Let’s face it. To achieve success in a Chinese work environment, you will need to grasp the importance of face in China. Face is a deeply rooted concept in Chinese culture and a person’s reputation and prestige with multiple spheres such as family, workplace, personal friends, and the entire society depends on it.

Hence, contrary to most westerners who tend to be direct when communicating, Chinese believe in giving face, which means showing respect to others while interacting. I’m not implying that westerners lack respect while interacting, but the most important thing is to understand that face is a vital part of the Chinese business environment. A lack of consideration of face can make or break your business dealings in China.

Understanding face

Understanding the face concept is easy. The concept can be broken down into several components which include community view, individual view, and actions.

The individual view concerns your prestige based on your accomplishments and the respect that you feel is brought about by your status or position in your workplace or home. For example, In China’s hierarchy-focused community, your respect will be determined by your status in relation to another person’s status.

The community view as part of the face concept refers to the respect that one feels necessary to accord to someone else based on status, such as business, the family unit, or even friends. A good example is that in China a family is divided by very distinctive roles, and there are even special terms used to address older and younger aunts, uncles, and cousins. It is a breach of etiquette to accord the same respect to older and younger uncles. Also, this applies to the workplace and therefore, to save your face at your workplace in China, you must understand this concept.

Actions as a component of face concept refer to different activities that may make you gain or lose face – gain respect or lose it. Based on your position in relation to someone else, different actions could either cause you to gain face (gain respect) or lose face (lose respect).

The face concept and business in China

The face concept plays a significant role in intra and inter-company communication development and in maintaining business relationships, and the business negotiations. A company hierarchy is more important in China than in the western countries and for westerners, it is important to understand the code of conduct expected in such a working environment.

You should understand that a clear distinction between various levels of management is very important because you will be able to accord each leader the respect they deserve. For example, Chinese business managers expect their subordinates to respect them. In most cases, they expect their juniors to obey them without questions, regardless of the rationality or fairness of the request. If you don’t obey the manager’s will, then you will have denied that person the respect they deserve. Therefore, to save your face in a Chinese workplace, make sure that you have understood the right way of doing things.

Here are tips to help you save face in a Chinese work environment

1. Avoid crossing your boss

Chinese have the tendency of authority-worshiping and in such cases, showing respect is very important, especially when communicating with your superiors. Avoid disagreements with your managers in front of others regardless of how true and accurate you are. If you don’t, your boss may lose face (respect and honor) in public, and this comes with unfavorable consequences.

2. Avoid being a threat

Recognizing your boss’s prestige and treating your managers with respect goes beyond how you communicate in every aspect of your job. Demonstrating or implying that you are better than your manager whether intentionally or otherwise, will bring a loss of face for them. Keeping face in mind becomes more serious if you become a threat to their position in the workplace.

3. Always support your superiors

Instead of becoming a threat to your superiors, focus on supporting them and protecting their face. For example, find more effective ways to implement their instructions and praise them in front of your colleagues. This makes them earn more respect, and it may help you in the long run by making them your ally.

4. If you are a manager, think before you criticize

If you are the manager at your workplace, it is important to be equally aware of your juniors’ faces. While it is difficult to avoid criticism, if done in the wrong way, it risks humiliation and loss of face. Think before you criticize and emphasize their positive contributions. This will increase the chance of your subordinates listening to you.

5. With peers, always resolve your differences before meetings

While dealing with your colleagues, you need to tread carefully. Keep off of opposing them publicly during meetings. Try getting a consensus by privately working with them.

6. Avoid prying into people’s personal lives

It is advisable to be polite in a Chinese workplace. Leave other people’s personal lives especially if they don’t want to disclose everything to you. For example, if a colleague is vague about where he was during the holiday, stop asking so many questions about the matter.

7. Learn the Chinese culture

The more you understand the Chinese culture, the easier it becomes for you to grasp the face concept. This will not only help you save face at the workplace but also give you an easy time while interacting with the Chinese. Remember that the Chinese people have their definitions of standard corporate practices based on their culture so the earlier you grasp this culture, the better it will be for you.


Saving face can sound complicated to foreigners who are contemplating working or investing China, but there is no need to despair. First, it is worth noting that foreigners are not expected always to adhere to the exact standards of respect and prestige as the locals in China do. However, this does not mean that you can yell and show disrespect to your superiors at the workplace. Therefore, it is important for the foreigners who wish to work in China to invest time in learning the concept of face, how it will affect their businesses or job positions, and how they can save face.