Facing the “Chinese Face Issue”

By Xi Cao


Being Chinese and also a mediator, after taking a number of mediation cases related to the Chinese community, I dread thinking of how a multi-cultural mediator, like me, would have fared in a more comprehensive inner-city experience, outside of the center elsewhere in LA.

LA is known as a cultural melt-pot in U.S. People here are more open to live through different cultures. On the other hand, cross-culture problem is also standing out. When party one (P1) cannot understand party two’s (P2) culture, and P2 is not aware of P1’s incomprehension, cultural misunderstandings become personal attacks, and then unnecessary fights are ultimately triggered.

According to the large Chinese population in LA, Chinese culture is not strange to LA people. However, when concerned about conflicts, most non-Chinese may be easy to disregard one important characteristics of China, called “Face Issue” (Mian Zi in Chinese). Many foreigners maybe have heard of it, but few people will take it into serious consideration. In China, the society does place a great deal of importance on “Face Issue” within communities, business, and politics. For example, in a business negotiation, if one company gets more material benefits, it’d better give the other one more “Faces”, such as thank you letters or publicities.

 In one case involving both Taiwanese and Chinese mainland parties, the Taiwanese party complained that mainland Chinese woman never paid the Home Association fee on time. But when I reached the mainland Chinese lady, she said the Taiwanese woman always shouted rowdy at her, in front of all neighbors, to remind her of the payment. So she felt her ego was particularly shot and she lost her “Face”, meaning got insulted.

After I passed on this “Face Issue” problem to the Taiwanese party, she was shocked and said the mainland Chinese woman is “too sensitive” about being offended or having her feelings hurt. So even for Taiwanese people, who are actually part of the Chinese Han Nation culture, cannot fully understand this “Face Issue”, let alone other non-Chinese people.

Some non-Chinese people claim that they don’t appreciate the significance of this “Face Issue.” However, APADRC is not a place to police people’s feelings. We are not the palace of nobilities; we are more like a hospital of broken relationships. Our job is meant to identify the problem, to come up with possible treatments, and to restore a healthy relationship. Actually, on another level, this “Face Issue” can also bring about some upsides. It can be good motivation to strive for life dreams. Moreover, people could be more progressive and thoughtful, since everyone tries so hard to protect each other’s “Faces”. Therefore, instead of judging that whether this is a good or a bad moral, more important thing for mediators is to be acknowledge that it’s just part of Chinese culture.

So what does exactly this Chinese “face issue” mean?

China is renowned as a nation of valuing etiquette and propriety ever since ancient times. So they have been educated by the Confucianism to look well-mannered at any cost, especially on surface. Whatever inside they are, they have to keep their appearance pretty, even it is polite pretty. That is the so-called “Face Issue”. Thus, for Chinese people, they do care more about their “Face” rather than the “peace”.

Sacrificing for “Face” is spoken highly by Chinese society. Like the saying in English, “it is an ill bird that fouls its own nest”; in Chinese, they say “Men can’t live without face, trees can’t live without bark.” Chinese culture is more focused on cynical success. Under the severe pressure of fierce competition, they’ve been taught since they were born that “you have to be the best”. If they are not the top one, then they are losers. But that’s not a possible world. Therefore, in order to be not viewed as a loser, at least, Chinese people have to keep their face up ostensibly. So “Face” is their bottom line. Once Chinese people lose their face, they feel they lose everything.

What’s more, Chinese people are taking this “Face” custom for granted and pass on it naturally to people around them. But this pursuit of face is very different from western culture. Although this “Face Issue” is so well-known among Chinese, it’s a very sensitive alarm button. Chinese people always shy away from this topic. If you recognize there is a “Face” fight, it’s better to not touch it and say it out, otherwise it will become another “Face” problem to put this “face issue” on the table.



So faced with clash of two cultures actuated by Chinese “Face Issue”, a tall order for mediators is how to spot this invisible “Face Issue”?

First, since Chinese people would feel mortified to roll out that their “Face Lost” is the real reason of the dispute, for mediators, it’s better keep this “Face Issue” in mind when we try to build up our relationship with Chinese people. For example, if there is a case in which one party feels a Chinese person recently starts to keep niggling the other party for no obvious reason, probably because the other party has already ripped the Chinese party’s “face” off before. Thus, it could be helpful if mediators can try to place ourselves in a Chinese way of thinking, to be a little bit more careful about their “Faces Protection”. Likewise, if non-Chinese people could be more informed about this Chinese “face” culture, we could help parties to seek for the right culprit hidden behind the exterior performance, and it could be easier to find out more practical solutions.

For instance, in another case, P1 is a Chinese tenant, who claimed that P2, the American landlord always deliberately ignores his requests for housing repair service. But P2 insisted that P1 is just picking on her and bothering her by grumbling about small, tiny problems of her house. Those problems however are nothing for other tenants who live in the same condition. It turns out that P2 was a very knowledgeable math professor, once when they calculated the rent price, P1 made a mistake and P2 laughed at him, “you are a fake math professor.” After that, P1 felt that he lost his face completely and took P2’s behaviors as the mere fact that “all she is doing is only trying to embarrass me.” So P1 started to take an eye for an eye.

When I asked P2 that if she had ever noticed that P1 got pissed off from her unconscious “insult”, she said “I saw him confounded at that time, but that was just a joke!” So if P2 knew more about this “Face” problem and could have followed up clarifying that she was just kidding, maybe P1 would not be a lemon to her. In addition, both parties at the beginning never had any intention to mention about this totally irrelevant story, but after I asked P1, “is there anything you feel P2 had disrespected you ever?” P1 confessed this unpleasant incident to me. I explained the whole “Face” culture background to P2, that it is a particularly serious issue for high-educated people. P2 then showed her understandings and respects to this different culture.

I know things like this case are kind of sophomoric, but it is common and acceptable that majority people like the feeling of getting their adrenaline pumping. When their ethos and dignities were fenced down and their honor get into trouble, it feels like huge hormones boil their blood and give them a shot of adrenaline. They are no longer fighting for money, they are fighting for their self-worth and sense of pride, a very proud defense.

Second, while listening to words, it’s good for mediators to pay more attention to their body languages and facial expressions. In order to keep “face” good-looking, Chinese people are more likely to be indirect and inexpressive. Primarily, after losing their faces, verbal descriptions could mostly even be the opposite of their real mind. Americans usually go straight to put forward with their goals, in turn, Chinese people feel uncomfortable to bring up their requirements directly. So for proving their righteousness, Chinese parties always tell a chain of stories around the core issue but never are right on point. Most people who are not familiar with this kind of culture, will feel it’s waste of time, whereares, that’s just the very way we, as mediators, start to get glimpse at the case flashpoint.


Under this “face issue”, there is a norm that generally, Chinese people like to show off more than what they have, because they like to hide their real “face” and only appear what they want to show to other people. A typical example is that, even though there was a world war III in the house last night, next morning, the couple still will clasp their fingers and show off affection outside in front of their colleagues or friends. For Chinese, it is a pious “Fake Face”.

Actually that “face”, to me, also has another name, called “mask”. Personally, I would like to say the “Face” on Chinese is literally a friendly “mask”. This intangible “mask” is very vulnerable and fragile. No one could even touch or present it. But this “mask” is also so real and shining that no one could overlook or neglect it as well. If someone dares to tear this “mask” out from Chinese faces, that will be like ripping off their bandages and expose their scars. They will be incredibly irritated to shake up the peace and battle lines are being drawn.

Therefore, if mediators have to peel parties’ mask off, by realizing this potential Chinese “face issue”, we could do it in a more subtle and soft way. It’s better for us to let the party put their “mask” down by their own hands. Chinese people are afraid of risking the shame and embarrassment of being singled out by their friends. In that circumstances, the “Face Issue” is absolutely very ethical interpretation. If only after the first round of mediation, the answer is already a resounding “no”, and it tends that in the further negotiation, both parties don’t want to knuckle under to each other’s demands or they are getting livid with each other, somehow for the way that they’ve behaved before mediation, there perhaps is a huge clash of cultures. Mediators can assist parties in revisiting their older stories to crack the code of their trouble.

For Chinese mediators, vice versa, we need to be aware: it’s common that non-Chinese parties do not see the point of this conventional “Face Issue”. One of my taste of conciliation taught me that mediators have to have the ability and techniques to get parties back, grab them together, slide back over and put them through the tough hatred conversations. In a recent case, I was prepared for what I was going to suffer, but it was still a panic. P1, a Chinese resident was talking from the minute she called, to the minute she hang up the phone, and not listening to a word I was saying. On the contrary, P2, an Indian neighbor was really indifferent and cold shoulder. All her answers are extremely concise. Both parties don’t care about each other’s distinguishing talking style at all, and they are unwilling to be subject to the other. Basically, they are just going to carry on being the way they are.

It’s starting to dawn on me that why things are going so wrong in Chinese cases. I was dying a thousand deaths in a tedious diet of talking from P1, and I was having a strong feeling at the moment that this case was going to fail. Even the most mild-mannered mediators have been pushed to breaking point. So for the time being, I told P1, “you are very good at starting, but what I’m getting is not a clear point of view within your answers”. I tried to convince her that she needs to change her old patterns and adapt to P2’s talking style at first, otherwise nothing will get done. So I told her, “please try to call P2, and only listen to him for a minute, just one minute, silently. If you cannot put up with it, after one minute, hang up and call me back. I will give you one hour to talk whatever you want to share.” After she called P2, she started to calm down and narrated orderly and I was gradually getting a voice or an opinion behind her answers. I started to understand what was important to both of them and what they were trying to achieve.

To the credit of Chinese people, they think they are responding well. It was just the other party that did not give them enough respect. That’s why we need to make Chinese party to reach out their arms and embrace western culture. If None of people had understood it before, mediators are responsible to get this issue straight away, because if we can make western style, which is in stark contrast to the traditional Chinese approach, so much sense to Chinese party, they can willingly unveil their “mask” and put smiles on their real “face”. It’s a learning curve for both parties. It’s maybe a bit disheartening for them, but it is the diverse in peace we enjoy.

It is understandable that nobody is born to apprehend other customs. If they feel those customs are not quite as appreciative. Something are different from their own experience, they will feel hard to accept it, because that’s what they’ve been conditioned to accept. Yet, Facing with typical cultural contradict when misunderstanding builds, as mediators, we are not trying to get parties knuckled down and mold them into best American model of residence; we are not trying to judge which culture system will come out on top; we are just trying to open people’s eyes, help them see the beauty of difference.