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28 Apr 2010
Understanding Mianzi: The Concept of Face
by Ed Choong, dragonbn.com
Mianzi, or face, is a key motivator among Chinese business people. Face factors in to many actions and decisions taken in the business world, as well as in day to day life. To do business in China, you need to have at least a basic understanding of face.
In loose terms, you can think of face as reputation, honor or respect. You could also think of it as public image, particularly through the eyes of one's close connections.
Face can be given, gained, lost or saved.
It's easy to lose face. For example, face can be lost through a public insult or public contradiction or by failure to receive the proper level of respect. It is not really the act that causes a loss of face but the fact that the act is public, and there is public humiliation or loss of prestige involved.
Loss of face must be avoided. Sometimes, Chinese go to great lengths to preserve face. It's acceptable to lie to preserve face. In fact, lying is considered the better option, especially when it is understood that it is being done to preserve face.
You may have noticed how Chinese business people don't like to say "no" outright, even when that is their answer. This is because saying "no" would cause the rejected party to lose face. By not saying "no" directly they are preserving face.
One good reason for not doing anything that would cause someone to lose face is that it could result in some form of retaliation. The face loser may attempt to regain face by doing something to cause the initial infractor their own loss of face.
Face can be gained through public showings of respect or praise to a third party. See again how the simple act of giving praise isn't what gives face, it's the fact it is done publicly or via a third party. Face can also be gained by doing what others cannot do or by being exceptionally knowledgeable or wise.
In China, it is not just individuals that have face, the concept applies to companies and government ministries too. In this case, think of it as the organization's good reputation that they aim to preserve.
To learn more about mianzi, see the following article which does an excellent job of explaining face in non-business situations from both Chinese and Western perspectives:
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