When your Chinese boss makes you lose face…

Face in ChinaI wonder whether in my situation she would lose face or not…

Even if I wrote this article in 2012, we’re republishing it today because the topic is quite interesting

This year I find my April fools joke on Repubblica.it, one of the most important Italian newspapers, while I taste my coffee and delete the usual spam from my email account: The prime minister Monti to China “Invest in Italia.”

I smile and think when, in the middle of the European debt storm, I attended the last work dinner of the Rabbit’s Year: one of those endless banquets full of resounding speeches, twenty-seven main courses, the bittersweet cucumbers that – I don’t know why – are always there and the 白酒 (bai jiu) that flows as never before.

No, this is not the usual article about how do NOT “offend” Chinese people during official dinners, why you cannot plunge your chopsticks on the rice, or how you should let some food on your bowl so that the host will not think that your are still hungry and will not order another egg soup and other twelve giant squids. Nope, today I want to talk about something else.

Today I want to tell you what happens when are the Chinese, during the official banquet, make you lose face! (面子, mianzi)!

Fast forward.

Although it is the day of the big banquet one of the vice presidents, having maybe to assist to an even more important meeting, only joins us about nine pm, when the dinner is finishing. You can get from far away he drunk too much bai jiu and he feels like it’s showtime.

看看我是老板, (kan kan wo shi laoban, look at me, I’m the boss!)

Then he notices me – it’s not that hard, I’m the only white devil in the room – and talks to me from the other side of the hall. The conversation is as boring as ever: he asks me whether I can speak Chinese or not (he never saw me before), I answer “一点点” (yi dian dian, only a bit), he asks me where do I come from, I tell him “意大利” (Yidali, Italy). I’m now ready for the following up, a “我喜欢AC米兰,” (Wo xihuan AC milan, I like Milan Football Club) or maybe a “我喜欢Michelangelo,” if he has a major aesthetic taste.

But I’m wrong. Maybe because of the baijiu that makes him a bit more self-confident, it happens what you do not expect, at least not at the dinner of the year. Always screaming from the other side of the room and with most of the people tuned to the frequency that broadcasts the conversation between the boss and that laowai that talks with a weird accent, the vice president Yu smiles again and then speaks up:

“意大利很穷,欧元不太好” (yidali hen qiong, ouyuan bu tai hao, Italy is poor, the Euro useless). He laughs out loud, then concludes:

“Everybody wants Renminbi, no one wants Euro anymore!” The background buzz suddenly stops and lets space into a blank silence.

This is when I understand I’m not living in France anymore (or in Italy, for what it matters), where my boss used to call me le grand tricheur (the big cheater), referring to the epic headbutt of Zidane to Materazzi: everybody used to laugh a bit – me too, we are the ones that won that world cup after all: – P – and then the topic changed. But here we are at another longitude: according to the Chinese code the vice president Yu made me lose face : – O

Let’s make it clear: make a mistake – and then lose face – in my opinion (and cultural background) it’s the most important step on the continuous learning process we call “life”. Or, to speak Latin, I don’t give a f*ck about (my) face.

Furthermore, emigrants are used to getting teased. The most common teases an Italian emigrant hears are mafioso, falloso (foul, referred to football players), pizzaiolo (pizzamaker), and playboy. But in the last seven years of living abroad, I heard whatever “insult” you can think about. And I must say I’m proud of all of them (well, let’s exclude the “mafioso” thing, which BTW only very ignorant people ever told me). You will ask: even foul? Yes, I’m also proud of “foul”! Do you think that Claudio Gentile during Italy-Argentina 1982 used poetry to stop “El Diego,” como lo llama Luis. Nope! In order to stop Maradona there was only one way: beat him hard! Ask the English players : – P

But I’m going out of the track, as usual…

Getting back to the vice president Yu, if an American CEO would have said the same thing
(“Italy is poor, Euro useless”) in front of 1,000 Yankees, I would have taken it as a simple tease as the other ones (mafioso, pizzaiolo, Mario Bros,…)

The problem was that all the Chinese on the hall took the “tease” extremely seriously: the silence about the fact, the change of atmosphere from jovial to tense, the gazes that started to study the floor and the hands that switched on a cigarette after the other.

It was like they felt the boss made me lose face, and as a consequence, there was no harmony anymore…

At least this is what I felt on the spot. Then I just answered with a neutral “好吧” (hao ba), which you can translate as “ok”.

The vice president Yu, at this point quite embarrassed, switches interlocutor, tries to talk about another subject, but then doesn’t resist: he comes to my table, makes a taste to me, and seats down to talk with me for about ten minutes. He never apologizes, which would be equivalent to admitting he made me lose face, however, he grants me the attention and the time necessary to “give me back” the face that he “took” from me before.

Well, this article is just a chronicle of an everyday situation you may encounter living and work in China; with this post, I had in no way the ambition to describe the complexity of Asian “face culture”, which would require a much more in-deep study than the eight hundred words I taped while I was drinking my coffee (two cups, I admit).

I hope I was able to make you “feel” a bit how complex the “face culture” maybe.

For a more general analysis on “face culture”, you can read this long and well-thought article by China-Mike.com: The cult of face.

And you, what do you do when Chinese make you lose face?

Photo Credits: Photos by Sapore di Cina

16 thoughts on “When your Chinese boss makes you lose face…”

  1. On a different note, I want to say I recently travelled to Italy and greatly enjoyed my time there except for this one restaurant in Rome that didn’t post their prices and ripped me off…other than that, most Italians were delightful. I was surprised to find the Italian sense of humor is very similar to Americans. Beautiful country! It was amazing to see the old and new, ancient version of Western culture, so much was familiar to me. My broken Spanish and sparse Latin helped me get by with the language. Unlike other countries I have visited, I very much felt like an insider, part of the culture. What an experience!

    1. Glad to hear you enjoyed your trip to Italy! Yes, in Rome (and other cities) tourists are often an easy targets for scams. No matter the country you visit, you shall always check prices on restaurants before to order!

      1. “No matter the country” I disagree :-) You probably do not have to worry about such things in many countries: Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia etc.
        Per certe cose l’italia non e tanto differente della cina–questo lo sappiamo. :-)

  2. I have often gotten into these situations, being on the West Coast of the U.S. Growing up around Asians, I think face culture has both endearing and childish characteristics. One instance I remember, I was in my local Chinatown grocery and the store owner’s spoiled daughter balled out a worker extensively in front of me. She was obviously trying to show off for my benefit. The worker looked to be a much lower social class, probably spoke no English, possibly illiterate. I was completely appalled. I wanted to say something to him to show sympathy but I could tell that would only make it worse. I realized all I could do was act like I didn’t see that and carry on as normal. I could tell that was what he wanted and I restored his dignity in part by doing so, but it took a lot of restraint on my part. I wanted to smack the lady. If she wanted to show off how American she was she should have treated him better.

  3. This was a really interesting story, but I want to know what might have happened had you responded differently.

    There’s no doubt the exchange you had with Vice President Yu was intended to be challenging and adversarial, but I wonder if maybe there are better ways to respond.

    If you had replied to VP Yu “Hmm, actually I agree with you, Italy’s economy is going downhill and I think the Euro is losing popularity to the Yuan” would that be a better response, one that both gives face to VP Yu (by agreeing with his opinion) and saves him face by avoiding an unsavoury situation, or would it be seen as a sort of pathetic/weak submission to his challenge?

    Cheers, David.

    1. Hello,

      why shall I have given him any help to save the situation? I was happy with the situation going down hill.

      Also, keep in mind that my Chinese at that time was extremely limited and almost nobody on the room understand much English, so complex answers were out of question.

  4. Last autumn/winter term I attended the International Chinese Business Programme offered by Ocean University of China in Qingdao (海洋大学), which is usually made up of mainly Germans (like me), but about a quarter of the students were from France, and no Chinese students. One of our weekly guest lectures was on the different SEZs and the Shanghai Free Trade Zone, as far as I remember and the lecturer was drinking Sprite like there was no tomorrow, which was funny enough.
    Later, during the question session, I think I was more occupied with thinking about what to say than to pronounce the words correctly, so I pronounced a word in a funny way to which he replied something like “Oh, the Germans’ English is not so good”. But then later, a French girl said another thing and he said something similar to “French seem to speak English worse than the Germans!” All of this in a happy and accommodating way. The scene appeared a bit bizarre, but in no way as devastating as with your banquet of course, since the lecturer was the only Chinese. I still have to chuckle when I think about it.

  5. Pardon, u taped people’s conversations in a café to learn the daily chinese? Should I do the same to pickup the language, hehe. Btw I’m a chinese in Malaysia, without a grasp in Chinese (I know how “funny”). How do u continue to learn with insults/teases like that?! It makes me hate the language & indirectly giveup on it. What keeps u motivated?

  6. ;-)
    Being French and in China for the last 15 years of my expat life I read you with interest and a smile…. (for the football side of your post).
    I must first say that I am an happy married folk with a great Chinese wife and father of a little guy who learns on a daily basis cultural differences…
    I faced a couple of times the experience you are describing even though it was not related to currency (BTY the VP was right, people around prefer keeping RMB rather than Euros).
    However it always ended up with the offender realizing (over the bai jiu vapors) that he went one step too far and (in private) apologizing for his misbehavior.
    One important point, in the modern Chinese society, is to show that you not only are powerfull, but also educated.
    I met recently a Vice Minister who highlighed this fact to me, recognizing at some point that provincial leaders should, within their training cursus, be exposed to proper behavior during social events.
    I believe you faced an old crook (sorry, an old Crook, with all due respect) that should be history very soon.
    Finally, I wish you should take an isolated (dramatic) incident as a base ground to draw kick conclusions.
    Chinese people have one of the most sensitive human interaction system I ever experienced (no Stokolm syndrom in here).
    I would finally put it on the devastating effect on drinking too much bai jiu.
    Liu De Peng

    1. Hey Liu,

      merci pour passer ici and let this insightful comment. Your son is lucky, is learning two of most difficult languages on the world hehe BTW in a past post I describe how much painful it was learning French for me : – P

      About my post, I do like Chinese people (my girl is Chinese) and I agree with you the vice president Yu is not bad, he just drunk too much baijiu that night.

      Also, as I wrote in the post, I’m quite used to be teased and I don’t put too much importance on it. What really impressed me that night was the sudden change of atmosphere in the hall. You put it right, nowadays is not only important to show power, but also to know how to behave.

      And by “insulting” me the vice president destroyed the harmony LoL

      à bientot!


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