There is one term that is important to have a conceptual grasp of when interacting with Chinese people, that is the word mianzi, which roughly translates into self-respect or pride, but when spoken of in English is literally called “face”. It is of utmost importance to the Chinese never to let the others look down on them, never to look ignorant or incompetent, and always to be completely respectable and respected.
Saving face plays an important role in the nitty-gritty confrontations of everyday life. Direct confrontation and challenge is not the Chinese way and will deeply offend and humiliate, no matter how simple the issue is. This can be counterintuitive to you Westerners, who are used to demanding what you believe you deserve. A direct challenge may get you what you want, but in the end the damage to the relationship could prove to be insurmountable in China. Often the way the Chinese avoid this is to make up excuses or tell little white lies rather than being direct, in order to prevent a loss of face for either party.
While Westerners also value not losing face, it is nowhere nearly as significant as it is to a typical Chinese person. When you embarrass, put down, insult or demean a Chinese, especially in front of another person, you have made them lose face. Although they smile through it, thank you for pointing out their error, or never change their facial expression, it is a sore that will fester. It will not be forgotten easily.
There is a fine line to be walked in offering criticism or advice in China without making the other person lose face. The first step is to assure that you have a substantial build-up of goodwill and trust with the other person. The second is to be very clear as to the benefit of the criticism to the other person. The third, make sure you give feedback in a private place where no others will be privy to the comments.
Before giving the feedback or making an accusation, ask questions to clarify any points that you may have missed that led you to judge the situation unfairly. Finally, make your statement and follow quickly by asking what the other person thinks of the comments that you made.
Chinese are so sensitive to “face” that they will not make you lose it without cause. For this reason, nine times out of 10 a Chinese individual will avoid answering a question if the answer might upset you. If you do find yourself in a situation where you fell verbally attacked by a Chinese person that you have a social or professional relationship with, pay close attention to what is being said and find out as quickly as possible what is behind it.