Monday, September 28, 2009

Saving Face... in China and America

It didn't take too much to draw me to Shaun Rein's article about the importance of face saving in China. Link here.

Rein reviews the way business and politics work together in China. Then, at the close he offers a money quote, well deserving of reflection:

"In the U.S. businessmen fight and yell at one another in front of subordinates. Once everything is ironed out, they become friends again and all is forgiven. In China, making someone lose face by yelling at them in front of others or otherwise making them look bad can have severe repercussions. Many Chinese don't bounce back from such an embarrassing situation and never truly forgive. Businessmen have to make sure that they always let counterparties maintain face. Be firm but never disdainful in negotiating."

Surely this is good advice for dealing with Chinese businessmen and bureaucrats. Considering how important China is becoming on the world stage we do need to gain a better understanding of Chinese culture.

Americans, in particular, should address this challenge with special effort. You do not, after all, want to insult your banker.

While I like the way Rein frames the issues, I find that he is drawing too stark a contrast between the two cultures. After all, he is writing about two different cultures, not two different species.

I would question whether Americans are so perfectly adept of overcoming public humiliation. Maybe they are better at pretending. Maybe they are better at deluding themselves into thinking that they are not angry and resentful. Maybe they find other ways to express their anger.

As I observe human experience, I find that when one person has upbraided another in public, there is precious little chance that they will instantly go back to being friends again.

They may choose to hide their grudge, but it is likely that at some time in the future, in relation to nothing in particular, the one will strike at the other in anger.

To me it is important that people not come away from Rein's article thinking that it is fine to insult Americans in public. Or that you can do it with perfect impunity.

I would strongly recommend that you not try this in your more intimate relationships. Publicly insulting your romantic partner is one of the best ways I know to sabotage and undermine a relationship.

The offended partner might not react right away. He might pretend that all is forgiven and forgotten. But then, when you are not expecting it, he will launch into a fury at something trivial you have done. You will not know what hit you and will not know where it is coming from.

In fact, it is coming from that incident three years ago when you embarrassed him at a company barbecue.

The Chinese approach has a distinct advantage. It tells us to be extremely circumspect about what we say about others in public. And it tells us to show the greatest respect for the feelings of other people.

In our therapy-laden culture, with its emphasis on free and open expression, we have been induced into believing that we can simply insult people with impunity without suffering any real consequences.

We have produced a culture where people do not watch what they say, where they believe that they should be able to get away with being offensive, and where they expect their friends and intimates to learn to live with the abuse.

As for the larger question, ask yourself this: which is the more functional culture, the one where people are considerate to a fault, or the one where people delude themselves into thinking that they can insult their friends and colleagues with impunity.

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