Business Tips: The Concept of Saving Face
Understanding the concept of saving face will help you network and establish a good reputation in the business world, whether you’re a top executive at a Fortune 500 company in Hong Kong or you’ve just landed your first job on Wall Street. For Asian companies wishing to expand into the US, or for Westerners hoping to expand into the Asian market, there are a few things to remember when you’re doing business in a new market. Cultures differ in many ways as far as how companies conduct business, how co-workers relate to each other, and how executives build relationships of trust with each other. You will succeed quicker in the business world when you understand these differences. One of the hardest things for Europeans, Americans, and Canadians to understand is the Asian concept of “saving face” and how important it is in Asian business dealings. It’s a highly respectful way of relating to your peers that will get you ahead in any market and any business situation, whether you’re in Dallas or Singapore.
Respect, Dignity, and Reputation: the Aspects of Face
Imagine that you are in a group of your peers—people whose good will you want to have—and one of your friends tells a story that humiliates you and makes people laugh at you. Or imagine that someone has questioned your credibility in front of others or behind your back. Both situations could cause you humiliation and a potential lowering of status. This is partially what “face” is about in Asia. It is a concept that is threaded throughout the daily lives of most Asian cultures, and to deliberately (or even unintentionally) cause someone to lose credibility, reputation, dignity, honour, or influence among his or her peers or colleagues (or even to him or herself) is a sin rarely forgiven.
If you are born and raised in the West, it’s easy to grossly underestimate how important saving face is. To ask a stupid question or make a mistake in front of others is not considered to be nearly as devastating to you in the West as it would be to someone raised in China, Japan, or other Asian countries. In the West, companies like to say that “no questions are stupid questions” and they open business meetings to all types of input in the hopes of coming up with fantastic and creative solutions. In the East, exposing yourself as an unknowledgeable person or offering an idea that is shot down as unworkable or idiotic is one of the worst things that could happen to you and your reputation. This is why Westerners often don’t get a lot of audience input or participation when trying to lead a Western-style motivational business seminar in an Asian country.
How to Allow Your Coworkers and Clients to Save Face (and Save It Yourself)
The most important thing to remember is that your counterparts must be able to walk away from an encounter or meeting with you feeling good about their contribution to a project or plan. Good meetings enable all participants to go away with increased respect, dignity, and reputation. There are specific things you can do to make sure you are working in a way that helps your coworkers and clients save face.
- Dress respectfully for each meeting. This almost always means formal business attire in conservative colours.
- Accept a business card with both hands and study it for a few moments before setting it carefully in front of you at a conference table or placing it into a nice card holder. Don’t ever take a business card one-handed, give it a passing glance (or none at all), and then stuff it into your suit jacket pocket like we do in the West.
- Accept invitations to all pre-meeting or post-meeting casual events, including dinners, parties, etc.
- Do not simply accept a gift right away. Respectfully and politely refuse it at first, but when pressed, accept it graciously with both hands.
- Always show extra respect to people who are older than you or who are higher in rank or status. Show respect to all persons in a meeting or in the room, because the quietest person there may be the most influential.
- Never point out mistakes or contradict your counterpart in front of others. Bending the truth is acceptable in Asian business, but publicly accusing someone of outright lying is not acceptable.
- Never touch your Asian business counterpart in a casual, Western manner, such as slapping or punching his or her arm when telling a joke.
- If your host offers to pay for a meal, resist a little at first before graciously giving in.
- Sincere compliments are always acceptable.
Offering a professional front to your Asian business counterparts is part of saving face because you are showing them the respect of sharing with them your prestigious, comfortable office space and conference rooms. Serviced and virtual offices in Asia are the CEO Suite speciality, allowing you to conduct business in beautiful, fully appointed offices at high-end addresses on short- or long-term bases.