We all heard of the concept of face. Unfortunately, Western
businesspeople frequently underestimate how important it can be when working across cultures. Causing counterparts to lose face,
as Jim Lazar did, does not necessarily end business relationships. However, stepping over this line, even if done inadvertently,
inevitably leads to hurt feelings, loss of trust, weakened relationships, and greater risks for your business success.
Harmony and Face
Many cultures, especially in Southeastern Asia or in the Middle East,
share a strong preference for preserving group harmony, a desire to continually maintain positive relations across all members of a
group or organization. In such cultures, individual embarrassment represents a disturbance of the harmony of the group or groups to
which the individual belongs. Whether an unpleasant situation centers around a single individual or the whole group makes little
difference; in both cases, the group is likely to perceive a collective loss of face and react with a feeling of shame.
Face is the external representation of a positive and harmonious
self as viewed by others. The term is not limited to individuals. Families, groups, organizations, or even whole nations may have
face in this sense. If a group views actions or behaviors causing loss of face as inappropriate, as in Jim Lazar’s
case, it is likely to turn against the person causing it. This may affect that person’s organization as well. For instance, an
Asian company perceiving face issues caused by a representative of a Western partner company may hold that against the company
as a whole, not just the individual.
Many actions carry the risk of causing loss of face. Examples are
openly turning down someone’s request, singling out an individual for public critique or praise(!), failing to show respect, or
losing one’s temper. The indirect communication approach often employed by members of such cultures reflects this: rather than
saying ‘no’, they use phrases such as ‘maybe’, ‘we will see’, or ‘this will need further
analysis’ to express disagreement in more face-saving ways. Similarly, they rarely confront problems openly, and sometimes
do not even acknowledge them, which again serves as a way to preserve harmony.
What Can You Do If You Stepped Over the Line?
People often ask “How can I recover if I inadvertently caused
loss of face?” The answer is that since relationships are affected, it is vital to make active efforts to regain your
counterparts’ trust by apologizing, expressing respect for the individual and/or group, and trying hard to build new bridges. In
Lazar’s case, an apology in the form of “I regret what might have been an unfortunate choice of words and would like to
assure you that I have great trust in your ability to solve the quality problems. Let us please continue to work together towards our
mutual business success.“ might help get the communication going again. However, he would have to continually demonstrate his
respect for the Malaysian vendors through words as well as actions to win back their trust.
In some cases, your only hope may be to find a third party willing to
act as a mediator. Assuming this person has the trust of the group you offended, he or she may be able to get the communi- cation
between the parties going again.
The Bottom Line
Seemingly small infractions of cultural rules can jeopardize and even
disrupt your business. Avoiding face issues by adjusting behaviors is much more effective than trying to repair the damage
later. Especially when doing business in Asia, it is therefore vital to control your emotions and treat others with respect at all
times, even when confronting problems. When it comes to conducting international business, keep in mind that the best guideline is
not “Treat others as you want to be treated”, it is “Treat others as they want to be treated!”