The Secret To Successful Business Relationships? It’s Staring You in the Face

When you hear the words “save face,” what do you think of?

You might imagine someone trying to recover after saying something embarrassing. Maybe they made a misstep in the workplace and now need to repair their reputation. Egos are hurt and must be mended.

In most Asian cultures, the concept of “face” extends to something far deeper. It speaks to a deeper need for dignity and acceptance, and the ways we grant dignity to one another. Understanding this universal human concept can help us make the most of our business relationships.

“Throw away the face”

The concept of face is so entrenched in Chinese culture that multiple idioms are part of everyday conversation. Diulian translates to “throw away the face” — to be so ashamed or embarrassed you feel like you have removed your face and tossed it away. To “save face” (bao quan mianzi) means to protect your face. You can also “give face” to someone (gei-mianzi) by publicly praising or appreciating them. Conversely, when you “tear apart the face” (si-po-lian), you publicly humiliate, scold or chastise someone, causing so much harm that their face cannot heal.

In Western culture, the focus is often on the individual — how can I save face after making a mistake? In group-oriented Asian cultures, face is personal, but it’s also reciprocal — how can I give face to someone else? How can I “save face” for my group? Face represents a person’s status and reputation in business and politics, among family and friends, in local communities — even the nation at large.

Face represents one’s self esteem, self worth, identity, reputation, status, pride, and dignity.

A recent experience I had with a global technology company headquartered in Arizona illustrates how face plays a crucial role in cross-cultural business. I was asked to speak with a group of visiting Chinese engineers who sat quietly and never asked questions during a technical training. Over lunch in the cafeteria, the engineers said little in English. When I spoke in Mandarin, they immediately opened up. One complained that the American instructor gave them a 200-page technical manual as soon as they walked in the door after 15 hours of flight. The Chinese had no time to review it, and it was written in English.

“How much of the training did you understand?” I asked. “About 20 percent,” they replied reluctantly. Unbeknownst to the Americans, the Chinese engineers were afraid to lose face. They needed to project an aura of confidence and credibility, and they did not want to admit that they were lost and confused. To get the U.S. and Chinese teams working together more smoothly, I recommended a few simple solutions. For the American instructor: Speak slowly and clearly, and use diagrams and hands-on demonstrations while going over technical materials. Give Chinese engineers time to process and come up with questions as a group, not individuals. In the end, the U.S. company extended the training one more week for the Chinese engineers. Both parties saved face and the training was a success.

The bank of face

When we are attuned to face, we begin to use it as social currency. In this sense, it is possible to imagine how we build a supply of face with someone by continuously making deposits — We build trust. We express gratitude and appreciation. We compliment them and recognize them for their contributions, in public and in private. Or, we empathize, putting ourselves in their place to understand their challenges. We give them and their voice equal time and weight.

When we need to make a withdrawal, we’re careful to not “tear the face apart.” We provide criticism or feedback in a way that saves face and preserves dignity. If we mistakenly cause them to lose face, the relationship can still be saved if there are enough deposits to cover the withdrawal.

Face is also traded as currency. Global business leaders use face as a commodity, trading and borrowing face to strike mutual deals or to gain entry to each other’s markets or networks. And a global business leader’s success depends on how he or she understands face and its crucial role in cross-cultural communication.

The more “face” you have, the easier and faster you can get things done.

Face and innovation

Research has shown that when an environment of psychological safety is created — a culture where people feel respected and supported — they feel safe enough to take the risks that lead to innovation. “Face” is another way to look at psychological safety. When we are careful to preserve the dignity and face of others, we create psychological safety, an environment that also reduces the fear and negativity that lead to lost face.

Interpersonal relationships are crucial to business whether you’re working one-on-one with a local colleague or negotiating business with an overseas client. “Face” is a universal concept, beyond its origins in China, that enables one to connect with people, break down barriers, and build trust and long-term relationships.