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Mianzi and Han: moving beyond overly-simplified notions of face in Chinese ethics to achieve insider status

To have Ethical Agility one must participate appropriately in both face and gudnxi. To become fluent in gudnxi, however, one must first become fluent in face, so we consider face first. The English word “face” is the translation for two distinct but related Chinese concepts of how one shows and receives respect. Each concept has its own word in Chinese, but they are both commonly translated as “face” into English. As a first approximation, we can think of one form of face—lian (Ijf?)—as being more inward-focused, while the other more outward-focused form is called midnzi (lilld“). The latter is easier for Westerners to comprehend and engage with, but we caution that it is only part of the idea of face. For one to have face in terms of midnzi means that other people outwardly treat one as having prestige, social status through influence and connections, as well as personal, professional, and financial success. There is a kind of symbiosis here; the more of those things one actually has, the more face one expects to be shown but simultaneously the more that other people render outward shows of respect, the more face (midnzi) one has. Lian is more inward-directed in the sense that it is less about how much respect other people show, and is instead about whether a person is perceived as having an upstanding moral character and is thought to exhibit decent behavior under all circumstances (Hu, 1944). If one has significant lian, it is believed that they should be conferred significant midnzi as well, insofar as to typical Chinese mindsets one deserves or warrants success and prestige (midnzi) if one is perceived as having good character (lian).

Both forms of face are important for doing business in Chinese culture contexts. However, midnzi, the outward-directed form, is more important for Westerners because they can take actions to increase midnzi for their Chinese counterparts and thereby gain greater opportunities, cooperation, and compliance. Even though there is less that Western executives can do to promote lion for their Chinese counterparts, as part of having Awareness, they should know that lidn is operating just below the surface.

Midnzi and lidn interact in complex ways. For example, in part because of the importance of appearances, one does not necessarily need lidn to contribute to another person’s midnzi. For instance, if an executive’s subordinates consistently show them exceptionally high levels of respect, they will as a result have considerable midnzi among that group and at the company in general, even if not every single one of their subordinates are considered the very most upstanding individuals (i.e., not every one of them has great lidn). However, in general, upstanding individuals (those with considerable lidn) can promote midnzi to a greater degree because those are the individuals whose opinions matter most. In time, a Westerner can acquire lidn such that their rendering of face to their Chinese counterpart will be more meaningful. But building up such social capital is something that takes time and experience in the culture. It is in a sense the ultimate sign that one has been successful in acquiring Ethical Agility.

Westerners with an inadequate understanding of what face is and how to confer it on a Chinese host are as likely to unwittingly blunder away opportunities as they are to solidify a business relationship. Examples abound. Recall from Chapter 1 the story of the American agricultural company that wanted to secure an agreement to conduct field tests for their pesticide on a Chinese state farm. The company brought boxes of hats emblazoned with the company’s name and its trademark color—green. For their Chinese counterparts, to put on green hats would be for them to have made themselves look foolish, given that wearing a green hat is commonly thought to signify in traditional Chinese culture that your wife or girlfriend is cheating on you. The association with infidelity dates back to the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) when the relatives of prostitutes were forced to wear green hats. In Chinese the phrase itself, “to wear a green hat (ddi lu mdo zz, sounds similar to a word for a cuckold. As soon as company officials handed out the green hats, expecting their Chinese counterparts to put them on, the Westerners had publicly revealed themselves as clueless of the fact that it would cause a loss of face. This cluelessness meant that the Westerners, aside from already being foreigners, were also outsiders in the sense of not being “in the know” about salient Chinese culture. Cultural gaffes such as the green hat example are not completely avoidable, especially by foreigners and even in many cases by foreign-born Chinese. A common trope in movies about Chinese families and relationships concerns how Western-born Chinese people, though they often know more about the cultural environment than many Westerners, still get “little” things like greetings and titles wrong. This becomes a source of criticism and negative judgments from Chinese, Taiwanese, or Singapore-born Chinese folks, even to the tune of shaming or shunning a significant other, or as one reason (often among many) to oppose an engagement." Because of Interconnectedness, ethics, etiquette, and culture are not sharply distinguished. Nor are formal versus informal occasions—Chinese businesspeople often use informal as well as formal gatherings to gauge Westerners in terms of sincerity, personality, cultural fluency, and dependability (Pye 1992, Hu, Grove, & Enping 2010, Chapters 6 & 8). As a result, “little” things are not so little.

Though generally perfection is not expected from Westerners, a fairly high degree of cultural fluency—Ethical Agility—is required for participating properly in conferring or diminishing face. Mistakes as seemingly minor as handing out green hats can be perceived by Chinese mindsets as serious losses of face, and depending on severity are thought of as giving Chinese folks permission to dismiss or in other ways take Westerners less seriously (ethically speaking). Western businesspeople start with the automatic demerit of being a foreigner, and must overcome that demerit by demonstrating successful practice of face (and gudnxi). Our claim is not the unreasonable expectation that Westerners must get face and gudnxi perfect in order to overcome the demerit. Nor do we defend the demerit system per se. But the stakes of getting these basic ideas right are real (Pye 1992, De Menthe, 2013, Feldman, 2013, Verstappen, 2015, Wenzhong, Grove, & Euping, 2010). To succeed in business in China one must gain the ability to demonstrate that one appreciates the force of face and gudnxi, even if one does not get them right perfectly or all the time. At stake is whether your Chinese hosts will view you as a potential insider whom they can trust and do business with, or a barbarian outsider that can, at best, be worked with at arm’s length.

The insider-outsider distinction helps explain one of the oft-cited paradoxes about China and other parts of East Asia that have been influenced by some of the same cultural sources as China. The apparent paradox involves

11 For example, see the character Billi in The Farewell over several conversations with her parents and eventually one with her whole family over a meal (Wang, 2019). Or, see Rachel in the scene where she makes jiaozi with the Young family in Crazy Rich Asians (Chu, 2018).

the widespread practice of keeping one’s distance, not shaking hands, and waiting for superiors to speak (e.g., during introductions and meetings), in contrast with the chaotic and uncomfortable “every person for themselves” environment of subways and other public transit where people shove, jostle, and bump one another. How can a culture that insists on such highly ritualized respectful behavior in business meetings tolerate such disorganized and disrespectful chaos in public spaces? Aside from the practical challenge of millions of people needing to get to work, the answer is that, in public, almost everyone is a stranger—an outsider who does not demand the same level of expressions of respect. By contrast, in business, because there is no separation between what is business and personal, achieving some measure of insider status is very important.

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