By Dianne Hofner

A couple traveling in China enjoys the praise they receive from Chinese friends they have just met — compliments about their country and family. They wonder, however, if it’s empty flattery or meaningful praise. Unbeknownst to them, their new friends are disappointed that they fail to return the compliments.

A businesswoman gives a presentation to a group of Chinese who listen quietly without asking any questions. She is disappointed that they do not seem interested. Afterwards, nearly half of the audience stays to ask her questions. When she explains that she has to hurry to other appointments, they seem upset.

Those who travel in China or work with Chinese colleagues will find their experiences much more rewarding if they make an attempt to learn a bit about Chinese culture and to see things from the point of view of their Chinese friends and colleagues. Cultural differences can cause problems, or they can prove to be enjoyable opportunities for learning and discovery.

The aim of this column, Intercultural Viewpoints, is to take you on a journey of discovery, a journey designed to help you more fully enjoy and appreciate Chinese people.

Can you empathize with the Chinese in the two stories above? How would it feel to be the tourist or the businessperson in the story? Do these two stories have anything in common?

One theme underlying both stories is the value that many Chinese people place on face. In the first story, the new friends are giving face to the tourists. Flattery is a method of building rapport and relationships. In the second story the audience members are saving face. They may not want to ask their questions in the large forum for fear of appearing that they don’t understand, and they would not want to cause the presenter to lose face by implying she hasn’t been clear in her remarks.

Face, or mianzi in Mandarin, is the desire to maintain high status in the eyes of others. Saving face is the desire to avoid appearing inappropriate, shamed, or wrong, while giving face is praising others and showing respect. Both giving and saving face are critically important strategies for earning respect and loyalty. Paying attention to face issues can enhance your understanding of your Chinese friends and colleagues, and help you strengthen your relationships with them.

China’s population numbers 1.3 billion people, compared to 300 million in the U.S., though the two countries have roughly the same land area. Just as there is no typical American, neither is there a typical Chinese. We are each unique. It is also true that we are products of the culture(s) in which we have been raised. Whether we recognize our culture or not, it affects how we see things, how we set priorities, what we desire, and how we go about achieving our objectives. I look forward to future cross-cultural journeys with you!

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