Saving Face

Understanding the concept of “face” in Asian culture is very important to doing business successfully. It can be a complex and difficult concept to get to grips with so this article looks to point you in the right direction. We will provide a little information on our experiences in addition to some useful links which can give you some further pointers.

It’s worth noting that “face” and the term “guanxi” ( are quite similar concepts and the understanding of one can lead to the benefit of the other. In essence we would describe “face” as being the respect you gain or impart in dealing with other individuals – this can be both on a personal level and professional level. “Guanxi” is more about your standing as an individual within a network and tends to be more aligned with professional prestige. Obviously the better you are at “saving face” or “giving face” the more successful your network or “guanxi” will become.

We have personally experienced the concept of “face” through working in Hong Kong and China and have found it to be at times a useful tool and at other times extremely frustrating. Very simply, we find that the majority of “face” situations encountered are to do with people not wishing to say no. By saying no the individual can feel that they are making you “lose face” so would prefer for you to go away with a positive impression even if it turns out nothing will come of it.

In a recruitment capacity this can obviously be a bit of a minefield. We have experienced clients providing positive feedback on candidates following interviews, some even indicating they will be taking that person on. Only through a lengthy process can it be determined that actually the “position is on hold” or “they are having to think things through regarding the position”. It’s very easy to get angry and frustrated about this but you have to be careful – allowing frustration to come through in this situation can in turn cause a “loss of face” to the client. You will find that in Asian culture people will actively look to avoid situations that can lead to a potential conflict. You can make things doubly worse if you show anger to a person thereby causing them to “lose face” whilst at the same time “losing face” yourself by displaying the anger in the first place! As you can see, it can be quite a task to get this right and people unfamiliar with the concept often feel they are tiptoeing around situations they would normal be assertive in.

“Face” can also be an extremely positive thing when doing business. The concept of “giving face” we would describe as a situation where someone gives another person a certain raised level of respect. This can be very simple to do – for example you could research a company and person before a meeting and then compliment that individual on a particular project or success that you were impressed by from your research. Another simple trick is to “give face” by taking along a senior team of staff with you – you are showing the other person you take them seriously. It’s not uncommon for meetings in Asia to have quite large teams of people on either side competing to give the other the most “face”. Sending gifts to clients at the appropriate festival time of year is another way to gain marks.

So “saving face” and “giving face” are concepts which can both hinder or benefit a given business situation. It is much more complex than this though and we could continue to write an extensive article about all the experiences we have had. We will leave you with one further well used example that we have come across which we have found nearly always impossible to get right. If you are having dinner out with a client or individual, when it comes to settling the bill you are in for a treat. Each party is expected to “give” and “save” a little “face” with each side insisting they pay for the meal. There are various opinions on who should ultimately end up paying the tab – some say that you should refuse to let the other party pay 3 times before allowing them to pay. There are others that say that if it’s your client then you should continue to try to pay until the other party backs down (this can go back and forth endlessly through gritted teeth as each party looks to avoid losing face). We tend to go with a gut instinct and “give” enough “face” to be respectful without then causing them to “lose” face by over-insisting to pay (thereby implying they are not capable of doing so)…

Ultimately, don’t be intimidated by the concept. Have fun with it and just think about being polite in most situations and you will be fine.

Some links to articles which we found interesting on the subject:

And a great book that we have read which explains the concept of Guanxi also in more detail – we particularly like the story of McDonald’s first foray into China opening a restaurant in Beijing:

 “China Uncovered: What You Need to Know to Do Business in China (Financial Times Series)” by Professor Jonathan Story.

Link on Amazon:



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