The Chinese aversion to self-assertion is well-illustrated by the concept of Lien, or “Face”. Lien refers to the many ways in which a person earns or gains the respect of others, and develops and maintains that respect once earned. There are many aspects of Lien: one can lose Lien, gain Lien, lose Lien for others. One can also get the most unfortunate reputation of one who does not want Lien, or worse, as one who has no Lien.
One’s Lien is referred to by the “thickness” of the “skin” over the Lien—it is either thick or thin. One with a thick skin on the Lien is a person who is not overly sensitive to the potentially negative behavior of others, which is a good attribute in some circumstances. On the other hand, you may well run across individuals in Singapore who have a very thin skin on their Lien—and it will pay you dividends to know who these people are—in advance.
Face is a difficult phenomenon to describe. One way is to say that it is the prevention of embarrassment at all costs. Asian cultures emphasize a concern with loss of Face for the individual personally and for others as well. For example, a son would never disagree with his father in public. This would not only cause loss of Face to his father and himself, but to his mother and siblings as well.
The use of anger or an excessively loud voice is not acceptable behavior. This results in the loss of Face for all involved. In matters of conflict, Singaporeans may prefer methods of indirect confrontation rather than direct (i.e. not returning phone calls rather than saying “no”).
It is advisable never to make a Chinese person feel ashamed—lose Face—in the presence of others. This undermines his respectability or authority with those who witness the shaming. A person should always speak with care and sensitivity in situations that have the risk of loss of Face.
Your Chinese friends’ and associates’ Face is as important to them as your sense of personal identity is to you as an American. It is important to remember that many if not most Chinese see themselves as SEAMLESSLY INTEGRATED with their group, meaning their business unit, their family, and their social, professional, and friendship networks.
This seamless integration depends upon the integration of each person’s individual Face with the Face of all others AND with the collective Face of the group. Anything that affects the Face of one individual or one group affects the Face of all those connected with that person or group, and the intensity of this effect is not moderated by distance, time, or rank/status.
This means that being aware of and tending to the Face of Chinese colleagues will not only avoid problems, it will encourage them to tend to your Face in very positive ways.
The American concern for the integrity of the Self occupies a similar place in our culture to that occupied by concern for Face in Chinese culture . Perhaps the closest that it is possible to get is to understand that to a Chinese person Face is important in the same way that an American’s Self is important—both Face and Self are at the core of the persons being—with some very interesting implications for Chinese-US relationships. Just as many Westerners get extremely concerned and threatened when their Self-respect is compromised, Chinese tend to be extremely concerned about losing Face, which means losing the respect of others.
Face has been given many different explanations by Westerners. It has been compared with our concepts of dignity, self-esteem and pride, but these are superficial comparisons. The reason many Westerners have a hard time grasping the deep meaning of Face is because it reflects a uniquely Asian/Confucian point of view—the seamless integration of the person with the group, the community and with all of the relationships which define and give meaning to their existence.
Since we don’t have this sense of integration with the group in our culture, the concept of Face is based on a relationship between people which is literally FOREIGN to us. By explaining Face as shame, embarrassment, or loss of honor we are individualizing and personalizing the concept in a very American way, which prevents us from understanding it the Chinese way.
Excerpted and adapted from the ebook "Cultural Dimensions of Expatriate Life in Singapore" by Bill Drake.