1) Don’t take “face” too lightly.
In Chinese society, “Saving face” is extremely important. Everyone working in China is perfectly aware of that. The ones who doubt it or simply decide to ignore it are usually the same that fail in their business ventures in China. Never forget that your Chinese partner may unexpectedly break a business relationship with you because you caused him/her a loss of face, no matter how good your product is or service you offer. Once the relationship is broken, it may be impossible to rebuild it.
2) Don’t be more Chinese than the Chinese.
Sometimes, some Western business people are so afraid to cause a loss of face to their Chinese counterparts that they don’t dare express issues and let situations worsen. They probably listened to too much advice, by people like me, who lectured them on the importance of paying attention to face. But, paying attention to face does not mean that you have to put yourself in an inferior position so your Chinese partner can feel more important than you. On the contrary, the more you show you (or your company/business) are important, the more face you give to your partner. Choosing to address an issue in an indirect manner in China means you always leave room for discussion and wish to protect the face of others, but it doesn’t mean you have to lack authority.
3) Never forget the basic rule.
The number One rule is: always in private. If you have negative remarks and comments, never make them in public. Whenever it’s possible, wait for a private moment. In all circumstances, try to avoid losing your patience. Many Chinese people I interviewed about face told me that, more than what Westerners may say, it is often the way they raise their voice, and so alert many people, that causes loss of face. Plus, being upset will be perceived as a sign of weakness. Consider that your negative remark or attitude will not only embarrass one individual but the whole group (employees, whole company…).
4) Avoid the temptation to react as a Westerner.
When you are faced with a problem, avoid pointing out who made the mistake. Instead, talk about the particular case or the issue and how to resolve it, without mentioning the name of the person. In China, showing you made a mistake is equivalent to losing face. Let’s say you are attending a business banquet with the Chinese. The Chinese next to you is talking about a city he visited during his/her last trip to Canada and makes a mistake about its geographic location. Avoid the temptation to interrupt him in order to correct him. It would just cause your Chinese neighbor a loss of face in front of everybody. He just tried to develop a relationship with you and it was not a lesson of geography!
5) Always welcome your visitors with great care. The Chinese do care.
It’s very important to properly welcome your Chinese visitors. Chinese attach a lot of importance to the way you welcome them. One French director told me he was totally blocked in a business negotiation for more than 8 months and suddenly, the contract was “miraculously” signed. He added that he invited the Chinese negotiators and their families to a very informal and friendly lunch. That made all the difference! Many disputes or tensions are resolved thanks to an informal meal and light conversation in China. As well, giving “small” gifts while meeting your Chinese visitors will give them face … as long as you choose the right gifts. A high-ranking Chinese man became very angry when a foreigner (who had lived in China for some time, so he was supposed to know the rules) gave him a small pocket diary in the middle of a meeting. The Chinese boss was convinced it was a deliberate attempt to cause him to lose face. In fact, the present was too small and too ordinary and inexpensive for someone in his position. Don’t be greedy when you buy gifts. The more value your gift has, the more face you give. A typical gift from Canada with a short personalized speech would be appropriate.
6) Use humor to lighten the mood but be careful.
Using humor is a good way to break the ice in business meetings. But, it would be inconvenient to use humor in the middle of signing a contract or during harsh negotiations. There’s a time for informal conversation and a time to work seriously and do business. Never, ever, use ironic, sarcastic or teasing second degree humor. In 99,9% of cases, this kind of humor will be perceived as criticism and may provoke a serious loss of face.
7) Avoid specific topics in your business conversation.
Avoid talking about issues such as human rights and internal Chinese politics. Face is a collective matter. If you criticize the country, you criticize all the Chinese. It can also be perceived like a form of arrogance or superiority causing a loss of face to your Chinese counterpart. There are many other topics you can discuss with the Chinese, such as your experiences traveling in China, Chinese food, history and culture though that largely depends of how you raise the subject.
8) Know how to make it up after you have caused a loss of face.
For small matters, it would be better not to mention the incident ever again. Indeed, if you awkwardly insist on saying “sorry, that’s not what I meant,” this will often make matters worse. It would be like adding salt to the wound. A good way of restoring the balance is to give face back to the person that lost face. Among other ways, you can invite your partner to a good restaurant or give him/her warm compliments on his/her work in front of others. However, in case you caused serious damage, I recommend true apologies, which will be the only way to make it up. But, in this case, you will have to apologize publicly, in a very formal manner.
Final vital tip
If you understand that doing business with the Chinese is more importantly about “face” and building a sound and true relationship– then, you are have the tools to succeed.
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