What is ‘Face’?

Whether you’ve been in China for a year or 10, you are probably familiar with seeing Chinese people fight over who pays the bill.

But, have you ever stopped to wonder why they do it?

After all, it’s quite common for us to share the responsibility or pay for only ourselves on most occasions.

Surely, you have heard of the term face [面子 miàn zi] be tossed around, but what does it actually mean?

This is one of the toughest concepts for Westerners in China to grasp and one of the deepest-ingrained in Chinese culture.

The idea of ‘face’ roughly translates as ‘honor’, ‘good reputation,’ or ‘respect.’

Face is a Chinese concept that can be broken down into 4 parts:

    • 1) Losing face [diū miàn zi 丢面子]: this involves one’s intentions being exposed.
    • 2) Giving face [gěi miàn zi 给面子]: this involves showing respect to others.
    • 3) Saving face [liú miàn zi 留面子]: this involves intentionally covering up your mistakes.
    • 4) Receiving face [jiǎng miàn zi 讲面子]: this occurs when others show you respect.

The largest reason this is so difficult for expats is that the Chinese live or die by it.

They will do anything and everything they can to give face and avoid losing their own face at all times.

As a result, this can cause massive problems when it comes to many aspects of life: performance reviews, paying for meals, gift giving, blame/responsibility for failure, etc.

Chinese do not like answering “yes” or “no” questions directly because the answer might cause someone to lose face.

They will prefer to say “maybe” or “yes” when in reality they mean “no,” or convey “no” in a way that foreigners don’t understand. This behavior sometimes causes confusion and anger with Westerners who expect a “yes” or “no.”

A typically confusing situation might go something like this: A foreigner takes his motorcycle to a mechanic.

As he’s about to leave, he asks the mechanic if it will be ready the next day. The mechanic says yes because he doesn’t want to be rude.

The next day, the foreign man returns to the mechanic, and becomes angry upon hearing his motorcycle hasn’t been fixed yet.

The mechanic can’t understand why the man is so upset. In his mind, the foreigner should have asked him when the car would be ready, and then he could have given him a more specific timeframe.

Smoking is incessant and rampant in Chinese society.

Expect to be offered cigarettes, even from strangers.

They do this as a way to establish friendship, and refusal means you don’t want to be their friend.

It is okay to accept the cigarette and put it behind your ear, thank them, then give it to someone else later on if you aren’t a smoker.

So, now that you have a basic understanding of face, let’s move into why face makes them Chinese people often “fight” over who pays for a meal.

Usually, one person pays for everyone at the table.

It is usually the person who is older, the one perceived to be more financially stable, or the person who makes the initial plans and invites others along who pays (but it’s usually a man).

Although we are used to paying for our own meals around other Westerners, it might be expected of us to pay for Chinese friends (especially females).

Although they won’t say anything, they might be deeply disappointed that we didn’t pay for them, especially when it’s a meal they can hardly afford, but is of little consequence to us as a result of the large salary gap.

Some friends will play the “face” game and insist on paying, but are secretly hoping to lose the game and have their meal be paid for.

If they are beat by someone else, as long as they try to pay then they will earn or save face and not look greedy or cheap (which is when we sometimes see people throwing their cash or debit card at the waitress, or they will quietly leave the table to pretend to go to the bathroom, only to actually go and pay the bill before anyone else can do so).

Some people are honest and more direct and will happily agree to splitting a meal or taking turns paying, which happens more often when the people eating together are younger, like in their 20s.

Some girls might be surprised that we’ve paid for them, and take it as a symbol of intent to be serious with them.

Be keenly aware of relationships with each individual in order to make sure not to strain it.

These examples, in the context of conversation, especially with a potential language barrier in place, can become frustrating.

Trying to understand “face” is something that takes many years of careful observation.

You will be confused and make mistakes along the way, such as insisting or demanding direct responses.

This will possibly alienate Chinese people who don’t understand our need for directness.

It might cost jobs, business partners, or even a romantic relationship.

Even if you disagree with the idea and refuse to play the game, at least make it a mission to understand it as much as possible so as to not hurt yourself or others along the way.

I’ve found that asking friends to explain situations helps, but it’s better to jump in and try it for yourself.

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