Saving Face in China – excerpt from new iPhone application

Saving Face in China – excerpt from new iPhone application

I am grateful that I was a resource for the new iPhone application produced by the International Herald Tribune about international cultures and business.  This is an excerpt from an article which was published today in the IHT and New York Times.  – Cynthia Lett

HT Business Navigator

Saving Face in China

Published: December 13, 2010

This is an excerpt from the first in a series of iPhone applications created by the International Herald Tribune to explain the culture and etiquette of major business centers.

When it comes to doing business in China, “respect for people’s feelings is paramount — this sensitivity that needs to be taken in respect to people’s ‘face,’ ” Tom Doctoroff of J. Walter Thompson advertising said.

“Face — a cliché, but it’s so true — is the currency of advancement,” he said. “It’s like a social bank account. You spend it and you save it and you invest. And when you take away somebody’s face you take away someone’s fundamental sense of security.”

“You make someone lose face if you make them feel that they’ve given a wrong or silly answer” in a meeting, Mr. Doctoroff said. “You need to take whatever people are saying, whether it’s a creative idea or a strategy idea, and you need to find that kernel of wisdom in there. Usually there is something that is relevant. And they need to build on that.

“If you end up with a Charlie Brown situation, with the entire class ha-ha-ing, that’s a disaster, and people will loathe you for it.”

Christine Lu, chief executive of Affinity China, a luxury venture group, said, “If you understand that dealing with people in China is all about face — giving face, getting face, saving face and not letting that person lose face — then you’re all covered.”

And when it comes to Westerners, there is a historic aspect to the Chinese concern about face, said Saul Gitlin of Kang & Lee Advertising.

“Because of China’s history of exploitation by foreign countries who colonized China or raided China for business purposes, particularly in the business sphere, Chinese do not want to be seen culturally as having been ‘had’ by Western businesspeople,” he said.

“That may sound fairly intuitive, but it is related to the very recent 200-year history in China, up through the middle part of last century, when Western businesspeople clearly had the upper hand commercially and politically in China,” he explained. Today, there is a fierce concern that China must “never go back to that inferior position during that dynastic and imperial period, when China was exploited by imperialist Western powers.”

So “it’s very important for Western businesspeople to show respect.”


“The well-known Mao statement that ‘women hold up half the sky’ really is quoted in China,” said Laurie Underwood of China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. “It is a fact that the Communist system created an equal playing field for men and women, much more so than elsewhere in Asia and even more equal than in the United States.”

Working mothers are the norm in China, she said. “In fact, there is huge pressure on mothers to go back to work in order to help the extended family. It is expected that the grandparents will care for the child. And because each couple generally has only one child, this also allows working moms to focus more on work.”

As a result, “there is no stigma attached to working for a female boss and women are very much respected in business,” Ms. Underwood said. “The difference between foreigner and Chinese is much more important in Chinese business culture than the difference between men and women.”

In Hong Kong and Shanghai, many businesses are Chinese branches of large multinational companies, so their view of women in the workplace already is different from the norm.

“For a multinational, even if it’s infused with the local culture, it’s an international company, and that’s often now reflected in the management style,” said Ms. Lu of Affinity China. “Chances are your boss, whether he’s a foreigner or a returnee, somebody who’s lived and worked abroad or studied abroad — he’s internationalized in the way he thinks. So then it’s more of a level playing field.”

Throughout China, a woman’s position within her company is respected, said Cynthia Lett, the founder and chief executive of The Lett Group, a company that specializes in business-etiquette training.

“If you present a woman as vice president of sales for your company and she goes over for an initial meeting with a delegation, she will be accepted for who she is and what position she holds. If she’s the president of the company, all the better,” Ms. Lett said. “Position is much more important than gender.”

Being an Asian-American woman working in China, Ms. Lu said, “can work for you or against you, depending on the type of personality you run across.”

“On the one hand, I have a face that is ethnically Chinese, so there’s automatically a comfort level,” she said. “And I did grow up in a very Chinese household, so I do have an understanding of Chinese culture.”

But “it can work against you sometimes in a different situation, where you’re never fully Chinese,” she adds. “You grew up in the U.S. You lived and worked in China for just a number of years, but your mentality and thought process and your entire foundation is really American. And that does come out too, sometimes, in business. But it’s really hard to determine if it’s a culture thing or a gender thing.”