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Although in the West we talk about “saving face” on occasion, the concept of “face” (面子）is far more deeply-rooted in China, and it's something you'll hear people talk about all the time.
What Is 'Face'?
Just like in the English expression “saving face,” the “face” we're talking about here isn't a literal face. Rather, it's a metaphor for a person's reputation amongst their peers. So, for example, if you hear it said that someone “has face,” that means that they have a good reputation. Someone who doesn't have face is someone who has a very bad reputation.
Common Expressions Involving 'Face'
- Having face (有面子): Having a good reputation or good social standing.
- Not having face (没面子): Not having a good reputation or having bad social standing.
- Giving face (给面子): Giving deference to someone in order to improve their standing or reputation, or to pay homage to their superior reputation or standing.
- Losing face (丢脸): Losing social status or hurting one's reputation.
- Not wanting face (不要脸): Acting shamelessly in a way that suggests one doesn't care about one's own reputation.
'Face' in Chinese Society
Although there are obviously exceptions, in general, Chinese society is quite conscious of hierarchy and reputation among social groups. People who have good reputations can buoy the social standing of others by “giving them face” in various ways. At school, for example, if a popular child chooses to play or do a project with a new student who's not well known, the popular child is giving the new student face, and improving their reputation and social standing within the group. Similarly, if a child tries to join a group that's popular and is rebuffed, they will have lost face.
Obviously, a consciousness of reputation is quite common in the West as well, especially among particular social groups. The difference in China may be that it's frequently and openly discussed and that there is no real “brown-noser” stigma associated with actively pursuing improving one's own standing and reputation the way there sometimes is in the West.
Because of the importance that's placed on the maintenance of face, some of China's most common and most cutting insults also revolve around the concept. “What a loss of face!” is a common exclamation from the crowd whenever someone is making a fool of themselves or doing something they shouldn't, and if someone says that you don't even want face (不要脸), then you know that they have a very low opinion of you indeed.
'Face' in Chinese Business Culture
One of the most obvious ways in which this plays out is the avoidance of public criticism in all but the direst of circumstances. Where in a Western business meeting a boss might criticize an employee's proposal, for example, direct criticism would be uncommon in a Chinese business meeting because it would cause the person being criticized to lose face. Criticism, when it must be, is generally passed along in private so that the criticized party's reputation will not be hurt. It is also common to express criticism indirectly by simply avoiding or redirecting discussion of something rather than acknowledging or agreeing with it. If you make a pitch in a meeting and a Chinese colleague says, “That's very interesting and worth considering” but then changes the subject, chances are they didn't find your idea interesting at all. They're just trying to help you save face.
Since much of China's business culture is based on personal relationships (guanxi 关系), giving face is also a tool that is frequently used in making inroads into new social circles. If you can get the endorsement of one particular person of high social standing, that person's approval and standing within their peer group can “give” you the “face” that you need to be more broadly accepted by their peers.