David Dayton at Silk Road International recently posted a great discussion on the concept of “Face”.
I’ve heard some people simplify dealing with face into “just be polite and you’ll be fine.” This is certainly part of it, but has nothing to do with things that you can’t say in Chinese that are perfectly acceptable to say in America. And how do you politely and professional discuss lies, broken contracts, sub-standard samples, non-disclosed changes in production and unapproved production locations (sub suppliers)?…Face is not just being polite, it’s more than that. It’s complicated.
Complicated is right! “Face” goes hand in hand with “guanxi” (relationship). Both look to a long-term relationship – that words and actions are about building the future, not just aiming for the best deal (personally or professionally) right now.
One of the tricks to working in a very face-conscious culture is to let others know that you know their lying without actually saying as much. You have to show that you know more than they realized without publicly pointing fingers.
This is a good point. Pointing directly to a known lie will damage a relationship. Alluding to it subtly allows the other party to change tack without a confrontation. While the western sense of “justice” often demands that deliberate lies be outed and apologies made, insisting on this in the context of China will damage the relationship.
I have learned to say things like “how strange, I was told this document is no longer required, perhaps the rule changed recently” or “Miss Li told me it should only cost this much. I think the price might be different because we are hiring the whole building”. Such a sentence doesn’t reference the person I am dealing with at all – it shifts the reason for the discrepancy between what we are each saying to something outside our direct interaction.
Even when you’re in the right, you have to give them a way out and you have to keep your cool. It’s a VERY tall order.
Create an opening for the other person to put responsibility for the problem elsewhere, so they can move on to a solution. It can be hard to maintain the calm required to apply the concepts of “face,” however, when such grace is not extended to you in return. I have lost my cool many times, but I have found it more effective to avoid these confrontations. Sometimes yelling will get things done faster, but it damages my relationship with the individual involved, and, worse, colors their opinion of foreigners in general. Someone down the track may be treated more harshly because of a confrontation I instigated for my own personal gain.
David uses an example from his experiences with a Chinese factory, and resolving problems with the boss.
I then outlined the mistakes and problems in the sample process that he was responsible for. Of course, being the boss, he had no clue what had actually gone on in the trenches during the 6 months of samples—he’s only been shown the bills and been told that we were locked in due to the testing we’d done. But instead of helping, my phone calls and emails that pointed out all the details about his employee’s mistakes made him lose face.
In this case, the two sides of the dispute are working from different information. This distance from big boss to factory line is not uncommon and can have unintended consequences – the boss may honestly be unaware of problems created on the factory floor. (This is one reason we like to work with smaller factories, where the owner has a more hands-on role).
While everyone is polite now, and we still have the same price as agreed, my professional issues with the processes were never addressed. Of course, a factory employee has probably been dressed-down, but how do I know that anything has been taken care of?! And worse case scenario, what if the anger has just been transferred to the employee who will now sabotage things later? This is where having a savvy and trusted Chinese employee is invaluable.
No matter how long a foreigner lives and works in China, he will never understand “face” as completely and naturally as a native Chinese. The advice and perspective of “a savvy and trusted Chinese employee” can be invaluable. If we have trouble with a supplier, input from our Chinese managers on how to best resolve the tension in the relationship is invaluable. There can be benefit in leveraging both direct pressure from the American boss and softer persuasion from understanding Chinese employees. One person can point out quality problems, while another can smooth ruffled feathers.
Face is public, but retaliation is private and discrete. Problem solving “western-style” is completely unacceptable in Asia—confrontations, “open” discussions about the merits of various plans, brainstorming, finger pointing for problems and praising individuals for success, email trails with names and dates, etc. In short, personal accountability in a collective face-conscious society is not something you should expect to encounter.
This is not to say that face means no one takes responsibility for mistakes. The important thing to understand is that accountability and responsibility look different in a Chinese concept. Looking at a situation from a western mindset and insisting on behaving accordingly is an inefficient way of settling disputes. Even when a short term solution is created, there will be long term repercussions.