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Face? What?

By David Dayton in 'Silk Road International'

I'll be the first one to admit that I just don't get face. My wife would certainly confirm that as well. After I graduated and for my first few years working in Asia, I thought I knew what was up. But as the years have passed and I've learned what the Chinese words I'm saying actually mean to Chinese people, I realize more and more that I have a long way to go before I'm fluent in Chinese Culture.

I've heard some people simplify dealing with face into 'just be polite and you'll be fine.' This is certainly part of it, but has nothing to do with things that you can't say in Chinese that are perfectly acceptable to say in America. And how do you politely and professional discuss lies, broken contracts, sub-standard samples, non-disclosed changes in production and unapproved production locations (sub suppliers)? Even if you can manage to speak like Pollyanna you're going to be nailing someone's keister to the wall, canceling contracts, changing ship dates (enforcing late penalties) or rejecting thousands of dollars worth of product all in a second language or through a translator.

Face is not just being polite, it's more than that. It's complicated.

We've had two factories in the last year try to change out approved product with cheaper un-approved product after we've had testing completed. In both cases the tested product was clearly marked in sealed boxes, wrapped in shrink-wrap, labeled (in Chinese and English) and set aside. Yet somehow the factory "mistakenly" used part of our product for someone else and then "replaced" what they used with substandard, un-approved inferior product.

When asked about it, there is always an excuse. And we of course, since we live in the PC 21st century, we listen to all BS politely. But even if we could agree that it was an honest mistake, how do we not get notified about a problem this large after 6 months of stringent testing? How do the sealed boxes get "re-sealed" with our special tape? How does our signature over the seals get copied? How does product get replaced just coincidentally the day/night that we pass the tests?

One of the tricks to working in a very face-conscious culture is to let others know that you know their lying without actually saying as much. You have to show that you know more than they realized without publicly pointing fingers. Even when you're in the right, you have to give them a way out and you have to keep your cool. It's a VERY tall order. Sometimes too tall for me to deal with.

I'm reminded of Jim Gaffigan's comedy routine when he laments that ethnically he's "nothing." He claims that if you're a Latino and you get mad it'll be said that you have a "Latin Temper." But if you're white and you get mad then you're just a "jerk." The same is true here. If you're Chinese and you say "Chinese people lie" it means you understand your own culture and you're being street smart. If you're a foreigner saying it, you're a racist bastard (trust me here; personal experience). If you're Chinese and you're angry and threatening to foreigners in China it's because you've been offended and oppressed for 1000 years. If you're foreign and you're angry it's because you have no culture/class and you're making yourself and others lose face.

Over the years I've gone ballistic more than once when I've been straight-out lied too. Sometimes we plan the fights, sometimes I can keep it cool and sometimes it's like a 2x4 to the side of the head—out of the blue and almost deadly.

Sometimes people get fired, relationships are damaged beyond repair and all the previous work is lost (worst case scenario). Most of the time, there is a big fight, a show, a reconciliation and then things move on.

Yet with all these pot-holes in the cultural landscape, what amazes me is that sometimes after what I consider a fight, a single phone call can "solve" it all. For example, we had a supplier that decided that since we tested his product, we had no choice but to order from him despite the contracts (written by a Chinese lawyer in Chinese) he'd already signed. Other than one cultural unacceptable outburst in which I had a few choice words for him, I calmly laid out all reasons why he couldn't raise the price (contracts in China and the US, personal agreements). He responded that he had "invested" a lot of time into the sample process and needed to recoup his costs. I then outlined the mistakes and problems in the sample process that he was responsible for. Of course, being the boss, he had no clue what had actually gone on in the trenches during the 6 months of samples—he's only been shown the bills and been told that we were locked in due to the testing we'd done. But instead of helping, my phone calls and emails that pointed out all the details about his employee's mistakes made him lose face. We went from "best friends" to "we will never do business" with "foreigners like you" in two emails. But one call and it was back to "we are businessmen, that's how we talk" and "we'll just work on the future not the past."

While everyone is polite now, and we still have the same price as agreed, my professional issues with the processes were never addressed. Of course, a factory employee has probably been dressed-down, but how do I know that anything has been taken care of?! And worse case scenario, what if the anger has just been transferred to the employee who will now sabotage things later? This is where having a savvy and trusted Chinese employee is invaluable.

When dealing with heated and potentially face-losing situations and their aftermath, just remember, just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they aren't out to get you. Sure, fear is irrational but it's usually based on some actual previous experiences—in my case 10+ years of these kinds of experiences.

Face is public, but retaliation is private and discrete. Problem solving "western-style" is completely unacceptable in Asia—confrontations, "open" discussions about the merits of various plans, brainstorming, finger pointing for problems and praising individuals for success, email trails with names and dates, etc. In short, personal accountability in a collective face-conscious society is not something you should expect to encounter. (I know, I'm a racist bastard for saying this. Oh, well.) But hey, now you know and so you can prepare for it.


David Dayton is the owner of Silk Road International and currently lives full-time in Shenzhen, China. He speaks English, Thai and Mandarin and has worked in Asia for more than 15 years. You can contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at www.silkroadintl.net.

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