In doing cross-cultural business, situations involving saving face frequently arise. In my experience, saving face means handling situations so that neither you nor your counterpart would feel embarrassed or ashamed by your words or actions. Saving face becomes particularly important in business cultures with strong indirect communication styles. This includes most of Asia and Africa. There’s a particularly well-written article on How to Manage Face in China this month by Mike Black of Hong Tu that’s worth reading if you want to do business in China. Now I once lived in the Netherlands for a year and I don’t believe that the Dutch even have a word for embarrassed, at least none that I ever heard. But regardless of the wide variance between business cultures, these basic ground rules will help to keep you out of some trouble:
Avoid Publicly Assigning Blame
Generally speaking, people know when they’ve made a big mistake at work. By pointing out someone’s mistake in front of others, you may be losing face not only for the person who messed up, but for yourself and anyone else who was unfortunately in earshot. If the issue must be discussed, then ask more general questions about the problem. “Has anyone noticed that the yellow dye was printing out of alignment?” Then quickly switch into problem solving mode: “Now that we’re behind on our order, how can we as a team work together to make up for the time lost by this unfortunate occurrence.”
The more challenging situation is where the issue is someone’s behavior rather than a single mistake. If a person on the team is difficult to work with, then it’s time to hold private conversations with their superiors. If this is your employee, discuss the situation privately again with a focus on problem solving instead of punishment. Never ever confront even the most troublesome employee in a group setting. Again, this will lose face potentially for everyone in the room.
Learn What is Considered Culturally Offensive
While many international business professionals can forgive various faux pas, it helps to keep your honor intact to know as much as you can before you go. In Thailand, it is best not to cross your legs, the direction that your top leg points is meant to give insult. While everyone in the room will try to hide their discomfort, it’s embarrassing for both your hosts and you (if you finally realize what you’ve done). In Sweden, you wouldn’t want to raise your voice too much in a meeting. Knowing what actions would bring shame or embarrassment to your colleagues saves face.
Recruit an Inside Coach
Usually in international business, time is built in for potential partners, suppliers and clients to get to know each other better. This is an important time to find a peer in the other organization that you can develop into a friend. This friend can later be someone you can approach in private later to ask if there is anything you could do differently to improve the outcomes of the business relationship. Knowing all sides of a situation and the cultural implications, this “inside coach” can quietly tell you which behaviors are losing you face.
I hope you find this article helpful. For more information, please contact Becky Park at [email protected].