If you are not familiar with the concept of giving, saving, or losing “face” in China, please see this excellent article from the “Middle Kingdom Life” website.
As a Mandarin-speaking westerner who regularly deals with Chinese people located both in and out of mainland China, I’m fascinated by the idea of “face.”
If asked how to get from Point A to Point B, a western police officer who did not know Point B existed would likely admit that fact and apologize to the person asking for directions. A Chinese police officer in the same situation, however, who also did not know Point B existed, would likely avoid directly admitting his ignorance. Instead, he might suggest asking someone else, simply shake his head and offer no other response, say he “wasn’t clear” on the exact location, or even more interesting, invent directions despite not knowing where Point B actually is.
Why all the hassle about (to what to a westerner sounds like) telling the truth? Why wouldn’t both policemen just admit they didn’t know there was a Point B and then move on? In Chinese (and many other societies), there is the idea of “face.”
A police officer admitting (especially in public, or in front of colleagues) he doesn’t know how to get from Point A to Point B may suggest he’s not serious about his job, he doesn’t take you or your question seriously, he’s not familiar with the city in which he grew up, or he isn’t qualified for the position which his superiors granted him, among many other possible explanations. A plethora of beyond-the-surface factors drives everyday communications and interactions in China.
There is much more behind saying “I don’t know” in China than there is in the west.
So instead of simply sitting down at the chair closest to each attendee before starting a business dinner, an elaborate dance occurs where the most elderly, most senior, or most important attendee is prompted to sit at the seat of honor, or at the head of the table. That person is being given “face.” Perhaps that person will politely refuse that seat, and suggest the other party’s most elderly or senior member takes the seat of honor. The “face” dance continues.
Similarly, ordering food or taking the first taste involves much more than just who is hungry or who ordered what. Ordering much more than those in attendance can possibly eat also suggests the importance of the participants or the occasion. Paying the bill and then suggesting the evening continue despite the obvious fact that everyone is tired again stems from the significance of “face.”
To the uninitiated western visitor, the concept of “face” might seem unnecessarily complex and frustrating. Even to westerners well-schooled in Chinese culture and language, understanding and managing “face” requires the ongoing nurturing of complex, changing Chinese relationships.
* * *
Sources: Middle Life Kingdom, Asia Times, China Daily