Face and Conflict Resolution

The shift from complete self-reliance and complete isolation from the Western world under the Mao era to the open door policy and economic reform under the Deng era represents a major step taken by the Chinese. China sent a subtle message to the rest of the world through this shift. It admitted that China had fallen behind technologically and economically and it had much to learn from the West. Openly admitting their own failure in managing the economy and asking for help from foreign investors and businesses represent a big step for the Chinese. Exposing their own weakness to previous foes and enemies certainly does not give the Chinese leaders much to be proud of in front of Western leaders. It might have caused to the Chinese who are proud people some "lost face" instead.

The concept of "face" in the Chinese culture is not easy to define. Having "face" commands respect, trust and influence within the Chinese cultural environment. It is similar to the reputation and image one has in one's peer group or community. "Having face" comes with one's position, economic status and social ties with other influential people, own ability and capability, and how much trust others put in him. A peer group leader, for example, may have a lot of face because he/she is respected and others rely on him/her for advice and help. The most important part of having face is that one has to be perceived as trustworthy. A well resourced or connected person, or someone with high rank or position does not automatically have face. When such a person is greedy, unapproachable, unwilling to help others, unsympathetic or abusive of his/her position, he/she may not be seen as trustworthy. An untrustworthy person is unlikely to have much "face" in the eyes of others.

A person with face commands support and can mobilize others to achieve higher goals. To preserve one's own face, he/she has to live up to the expectations of others and preserve the trustworthiness that others have bestowed on him/her. Also to preserve face and pride, a Chinese person is often willing to go to great lengths. The following activities or gestures threaten a person's face and may provoke defensive reactions:

A little more sensitivity to the Chinese need for "face" is often greatly appreciated by the Chinese, as one Canadian company learned. The Chinese, in this case, incorrectly calculated the number of products that needed to be imported and ordered too few. The mistake was discovered when the items arrived and the Chinese was quite embarrassed and was concerned about losing face in front of his peers. The Canadian company admitted that it was its fault and ordered more. "Losing face to foreigners is a big deal for the Chinese", said the Canadian manager, "we understand how important it is".

One aspect of the Chinese "face" worth noticing is that it represents the way a Chinese wants to be seen by others. One's "face" is the desirable side of oneself - respectable, trustworthy, capable and confident. These appearances may or may not reflect one's own values and beliefs. Of course, the individual could be disgraced if he/she turns out to be undeserving the "face" he/she has.

The importance of giving and preserving "face" in the Chinese culture has direct implications for foreign companies trying to resolve conflicts with the Chinese. No matter how careful and thoughtful one might be, conflicts, disagreements or miscommunication between people from different cultures are inevitable. This will be true regardless of the amount of planning, preparation and efforts a foreigner expends to avoid conflicts. When a conflict situation arises, it has to be dealt with carefully to avoid making the Chinese lose face. In resolving conflict with the Chinese, many foreigners have learned to:

Recognizing the need for compromise and concessions and the willingness to do so are often critical to resolving conflicts with the Chinese. Without such willingness and determination, it is very unlikely that the two sides could work out any constructive resolution. The following observations could be helpful in dealing with potential conflict situations in China.

Chinese prefer mediated discussions and negotiations instead of direct confrontational approach to conflict resolution.

The Chinese often work hard for a business opportunity, and will work equally hard to deal with a conflict instead of walking away from the opportunity. They are very motivated to resolve the conflict as well.

The Chinese may know he/she is wrong, but a foreigner must give him/her a way out to make sure that he/she does not lose face. The Chinese does not like being cornered. If they lose face and come to regard the foreigner involved as an enemy, they will fight back as hard as possible and the conflict will become irreversible. Therefore, one has to leave a way out for the Chinese though they might be at fault.

Foreigners should be willing to make concessions even when the Chinese are at fault. The Chinese are not blind and know that Foreigner gave them face. The reward may be bigger than what the Foreigners were hoping to get. The right attitude is short term pain and long term gain.

The best course for resolving conflicts is through prevention. Through open communication and discussion, most conflicts may be avoidable and can be avoided in advance. Good guanxi and relationship, for example, enhances the level of trust between the two sides. Having shared visions and goals or interdependent and complimentary goals, could make the two sides more sensitive to the each other's needs and concerns, more conciliatory and less self-centred. In summary, foreigners should keep the following tips in mind.

Tips for Resolving Conflicts in China