By Dorcas Cheng-Tozun
When I started managing Chinese National employees while living in the industrial city of Shenzhen, China, the biggest challenge to my cross-cultural relationships was not language, as I expected it to be. Nor was it my ignorance of Chinese labor law or typical business practices. It was, to my great surprise, the concept of face.
Face—our image of ourselves and the level of esteem, dignity, and prestige we perceive from others—was of such concern to my Chinese National coworkers that the most innocuous of questions could be taken as an affront: Have you finished that project yet? Would you mind making these changes to your presentation? Deadlines were missed, large-scale mistakes were made—and frequently no one said anything for fear of losing face. Any attempt to address mistakes or hold people accountable, even in the friendliest, most supportive and respectful way I could manage, was received as shameful and insulting.
After a year of uncomfortably stretching effort from all sides, my relationships with my colleagues stagnated. Growing up in a Chinese immigrant family, I thought I understood face. But not to this degree. I did not know how to filter my every word and action based on a consideration of face, and my coworkers only knew of an existence where face was all-encompassing and all-important.
Prioritizing face is likely intended to protect ourselves and one another from shame, to handle each other’s egos as carefully as we might handle a lovely glass sculpture. And while this sounds wonderful in concept, the day-to-day reality that I discovered in China was far different.
When we focus on preserving face, we prioritize image over relationships and authenticity. We focus on who we want other people to think we are, rather than who we actually are. We hide our true feelings, our true opinions, our true needs. Playing the face game becomes a practice in pretending: pretending something hasn’t happened, pretending things are better than they are, pretending we’re all fine when clearly we’re not.
In short, we do exactly the opposite of what God calls us to do: to care about what’s on the inside rather than the externals. To remove the masks and believe that God and others will still love us.
Put another way, these are the things I don’t do when I am concerned with helping myself save face:
- Admit my own mistakes
- Forgive others for their mistakes
- Ask questions
- Ask for help
- Express a desire to learn or improve
- Be honest about my feelings or needs
These are the things I don’t do when I am concerned with helping others save face:
- Provide constructive feedback or suggestions for improvement
- Express sympathy or compassion
- Provide assistance to someone in need
- Confront someone about behavior that is harmful to her or others
- Let someone know if he has hurt me
- Create a safe space for others to process
The terrible irony of living by the rules of face is that it hurts us rather than protects us. It alienates us, isolates us, disconnects us from one another. It allows pain to fester. It makes us more—not less—vulnerable to shame.
This is exactly what I witnessed in China, the birthplace of face. My coworkers were lonely, hurting, struggling—and yet they didn’t know how to reach out to others. They had trouble trusting one another with their vulnerabilities. And while it’s easy to point fingers from outside of a cultural context, the truth is that my lifelong tendencies toward people-pleasing and self-sufficiency are descendants of this same face-saving dance.
In her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, researcher Brené Brown provides two antidotes to battle the shame that we all, regardless of ethnicity, culture, or other demographic differences, experience: shame resilience and wholehearted living. Shame resilience develops when we acknowledge our shame and reach out to others for support and empathy. Wholehearted living requires vulnerability, not letting others define us, and accepting ourselves just as we are. None of these things are possible if we care too much about saving face (or, in my case, being self-sufficient).
The paradox of Brown’s findings is that we must embrace vulnerability—being honest about our struggles, our weaknesses, our grief and pain—in order to cultivate a healthy and courage-filled life. We must be willing to put ourselves in a place that feels like weakness or nakedness, a place where we need connections with others and with God. The alternative is to live in fear, to be strangled in the grip of shame—even while putting on a mask that tries to show exactly how strong we are.
Lovely glass sculptures can survive only if they stand alone and undisturbed. But God calls us to a much richer and fuller life—for me, my colleagues in China, and everyone else. Losing face to gain a life of greater connection, strength, and freedom seems to me a small, but very worthwhile price to pay.
As scary as it feels, I don’t want to wear that mask anymore. And I’m trusting that God and others will still love me, warts, weaknesses, and all.
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is a writer, blogger, and editor whose personal essays and short stories have been published in Hong Kong, the UK, and the US. She is particularly passionate about telling true stories of the messiness and beauty of human connections, of sustainable social change, and of the surprising, sometimes humorous ways in which God works in our lives. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and young son. Visit her at www.chengtozun.com or follow her on Twitter: @dorcas_ct.