Chapter 13 – Mianzi, Protection of Reputation or Face Saving

The word “Mianzi” literally means face and it refers to a social aspect that is given much greater importance not only in China but in all of Asia compared to Western societies. Mianzi is the concept of “saving face”.

It is extremely important in all phases of negotiation and interpersonal relationships to remember that there is nothing worse for the Chinese than to “lose face”, or be in a situation in which one is contradicted or in which one’s reputation with respect to the family, the company, and broadly speaking, society, is compromised.

For the Western entrepreneur, it is not a difficult concept to understand, given that it is a shared sentiment. What is more elusive, however, and more difficult to understand is the emphasis, considered excessive in comparison to Western culture, placed by the Chinese on the risk of compromising one’s image or losing respect.

Therefore, the foreign business representative, both in negotiations as well in interpersonal relationships, must take nothing for granted and, even in the least important decisions, must ensure that Chinese business associates do not lose face, while obviously avoiding the loss of one’s own face as well. It is essentially a question of developing a particular sensitivity, which can only be achieved after years of experience.

Let me give you an example of a face losing action, which I have personally experienced several times during business negotiations that I attended.

One Chinese supplier was reluctant or unwilling to sign a prefabricated contract and as a result the Western business manager tossed a whole bunch of contracts into the waste paper basket while his supplier and his staff were watching. Usually Chinese don’t show many emotions but one look at the face of this Chinese manager was enough to understand that he had been deeply humiliated by this action.

Additional examples of Mianzi from my long career in China will be brought up in following chapters.