves a little deeper than that. Face can also be defined as a sort of social currency. The more face you have, the more others think of you and the further you’ll be able to go. Since Chinese society is a collective society, face is not just for individuals, families as a whole can have ‘face’ as well. As a result children are expected to fall in line with the wishes of parents as to gain or at least retain face among their peers. 

How to Give Face
So now that we know what face is, how to do you use it to your advantage? Well, let’s first start by learning how to give face to another person. Giving face to another person is not as easy as it seems because it depends on both the opinions of the individual and others around. To give face to someone means to publicly complement or some other action that will allow others to see the recipient in a higher light. 

For example, if a team of employees celebrate reaching their sales target by attributing their success to the manager, then that manager would gain face with others that witnessed it. The manager himself would also have felt that he gained face as well. 

Pro Tip: Giving face is kind of like giving tips. You don’t want the tip(complement, gesture, etc.) to be too obvious but at the same time it can’t be too little either. Finding a balance is key to ‘“face-giving success”.


How to Take Face(Beware)
Now that we know how to give face, how do you take it? Well first of all, its best not to willingly take face away from someone(you’ve been warned). It’s important to know how to take face so that you do not accidentally take face from someone. If you are new to China you are more likely to make this mistake and you may be perplexed by the reactions you may get from your seemingly harmless mistake.

Taking face from someone is the opposite from giving face. This means publicly causing embarrassment for someone. What can be considered a loss of face? Loss of face can occur when  someone is publicly criticized for a certain action that they have or haven’t taken. For example, you criticized a co-worker during a meeting for their shortcomings. This will most definitely cause a loss of face. Also in most cases, when face is taken away it is attempted to be gained back by causing the original “face taker” to lose face at the hands of the original “face loser”. Ever see two people arguing over seemingly nothing in public? Usually tempers flare when someone felt that they have lost face or that someone didn’t respect their face, especially if this person is thought of as being “lower” than them. 

Benefits of Face
Social Currency
Face is great for advancing one’s self in Chinese society. As mentioned before, the more face you have the better off you tend to be. Also the more face you have the more valuable your acts of giving face are to other people. 

Side Effects of Face
Slowed Progress
Some from the western world would say that the concept of “face” leads to slowed progress. This is believed because face allows people to ignore the big elephant in the room in an effort to maintain face. Often times in China a solution to a problem will be completely obvious to you, but the problem still exists. This may be a result of face and the fear of someone contradicting a boss to correct an issue.

Materialism & Money

Since face is so important in China, status can help one gain face. Status is often made known to  others by the things that they own or are able to afford. It can be inferred that with China’s recent economic success, that Chinese are perceived to be very materialistic and driven by money over anything else. Is this materialism or love for money driven by face? Possibly but China isn’t the only materialistic country in the world either. 


The concept of face is a major part of chinese culture and whether you agree with it or not, it will most likely always be. That doesn’t mean that you personally have to take on this cultural trait to defend your face but that does mean that while your time in China or do business with Chinese people, face will be an issue that you will need to be aware of. The more aware of face you are, the more successful you are likely to be.