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Mianzi – The Concept of Face in Chinese Culture

mianzi-china-mask

Do you work with the Chinese?

Then you really need to get to grasp with the importance of face – mianzi – in Chinese culture.

Understanding how the Chinese communicate, how they like to share information and what behaviours they expect from those around them can help enormously in building solid professional relationships.

Face is so central to the Chinese that Lu Xun, a 20th century Chinese writer, described it as the “guiding principle of the Chinese mind”.

For the Chinese it is so core to their way of life that they don’t even realise it.

However, when they come across foreigners who don’t quite understand it, problems can arise.

 

Did you know that The Business Culture Complexity Index™ League Table 2019 ranks China as having the 20th most difficult business culture for foreigners?

 

Mianzi. What is it?

Mianzi (pronounced something like 'mee-yan-zer') or face refers to a sociological concept we can find in many cultures that links the ideas of honour, dignity, self-worth and prestige that a person feels when in social situations.

Face can be lost, given or even fought for.

  • Losing face: being the butt of a joke, not knowing the answer to a question or being blamed for something publicly.
  • Giving face: giving someone a gift, paying someone a complement or showing deference (opening a door for someone or seating them at the head of a table).
  • Fighting for face: Arguing over who pays the bill at a restaurant, disagreeing over who is the more senior/experienced or trying to be the first into a room.

 

Within Chinese culture mianzi promotes trust and respect, which are crucial to gradually building guanxi, connections, which is the oil of that greases the Chinese economy.

 

Mianzi and Chinese Culture

Chinese culture is collectivist and group orientated.

One consequence of this, which very much derives from Confucian teachings, is that every individual has certain duties and responsibilities that are defined by their social roles (husband, wife, son, daughter, boss, employee, etc).

Everyone therefore has several social roles (one can be a husband, a boss and a customer) and therefore one has different mianzi according to each specific social role and the context or situation (i.e. one may have more mianzi with one’s employees, but less mianzi with one’s manager).

Mianzi should mirror your social role; if it doesn’t, that’s when cracks appear.

For example, in Chinese culture the man in a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship should be of superior status. So, if a man has a girlfriend who earns more money than him, this diminishes his mianzi.

The same thing happens in business. The Chinese are very aware of the level of mianzi they should project and if this is threatened, it causes interpersonal and communication problems.

A very simple example would be if a foreigner visiting China makes a comment to their host about not liking the food. For the Chinese, in their role as hosts, this would be taken as a slight on their mianzi.

 

Want to learn more?

If you want to learn more about mianzi and many other Chinese cultural concepts, then sign-up for our Online China Cultural Awareness Course.

It’s packed full of useful info for professionals working in China or remotely with the Chinese.

 

 

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