Mianzi – The “Face” of the Chinese

Mianzi or “face” is a term prevalent within the Chinese Culture, and one that even contemporary entrepreneurs encounter in their first few days doing business within the country. While most westerners have exaggerated points on its importance within the Chinese Culture, they are the ones most likely to be the reason for someone to lose “face” due to their “insensitivity” to this ancient Chinese tradition, which often results into serious consequences.

So, what exactly is Mianzi? What does it mean to “lose face”? What makes its impact on Chinese culture and/or society so important?

A Closer Look at Mianzi

The term Mianzi is best understood through its core essence that the Chinese treat each other based on whatever position one holds within the hierarchal society, with extreme sensitivity shown towards any behavior that may be perceived as demeaning and/or insulting, more so if it comes from those held lower in regard. It is the most important measure of social worth, and it defines a person’s place in his social network.

Intelligence, wealth, skills, attractiveness, position, and, of course, good “guanxi,” are all sources of face. The Chinese tend to think of face in quantitative terms, while Americans tend to think in absolute terms (a person either has prestige or he does not). Like money, face can be lost, earned, given, or taken away.

Mianzi poses a problem for market researchers because of the Confucian influence: debate between opposing viewpoints is seen as undesirable, and respondents tend to use the extremes of the Likert scales. Researchers must therefore take great care in research design in order to ensure that they take cultural issues into account.

Mianzi is also a problem when it comes to focus groups: participants are often inclined to avoid expressing their opinions in order to preserve the group harmony. People are also reluctant to disagree with other parties in order to avoid the loss of face issue. Western techniques must be modified specifically for the Chinese environment if the focus group is to have its desired outcome.

A scenario that happens frequently in the business arena is that when contemporary businessmen and/or entrepreneurs hold meetings with their Chinese counterparts, they often find themselves talking to the ones that speak English fluently, without knowing that such an act may be perceived as demeaning by those with high-ranks, causing them to “lose face”. While the results of this gaffe may vary, depending on how those “offended” perceive the “demeaning acts”, a cancelled deal is not surprising.

Another scenario in the business world in which Mianzi manifests itself is that the Chinese people put much emphasis in looking for a middle ground when negotiating. If it so happens that foreigners were to pressure and/or force the Chinese to concede their points and accept the terms of the deal, the Chinese party may “lose face” resulting in them refusing to compromise, even if the foreigners have valid points for their deals.

Next: The Guanxi of the Chinese People