Face Value: the Chinese Concept of Mianzi

mianzi masks Any person or company who wishes to do business in China must become accustomed to the concept of Mian Zi (面子), or “face.” On a fundamental level it denotes a person or a family’s reputation or  prestige. There is plenty to know about mianzi. The concept of mianzi, is complicated and quite difficult to explain in words. Lin Yutang, a prominent Chinese Linguist, writer and inventor, says is a very difficult one to explain in a few sentences.

To understand the concept of Mianzi, one must know what is Guanxi as well. Guanxi is the concept of relationships. How these two terms play in the lives of the Chinese is is imperative to understand before beginning to work with a chinese company or starting a business in China. It is important because without understanding this very important part of the culture, you could either insult someone or end up disgracing yourself. Both of which would be bad for business or relationships.

There are plenty of resources online to learn about the concept of face, (wikipedia for example has a detailed description of this concept). However, this article is to narrate an incident that happened at one of my jobs which would lead to a clearer understanding of this concept.

One of my previous companies dealt with construction of power plants (thermal) for others. We were an EPC (Engineering, Procurement and Construction) contractor, and boiler system was provided by a Chinese company. The Chinese company sent their workers to India to build the boiler system of the power plant. While the boiler system was handled by the Chinese team, the turbine unit was from Germany. Needless to say, we had a few Germans on the site. While the German unit was highly schedule driven, the Chinese and the Indian teams took into consideration any family emergencies, illness, etc that were related to the employees. At one point, the German team was visibly frustrated with the developments in the boiler system and their manager took it upon himself to set things right without consulting us. He marched into the Chinese teams work area and yelled at the supervisor of not doing his job properly. The supervisor was visibly shocked and left the office immediately. He did not return to work for a week and we later found that he had asked to be transferred back to China.

mianzi masksThis incident led to further delays of the project, more than what was initially foreseen. Naturally, we were unhappy with the way things turned out and the German manager was called in for a review. He wouldn’t accept any wrongdoing on his part and had to be let go because of his attitude.

There are two sides to this story. The obvious side being the one of the Chinese supervisor. To the Chinese people, open criticism in the presence of their peers is a very hurtful event. Their pride is destroyed and they feel their reputation is lost. this leads to a loss of self respect or that they have lost face. In certain situations this kind of open criticism has led to suicides.  He feels his reputation is compromised. The other side is that of the German managers. By yelling at someone and not being in control of their emotions, he has lost face as well. Other employees (if he had been an employee of the Chinese company) would not want to work with him.

This incident led to a lot of issues between both camps and work resumed only after mediating between certain workers from both sides. One could argue on the side of the Germans as well, and it wouldn’t be wrong. However, the project was in India, another country where self respect, and self esteem are valued on the higher scale and it would have been appropriate only to learn and according to local customs.

For a company to be successful in China, mianzi is a fundamental concept that they should observe and respect. In recent times, there is no need for major worry for westerners or other foreign nationals as the influx of the western culture has softened mianzi. This has created another version of the problem. Saying “no” or accept that they will not be able to do something is also considered as losing face in China. Therefore an employee may say yes, but his entire body language might be screaming no.

Losing face is also a part of losing at something which you are supposed to be good at. From my time in Singapore, I have personally seen many parents look very disappointed in their children when they have lost to someone else in sports, education or any competition for that matter. If the event was something that was traditional to Chinese culture, the repercussions are sometime very extreme.

Taking into consideration the influences the western culture has had on the Chinese culture, it is difficult to realise who would take the concept of Mianzi light and who would not, and it’s always better to respect and act according to local customs. This would lead to a much smoother operation of the company.

Mahesh Ratnam Rajan
MBA 2016