An important aspect of Chinese culture is giving face to others. Giving face is valued and seen as an appropriate action to take when conflict surfaces. We are expected to avoid saying or doing anything that would embarrass or shame another person in front of others. This is a good thing.
But looking through my American cultural lens, there appeared to be a negative side to giving face as well. I viewed giving face as more or less a surface-level cover-up, keeping people from being honest and dealing with issues. My internal rhetorical question went something like: When conflict happens, should we just give face, say nothing, and go on with life as if no disagreement or difference exists, and as if no mistakes were made or sins committed? (My answer: Of course not!) Thankfully, I realized I was wrong. Chinese Christians helped me see how God-honoring giving face can be. My question changed from Is giving face a good thing? to What are the benefits of giving face and what should we do afterwards?
Many of the Chinese Christians I interviewed for my dissertation research described the following benefits of giving face when conflict or potential conflict is at hand. First, giving face may keep a conflict from worsening. Wu Chunhua described it in this way: “If you give a person face, that person will slowly relax and won’t be as confrontational and resistant in the relationship. The conflict will ease up. It won’t continue to get bigger.”1
Second, giving face may keep a relationship from completely breaking down. Sometimes a younger person gives face by apologizing to an elder person just to keep the relationship from breaking. Even if this apology is only an outward behavior and not sincere, and even if the resulting forgiveness is because of face requirements and not from the heart, the action has benefits because it can keep the relationship from completely ending.2 Though not ideal, the relationship has at least been maintained at a surface level, leaving room for the possibility of heart-level reconciliation in the future.
Third, giving face can provide safety in a relationship, creating space to speak more vulnerably. Liu Haifeng put it this way:
Everyone has a deep desire to be respected. When we give someone face during a conflict, we are helping to protect that person.
I’ll use myself as an example. When I feel that I am the only person who can protect myself, I will do so at all costs. But when a person gives me face, I will first feel that they didn’t hurt me. Since they didn’t hurt me, I don’t have to protect myself. Since they helped me protect myself, I know that they are for me.
When I know that the person is for me, I am then willing to bring up my mistake and share it with them. I’ll listen to their advice because now I know that they are not in opposition to me. Furthermore, they are standing on my side. I feel this is very important.3
Creating this kind of space for more open and honest communication may take the form of offering the other person “a step down.” Offering a step down to someone means to give that person a way out, a way to avoid embarrassment. Zhao Cheng described how offering a way out in a conflict can help:
Sometimes when conflict happens, according to my typical experience, both parties will first give the other person a step down, so they feel respected. Then, because their reputation suffered less damage and they don’t feel so ashamed, it is easier to be more open with the other person. Once they engage in a more honest conversation, then it is easier for the parties to find a solution that works for both, and it is easier for them to forgive and reconcile.4
This type of face-giving sounds a lot like offering compassion and grace to someone, doesn’t it?
In summary, there are at least three benefits to giving face in a conflict situation or a potential conflict:
- Giving face in the moment can keep a conflict from escalating and can allow a relationship to continue, at least at a surface level, instead of breaking down.
- Giving face at the moment of disagreement by not verbally disagreeing, especially if it is in public, can be a helpful and appropriate expression of respect at times.
- Giving face instead of pointing out a fault or mistake in the moment, especially if it is in public, can be considered a compassionate act, one that minimizes embarrassment or awkwardness for the other person.
More is Needed
And while giving face has these various benefits, Wu Chunhua described how giving face is a good start but does not go far enough:
Giving face is a very surface-level thing. If you truly want to reconcile with someone, it’s not a matter of just giving him face; it’s both parties continuing to move forward together. Giving someone face may be a good start, but to reach reconciliation, there is still a distance that one must travel.5
At this point, it is important to take our cues from God regarding what to do next. How does God relate to us? God doesn’t just give us face, affirming and accepting us at the surface level, yet ignoring the issues. He doesn’t pretend everything is fine relationally when it is not. God genuinely loves, values, and forgives us, and he addresses the issues, pointing out specific areas such as fear and calling us to acknowledge our sin (Psalm 32:1–11, John 8:10–12, Matthew 10:31, and Psalm 103:8–14). God purposefully addresses issues with us so we can be transformed (Romans 12:2 and 2 Corinthians 3:18).
Note: This blog post only focuses on the benefits of giving face. To address root conflict issues and live with integrity before God and others, there are times when it is necessary for a private conversation to follow up giving face in public (Matthew 18:15). On the flip side, there are also times when the conflict issue doesn’t need to be addressed and can simply be forgiven and overlooked (Proverbs 19:11).
Watch for Jolene’s forthcoming book, Changing Normal: A New Approach to Conflict, Face Issues, and Reconciling Relationships, for a fuller discussion on following up the giving of face with a private conversation and overlooking-by-forgiving.
Having spent much of the time between 1997 and 2020 committed to working overseas in China, Jolene Kinser now lives in southern California. Jolene works as a global Chinese peacemaking ministry developer and educator and as a peacemaking specialist under the South Pacific District of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Jolene …View Full Bio
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