Sunday, June 19, 2011

It's about Face--and Guanxi

It’s about a Face [and Guanxi]--Building Connections and Gaining International Perspectives in Taiwan and East Asia (Part 2)
By Kevin Stoda, Beigan Island, Taiwan
As noted last week, I have been perusing Amy C. Liu’s, TAWAIN A TO Z: The Essential Cultural Guide , and last time I wrote about the concept of Guanxi (relationships). Ms. Liu states, “Every business transaction is a dealing of guanxi (關係) and every guanxi is intricately connected and maintained.” Liu also says that the concept of guanxi is fairly related “face”.
Liu defines face as “[o]ne’s social image and prestige”.
Many westerners have observed that Asians—as a whole—are very very concerned about “mianzi” [面子] or face. However, it is too rarely ever explained what sort of totality lies behind the concept of face. Liu notes, “Everything you do is about ‘face’ here in Taiwan! How you give and save it for yourself and for others is extremely important, both professionally and socially.”
Liu explains, “The Taiwanese concept of ‘face’ is similar to the Western sense of ‘being embarrassed’ or one’s ‘reputation’ but it’s much more serious than that for any Taiwanese. Face goes far beyond the self to embrace the entire family, ancestors, and everybody that is part of their ’group’. If anybody does something bad, they haven’t just harmed their own reputation, but have also brought shame upon many people (to all those in the ‘group’).”
One influential expert on Chinese culture, Lin Yutang, in the 1930s, refers to three concepts of face: “liu mianzi 留面子 ‘grant face; give (someone) a chance to regain lost honor’, shi mianzi 失面子 ‘lose face’, zheng mianzi 爭面子 ‘fight for face; keeping up with the Joneses’, and gei mianzi 給面子 ‘give face; show respect (for someone's feelings).’”
Amy Liu goes further, “The term mianzi (面子), literally means ‘face’, but it refers to the whole of a Taiwanese person’s identity. Mianzi is the perception of prestige, one’s projected social image, social self-respect and social self-esteem. It influences how people see each other, and how they relate to (and are expected to speak to) others.” In other words, “[a] person’s self-concept is connected closely with one’s ‘face’. Taiwanese who are in prestigious positions are often perceived to have ‘face’, and consequently their respect, pride and self-worth are enhanced greatly.”

One of the most important points that I’ve ever learned about East Asian “face” has now come from Amy Liu’s book.
Liu explains, “Face can only be lost in public; it is external only if someone finds out about it. Once face is lost, it is hard to regain or to recover. It’s not only a loss of trust, influence, and power, but it also affects one’s connections in the social network and one’s ability to function effectively in business.”
For me, as I read these sentences—i.e.“face can only be lost in public; it is external only if someone finds out about it”—I had one of those Ah-Hah moments here in Taiwan. Until now, I hadn’t thought of “private face” as being significantly less or more than public face.
Instead, I had thought only about the manifestations of public “tatemai” and “honne”—which I had learned about and experienced in Japan--when I lived there in the 1990s. ‘Tatemai” might be referred to as the appearance (in German: “Schein”), and Honne would be contrasted as the real or true meaning behind a public act or image (in German: “Sein”).
One website, Japanese 101 explains, “Tatemai means to prop it up, frontal view, or upfront view or not necessary[il]y the truth. [The c]losest analogy . . . Tatemai is what politicians usually say during campaign speeches. They say things which they may not mean but which they think the other side (constituents) wants to hear or expect them to say. So many . . . times (most of the time), Japanese businessman would say things in [a] Tatemai manner but does not really mean it, but said it because that was what was expected in front of groups or in public.” For example, when one is “[i]n a business meeting, one is always in public. In a formal setting, whether parties or meetings, one is always in public.”
Likewise, “Hon-ne means [literally] real bone or from the bone or the real truth. Hon-ne is rarely spoken in public. Hon-ne is supposed to be 'kept for oneself', not for others to know. This is especially true if it is a negative answer or feeling.”
NOTE: Actually, among close confidants, I know from person experience that one can usually share statements and secrets of “Hon-ne” in Japan, and, naturally, one can trust one’s real friends and “trusted ones” not to make the truth public. ( I wonder if this is not also the case in Taiwan. (I would imagine so. Taiwanese Christians, I know relate that way in private counseling and I believe student-aged friends do, too.)
On the one hand, according to Amy Liu, the Taiwanese people--perhaps due to island nation’s history of occupation and a great variety of changing regimes over the last 4 centuries--are perhaps more face-concerned, i.e. as a people, than are the Mainland Chinese or even the Japanese. The Taiwanese are certainly appear much more secretive or seem to communicate of themselves less vital information than even the Japanese and many other East Asian peoples with whom I have lived and worked with over the decades.
For example, I had a conversation with two different Taiwanese during this past month. Both agreed that the first time when either ever received an “official orientation” at their workplace or at school was when they went abroad to seminars or to university. However, I imagine that all high-context cultures appear from a Western perspective to be quite secretive. This is because we don’t know with-any-ease how to listen and observe for a great variety of cultural symbols and indirect language.
NOTE: Likewise, secrecy was so strong under Cold War Taiwanese Martial Law here in the Matsu Islands that the Taiwanese Air Force was not always informed of the need to take part in operations to do battle with the Mainland Chinese on one occasion. In the 1960s, the Taiwan navy and army mobilized and battled the communists for several hours before they realized that no one had contacted the air force to provide air cover.
One obvious reason for this sort of confusion is that the Taiwanese and their neighbors use a lot of indirect speech, so as not to be—or appear to be—too critical. “One may be explaining a large rock garden but that person maybe speaking about the relationship between their two companies.”

Concerning the above-mentioned tatemai and honne in Japanese, there are many stories—which are quite similar to my communicative experiences in Taiwan and a in a few other Asian lands. For example, according to Japanese 101: “There are many stories . . . where a westerner comes to Japan to sell something and meets a Japanese company. He comes every two months or so to have meetings and dinner with this potential Japanese company. The Japanese side is very cordial and polite every time and very nice to him taking him out to various Japanese and Continental dinner every time he visits. The westerner goes back and reports to his boss that everything is going great and he expect to close an order or sign an agreement on his next visit. He does this for about a year and no order or an agreement is signed. His boss gets impatient and cuts off his travel budget (maybe him also) and the westerner scratches his head as to what went wrong.”
The important reflection which a westerner needs to make concerns the fact that perhaps “this westerner did not listen to the other side carefully. Tatemai is always polite, not necessary true feeling, nor positive outcome. Politeness does not necessary mean agreement. Maybe there were hints (negative ones) dropped during dinner or karaoke and he did not catch it.”
At my work this past year, I was told originally that I could use my school’s two motor-scooters whenever they were not-in-use by others. Suddenly, last winter this privilege was taken away, but I didn’t discover this was the case immediately.
What was stated to me was simply, “We cannot find the keys [to the motor scooters].”
Finally, I learned around April of this year that due to insurance regulations, all teachers who did not have a motor scooter licenses were no longer allowed to use the school’s scooters as private transportation. I asked, “Why didn’t anyone simply tell me of this change months ago?”
I thought about the indirect speech, “How would a Westerner be able to read between-the-lines or indirect-speech of my superiors?” I.e. unless someone teaches me the clues to listen for?
At first, when they told me that the keys to the scooters were lost, I really thought that they meant it. Later, I thought perhaps the schools management was incompetent because they could not get around to making new keys to replace the lost ones. (I was wrong of course.)
Finally, I talked with the management this April and realized for the first time that last autumn some “hints” were dropped that there was going to be a rule-change about teacher’s using the school’s motor scooters. Here was a one-time hint (from late last October) from someone who I do not consider my overseer or my main contact at my workplace from late last October.
This man said, “You should get a [motor scooter] license.”
In some countries, that sort of statement--“You should get a license.”--might be considered a rather direct command, but not in many countries where I have traveled.
For example, in both the Caribbean and in Southeast Asia—not more than an hour flight from Taipei--I have rented scooters without showing anything but a U.S.A- or international driver’s license.” (Besides, I had also though—when the suggestion was made to get a license—that there is no place on this island where I live and work where I can obtain such a license!
Unless my school is offering to give me a few days off to go take a test on a neighboring island, “Why should I bother getting a license, i.e. as my boss had told me I could use the scooter whenever I want?”)
All-in-all, I suppose, I just wasn’t listening or wasn’t able to put the cues together that higher-ups had changed the rules—but no one wanted to lose face or make me lose face by reneging on the original promise of my main advisor.

Now, I know that the Taiwanese use a lot of indirect communication as well as keep a lot of secrets and opinions to themselves. However, I cannot forget that the concept of “face” controls relationships (guanxi).
Amy Liu notes that these precepts date back to the master—whom we in the West call Confucius. In Confucius’ world view, relationships are bound by the concept of “group over the individual”. Only friends are equal in any of these relationships.
All others--from family-relationships to work or school to relationships--involve pecking orders by age, by education, and by seniority. Saving the face of your superior and senior colleagues is important in this relationship. Likewise constructive criticism to either younger or older colleagues may mean loss of face—if done publicly (and even in some cases privately).
At my work, I may still feel like the new-guy-on-the-block but I arrived here with two master’s degrees (which no one else at my school apparently has) and 25 years of teaching experience. This means that my colleagues--and even those over me--may defer their communication to me or through indirect comments by them or through others. They may also use indirect speech to relate a command—such as a rule-change about the school’s motorcycles.

Welcome to East Asia folks!


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