15 September 2011

Understanding Chinese Mindset of Personal Relationship and Face

The rise of the popularity of books like Dan Ariely's 'Predictably Irrational' and Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubne, tell us the increasing importance of non-economic factors such as social norms and feelings are getting noticed in decision making. It is not a purely rational world after all. 


Such a concept of decision making by rational and feelings is not new at all to the Chinese. In fact, it is ancient Chinese. Chinese has always stick to the integrative and dynamic balanced mindset of yin-yang ( see Yin-Yang Thinking Framework - Innovative and Critical). On the one end, it is rational 理. On the other end it is emotional/feeling/relationship 情.

Any good decision must be 合情合理 adhere to feelings/social and to reasons. With increasing stress on following the government legal systems, then a good decision must be 合情合理合法 adhering to social feelings, reasons and laws.

The Power and Danger of Human Relationship 人情
One of the key strength of Chinese Relationship is the human or personal relationship. Personal Relationship is built by doing things, giving favors 交情, and sometime saving the life 恩情 of one another. The recipient of the favors, gift or service owed the giver a favor that need to be repaid in future. The recipient is in some way beholden to the giver. The giver has a powerful influence on the recipient.

This relationship favor cannot be measured in economic terms and get its power from the strength of the moral obligation. One of the Chinese virtue is about always remembering the giver of life (such as our parents who give birth to us) and other benefits. A famous phrase is "饮水思源" When drinking water one must remember the source. Favors and benefits must be repaid to the giver when the opportunity arises in future.

Hence, the influencing power of person can be increased by doing service and giving favors to many people. In this case, we increase the wealth of favors that others owe us. Such relationship wealth can be exercised at proper time to get things done.

In Chinese society, very often, the relationship obligation 人情债 is stronger than rational reasoning. In the Eastern Culture, not just the Chinese, there is always a struggle between relationship 亲情 and righteous justice 正义. Do I value my family relationship or friendship more than righteousness, justice or even the laws. Given a choice, Chinese tends to side his own relatives and friends. He cite another principle, principle of loyalty and faithfulness to one relative and friends in defense. Hence, Sage like Mencius, praise people who place righteousness more than relationship, 大义灭亲.

The Power of Face 面子 or 颜面 - Personal Brand
Another related concept that is powerful is Giving Face 给面子 or Saving Face 保住面子. Chinese concept of face is similar to the western concept of "Brand", except that in this case, it is personal brand rather than product brand.

Having Face 有面子 is the respect and praise given by others. It comes from making good contribution to the community, achieving something great and bring glory to community, or more frequently, by doing service and giving favors to many people. Many personal relationships 多人情 will add up to give a good face or a good brand. A person with a Good Face will have power over many people. Hence, if you need help from a person who you have no relationship, you may approach a person with a Good Face (Brand) who most likely will have personal relationship with that one directly or indirectly. He will give face to the Good Face one and help you.

Face plays an important role in encouraging the practice of moral righteousness (gaining approval and praise) and in prevention of doing evils due to loss of face (shame from doing evil). 

In business, there are likely to be many administrative approvals that you need. You can go by officially. It will eventually be approved but it could take a long long time. To expedite the matter, you need to have personal relationship with the approving official or you need to know someone with a Good Face that the approving official will give face to or owe the personal relationship debt to.

The Misuse and Abuse of Face and Human Relationship - The Misunderstanding
Face and Human Relationships should not be perceived in the bad light of corruptions. Most Good Face and Human Relationships are built in normal time of helping one another and improving effectiveness of community working with one another. Steven Covey talked about the speed and productivity of trust. Face and Relationships are about trust. But because of the Power of such relationships, some may misuse and abuse them to break the laws. Breaking the laws, such as corruption, is not about building personal relationship or building Face (Brand). It is just breaking the laws. The intention and motivation are different.

Personal Network is Strength
Face and Personal Relationship are related to one network of influence. The bigger and stronger the network, the greater is one's influence. Chinese has a saying, 人脉就是钱脉, people network is money network. But the order is different, we don't pursue money for money sake. We build personal relationship network and Face (Personal Brand) by helping others and contributing to the community. The wealth comes from the network strength later.

Hope this help you in understanding the Chinese Mindset better.

Lim Liat copyrighted 14 Sep 2011
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