Travelers in China often struggle to really understand the cultural concept of “face.” The Eastern idea of “face” is that at ALL times the giving of “face” (making someone look good) must be maximized while the loss of “face” (preventing yourself or others from looking bad) must be minimized. Everyone wants to feel good about themselves and look good (who doesn’t?) to others, so it’s a massive blow to a person’s reputation or self-image if they are brought down. The giving of “face” is especially important towards those older than you, and especially superiors at work.
For example, as an English language teacher, when I spoke to a student in Chinese, he or she might use “nin” when referring to me, although I would use “ni.” The extra “n” at the end displays respect for the person with whom you are speaking, however this is a dying trend. Other examples of giving “face” could be bringing a nice gift to someone who has invited you into their home, something not very common because people tend to meet in public as most homes are usually quite small.
Paying for dinner, can be quite tricky. Meals are paid by one person only, and depending on how you pay, you can be making someone lose “face”! For example, by me paying for four other friends it gives me “face”, but if someone else was the one who did the inviting, he might feel like I made him lose “face”, even though in the West this would not be an issue.
[Ed Note: We heard a story of an executive of Microsoft coming to China to give a speech. At the end of the speech he asked for questions and received none. This speaker was annoyed because he felt as though his audience hadn’t been listening. In fact, the opposite was true! The audience did not want to disrespect the speaker and cause him to lose “face” by asking questions and implying that the speech did not contain all the necessary information.]
“Face” is extremely complicated, and many foreigners living in China tend to struggle with this aspect of Chinese culture and often give up because it is difficult to understand. In reality, people who wish to save “face” can deny their involvement and avoid responsibility and blame underlings, which makes getting things done (or getting justice) difficult. The funny thing is that many people in China assume all cultures give and save “face” like they do, and from my experience many youth are jealous that Westerners don’t have to deal with “face” the way they do.
There have been many times where I caused others to lose “face” and it caused trouble for me and my relationships (called “guanxi,” or “connections”). I realized later what I had done and felt bad for it, but knew I would have an opportunity later to give them “face” to save my own “face”!