Cultural barriers have constantly been a challenge for conducting international business but it’s always been most apparent when West meets East. Social protocol can be so different that miscommunication can often lead to unintended offenses. Here’s an anecdote from Forbes that illustrates how business is done in China along what you can do to prevent social gaffes:
“The scene: In the Shanghai office of a U.S. multinational corporation, Head of Sales, expat Ian Foster meets with his local direct reports to discuss last month’s target shortfall. Regional Sales Manager Yuan Li is questioned repeatedly about his team’s continuing underperformance. Foster openly states his disappointment that issues previously highlighted about Li’s sales team do not appear to have been addressed. He repeats his expectation that the RSM is accountable for the results of his team and that Li should have escalated the issues. Li nods silently and peers out the window. He leaves the meeting, avoids a further discussion with Foster, and never returns.
To Yuan Li, open criticism in the presence of his peers is a very damning indictment. His pride is in tatters. He feels his reputation is compromised. He has lost self-respect – he has lost face. Mianzi, saving face, is a critical element of the Chinese social structure. We can all relate to the embarrassment we feel when our flaws or failures are publicly exposed, but the Chinese (along with many other eastern nations) have a super-sensitive radar for this.
As described in the above scene, being criticized or challenged publicly causes a loss of face. So too does openly losing your temper, direct confrontation or failing to show respect.
The severe consequences of losing face make many Chinese strive to save face, for themselves and others. This can be observed by the Chinese tendency to suppress negative opinions and emotions, show respect and avoid causing shame or dishonor.
Even more proactive is finding ways to create or give face. Acknowledging social status, showing appreciation through public praise or giving expensive gifts and recognizing prestige all elevate the recipient and give face.”