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Saving Face

From the series Navigating the Cultural Identity Journey


So far in this series we have seen that Chinese with a family identity focus on relationships beginning in their own families. Each person is hierarchically placed and has expectations for how to behave depending on who they are relating to. Life is sharing resources with family members as well as with others who are connected to the family. Sharing is part of building and maintaining relationships (guanxi) that is done in an on-going, reciprocal manner. If sharing is not done appropriately—the family or group will lose face.

When I was in college, for the first time I met people from many different ethnicities other than my Asian family members and white European Americans. One of the people I met was a woman from the Middle East. She was very friendly to me. One weekend she went home to celebrate a special holiday with her family and she brought back some of their food to share with us. I was thankful that she did not wait to watch us eat it, but she did return later to ask how we liked it. I was embarrassed because I was not familiar with her food nor its particular taste. However, my Asian background kicked in and I said it was very nice. Later I felt guilty because I had told a lie. I really didn’t like the food.

At the time I didn’t realize how much my American and Asian heritage were clashing. Americans tend to think it more important to tell the truth—saying what they think and not being as aware of how it impacted the other person. I also felt I would be criticized by Americans for not saying what I really thought.  However, something in my background would not let me tell that truth because I knew it would hurt her feelings. After studying culture, I realized that I was trying to protect her face as well as mine.

For someone with an individual identity, a person’s face is what they want it to be. They want other people to know what they like and what they don’t like. However, people with a family identity reflect what the family or group thinks. They do not want to say or do anything that doesn’t reflect well on the reputation of the group. By saying you don’t like something that represents the group, you are in fact, rejecting the people and not reciprocating appropriately. Any negative comment regarding their gift reduces the value of their face.

In Chinese culture the concept of face is a very important part of social interaction and is specific to the group or family to which the person belongs. Face is also influenced by status either achieved through individual competition or effort or ascribed by wealth, social connections, or authority. Some members have a higher status than others, but they all contribute to the face of the group.

Members are expected to behave in accordance with their place in the hierarchy whether higher or lower in accordance with the Confucian hierarchy. When one person achieves something, he or she increases the face of the group. When one person misbehaves or speaks negatively of the group, they may decrease the face of the group.

There are two words that describe face in Chinese and sometimes they are used interchangeably. One is mianzi 面子 and the other is lian 脸. Mianzi refers to the group’s perceptions of their social status. The social interaction of its members can either gain or lose mianzi. Lian refers to the trust or confidence that the group has in its member. Every member receives lian when they become part of the group. A person can gain lian but loss of Iian results from unacceptable behavior and may not be able to be restored.

When Asians interact with Americans, they are often confused by their behavior. Younger Americans often do not show respect to older people in the way Asians expect. They are often quite disrespectful in their speech and actions. At the same time, Americans are confused by this concept as they are socialized to express their own opinion rather than to defer to older people and are often less sensitive to what others think about what they say and do.

Indeed, the actions that give face are similar to the actions expected of a child towards their parents. That is one should show respect for others as they interact (polite speech, giving more space, offering the best seat and the best food at a meal), sharing resources with others, and being kind and respectful when speaking to others in public.

A number of verses in the Bible encourage us as Christians to be careful in our speech. One example is Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

In developing relationships with Chinese, it is important to consider what you say about them as well as what they share with you. Remember that you are not only speaking about the person individually, but also speaking about their family or group.

More information can be found in Tapestry of Grace: Untangling the Cultural Complexities of Asian American Life and Ministry, Ben Shin and Sheryl Takagi Sizer, 2016, pages 36, 39,118-122, 124, 133, 136, 151-157, 163, 172.

Image credit: Prastika Herlianti on Unsplash.
Sheryl Takagi Silzer

Sheryl Takagi Silzer

Sheryl Takagi Silzer is a third generation Japanese American. She worked with Wycliffe Bible Translators in Colombia, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia as a Bible translator. For the past twenty-five years she has worked as a multicultural consultant leading Cultural Self-Discovery workshops for sending agencies, schools, and churches around the …View Full Bio


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