The Art of Mianzi

Americans might benefit from a greater understanding of the Chinese custom of saving face, or Mianzi.

The Chinese concept of “face” (aka 面子 or miànzi) refers to a cultural understanding of respect, honor and social standing. Actions or words that are disrespectful may cause somebody to “lose face” while gifts, awards and other respect-giving actions may “give face”.

For good or for bad, Americans’ preoccupation with being right and transparency, seems to have folks battling-it-out on every single issue. Calling people out in public. Pursuing them until they are fired. Demanding video to confirm or deny what did, or did not, happen.

There is more at risk than your own embarrassment when you act to loose face, those near you are affected as well. So they act accordingly.

Raising your voice with someone in public is strictly frowned upon. Causing a scene makes bystanders lose face through embarrassment suffered on your behalf. They may actually scurry away from the scene to save face! Even if you win whatever argument, you’ll lose as a whole.

Don’t misunderstand my allegiance to the individualism and pursuit of the truth facilitated by our democratic system. It’s just with a public health crisis impacting our economic activity, I’m wondering if there is something to learn from those who start all solutions from the communal vantage point. If, by allowing some people, or groups of people, a little slack in making the wrong decisions, we will move more quickly to plan B, C or D? By letting people save face we skip that time delay of digging-in to hold onto poorly conceived territory.

I sure don’t grasp the fine tuned logistics of Manzi. But the Chinese have a whole social capital structure in Guanxi-based corporate social capital tied into their business dealings. There is an understanding and acceptance that social transactions are a component of economic outcomes.

Allowing people to be wrong at times without a public airing seems to be a way to keep the whole machine purring gently. Can’t we just let some arguments die without an investigation? After all that’s how we live our lives. You’ll strike out as a parent if you berate your kid when he’s up to bat, and your marriage will be stinkier than the garbage that your husband forgot to pull to the curb if you make a scene out in front of the neighbors. We evaluate which battles to fight all the time.

Maybe saving face has a place on this side of the Pacific.

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