Why are Chinese so Concerned About Their Mianzi?
“Mianzi/面子”, meaning face, is something that Chinese people value the most in their interaction with people around them. We gathered some interesting facts about “Mianzi” from various sources. Please enjoy. And have a good week!
There’s a common saying in China that you “do not wash your dirty linen in public” (家丑不可外扬/jiā chǒu bú kě wài yáng). This saying is synonymous with that of saving face. When something disgraceful happens that could be harmful to the family name or the family, such as an unruly child, domestic abuse, a uxorious husband etc., Chinese would rather repress their feelings inwardly than speak out, for fear that if others knew that they would lose face, and be ridiculed (in broader terms, such “disgraceful” events that happen within China being leaked internationally can also be considered as losing face). This absolute concern about outward appearances can be taken to such extremes that people’s lives become a living hell. For example, when Chinese mediate their domestic disputes, you’ll oftentimes hear the following phrase: “swallowing a broken front tooth” (打破门牙往肚里咽/dǎ pò mén yá wǎng dù lǐ yān ), which is to say that they’d rather swallow their own tooth than spit it out and lose face in front of others.
Where Does Losing Face Come From?
The modern concept that ties face to the idea of honor and reputation is clearly related to ideas of Confucianism, but it is impossible to find the exact origin of the concept of face in Chinese culture.
Whatever the source, there is no doubt that complicated efforts to save face are part of every Chinese relationship, from business to politics, from friendships to families.
Westerners can easily misinterpret the idea of face as Chinese people simply being too sensitive or thin skinned.
But in reality, face is a complicated part of good manners in China. Failure to understand face may result in awkward situations and burned bridges.
Don’t Do Business In China Unless You Understand The Concept Of Mianzi
Sylvia Vorhauser-Smith over at Forbes recently wrote about the most important thing to know about doing business in China. It’s Mianzi, or the idea of saving face: “We can all relate to the embarrassment we feel when our flaws or failures are publicly exposed, but the Chinese (along with many other eastern nations) have a super-sensitive radar for this.”
She relayed a story about an American executive who publicly criticized a Chinese sales manager in front of his peers, and after that meeting, the guy never returned to work. It’s an extreme case of Mianzi, but it captures just how differently Americans and East Asian countries do business.
Ultimately, at the heart of Mianzi is fear — and that’s a powerful emotion that will drive people do irrational things, like quit a well-paying job over a personal embarrassment.
The concept of Mianzi from a business person’s point of view
If you check a dictionary, you’ll see that the original intended meaning of mianzi (面子mianzi) was a noun for the face, surface, or exterior of something. Later, the meaning of the word extended to include someone’s feelings or the face value of something. Finally, the word came to mean “fame”, “prestige” or “reputation”. In the daily lives of Chinese people, the meaning of face is particularly complicated, as giving face (or not) to someone oftentimes isn’t communicated directly through words, but is instead something that must be perceived through actions. The absolute concern over saving face (sometimes taken to the extreme) has truly remained a cultural phenomenon unique to Chinese people, and today it’s one of the few social elements left that is still inextricably linked with Chinese traditions that are thousands of years old. Unsurprisingly, foreigners upon seeing face-saving measures in action sometimes cannot help but shake their heads and judge it wholly excessive.
“Do not wash your dirty linen in public”
Your“face” is your position and standing in the eyes of others, and it also has to do with the degree of respect you receive. Face can also be saved up over time and used to accomplish things later on.If you drove a fashionable or luxurious car to attend a friend’s party, then the majority of your friends would feel that you had face. Also, if you can accomplish something through your personal contacts that others cannot accomplish through normal channels, you would also be thought to have face.You can gain face if you are praised by your boss, or if you accomplish a difficult task at work. However, if you greet others warmly at social events, but are met only with indifference, then you would lose face. Questioning someone else’s ideas or opinion in a public setting would cause that person to lose face.