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back to index backASIAtalk April,  2005


To Lose And To Gain Face – The Face Culture Of Asia

Everyone working in China has, at one point or another, been confronted with Chinese face culture. To make somebody lose his or her face seems to be the most terrible thing that can happen to a Chinese person.

"In China one is always ready to break a rule of law , as some Chinese managers of Western companies explained in a recent survey. In Western ears this sounds very opportunistic and seems to support some Western feeling that Chinese are cheating all the time.

At first sight, the recognition of the Chinese managers has nothing to do with the topic of this short article on face culture in Asia. But the face culture and the underlying reasons also explain the managers' statement that a Chinese person easily breaks a rule of law. Both phenomena have their roots in the social structure of Chinese society and are thus a deep expression of cultural norms and values.

Everyone working in China has, at one point or another, been confronted with Chinese face culture. To make somebody lose his or her face seems to be the most terrible thing that can happen to a Chinese person. Many a European wondered, at the same time, why we should not have face ourselves and why we should not lose it from time to time either. When I criticise an employee in front of other employees, he loses his face. What is the reason of this loss of face? What are actually the consequences? And why should this loss of face be more severe in China than in Europe?

Criticism at the behaviour of a person can develop very quickly into a loss of face, especially when this criticism is formulated too clearly and is expressed in the presence of other persons. Avoiding a loss of face in Asia can therefore lead to very indirect ways of expressing disagreement or discomfort. The person concerned is not told himself or herself about the misbehaviour or the mistakes. Instead another person in his or her environment is chosen as a recipient of the critical remarks. But if the recipient is a Westerner, the remarks are very often lost, as voiced criticism is in itself very weakly expressed. If I am asked, whether I do not have a problem at the Consulate and if I am not realising what the informant want to tell me, he just drops the matter. If, however, I carefully enter into the subject in a very subdued way, then I get nearer to the question and probably hear something important about some problems at the Consulate, allowing me to solve the question in the longer run.

In no society and at no moment criticism is easy for the person criticised, even if it is understood as a possibility to improve. Every European would feel the same uneasy way. Why is China different, why cannot criticism be expressed in an open (European or American) way instead of telling it to others - behind the back, as a Westerner would feel? 

Author: Dr. Hans J. Roth , Consul General of Switzerland in Shanghai

Source: InterChina newsletter - GAI


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