Thursday, May 06, 2010

Face - not such a good thing?

My cinema post last week on two great uses of extended close-ups on an actor's face reminded me yet again of the disturbing prevalence of the notion of 'face' in Chinese culture today. It is one of the aspects of life here with which I am most stubbornly out of sympathy.

It seems to me to be a hangover from what anthropologists call a 'shame culture' - a society in which ethical norms are maintained solely by peer pressure, by the fear of censure from the community in which you live. The 'shame culture' is usually seen as being less evolved than the 'guilt culture' into which most major world cultures have developed over time, where good behaviour is based on a more elaborate ethical framework, an inner consciousness of 'right and wrong' (albeit that, in its primitive form, it needs to invoke omniscient divinities to try to guarantee adherence to the ethical code through the doling out of supernatural rewards and punishments). The major problem, it seems to me, with the 'shame culture' is that it seems to smother this development of the individual conscience and the sense of individual responsibility. On the contrary, it seems to nurture the absolute primacy of the so-called 'Eleventh Commandment': "Thou shalt not get caught." As I have lamented before, cheating is endemic in China. [A curious footnote: some listening practice materials I just recorded included a monologue on school rules. The rules listed came from a prestigious private school in Hong Kong, and were seemingly being held up as an example of rules that were unnecessarily strict, or at any rate conspicuously different from those which prevail in most mainland schools. Points of interest included the outlawing of smoking anywhere on school property, a very strict uniform code, no use of mobile telephones, and no eating in class. Oh yes, and a specific injunction against cheating in exams. I wonder if this is the source of the problem here: is cheating so common in China because, through some strange oversight, it's not explicitly against the rules??]

I have just recalled that a few years ago I was teaching an Organizational Behaviour class as part of a pre-MBA primer course for a group of young middle managers from one of the big state-owned enterprises. In the module on 'Leadership', I dared to ask them whether the Chinese concept of 'face' was not potentially detrimental to good management/leadership and to good performance as an employee at any level, for the reasons below (most of them were - predictably enough - surprised by and unreceptive to the suggestion, but a few nodded with Why had I never thought of it that way? enlightenment):

It is entirely selfish (concerned only with the individual, not with the success of the team or department, or the company as a whole).

It is excessively concerned with status (not with actual performance, success).

It is concerned mainly with the appearance rather than the reality of situations.

It encourages people to be excessively deferential to superiors (because of the fear of criticism).

It encourages people to be excessively suspicious of or competitive with peers.

It discourages open debate (subordinates usually think it inappropriate to criticise their superiors).

It encourages a conservative or conventional attitude, and tends to make people unwilling to be daring or innovative.

It makes people risk averse (being too afraid of the possibility of failure).

It discourages creativity (because creativity is 'high risk').

It can make people reluctant to accept responsibility.

It can make people reluctant to acknowledge their mistakes, poor at accepting criticism.

It can make people more likely to seek to shift blame on to others ("passing the buck").



globalgal said...

Shame culture: The other day one of the secretaries in the company where I work came to me to tell me about a document that had been pinned to a notice board in the company lobby. It was only in Chinese so she wanted to be sure I had understood it. I hadn't seen it, and thinking it was some important announcement, I asked her to tell me about it. Turns out it was a "punishment notice" that called out one employee, by name, for messing up a deal with another company in which money was lost. He was being publicly shamed and fined 500RMB. I couldn't believe it.

Froog said...

Wow, really? I knew this still happened a lot in government offices and the SOEs, but I thought private companies had moved beyond this sort of behaviour.

If the 'shaming' is such an effective stick to beat people with, the fine seems a bit superfluous. Perhaps this will be one of the things that eventually helps to kill off the concept - if people think to themselves, "Well, I'll happily take a shaming, so long as they don't hit me too hard in the pay packet."

This also underlines the sorry state of employment protection law in this country. For a supposedly socialist nation founded on reverence for the ordinary working man, it's pitiful how few enforceable rights the working man enjoys, and how routinely he gets abused and exploited by the bosses.

globalgal said...

Our company regularly issues punishment policies and they really enjoy the shaming. It is a private company, but much of the management has come over from state run airlines/military, so maybe that's why.

Froog said...

Ah, one of those sorts of companies! Well, I hope it's gradually becoming a less common practice.

It's always good to hear from a new reader, GG. I was having a little look around your blog earlier today. Sounds like you might be moving soon?

Well, say hi if you ever make it to Beijing.

globalgal said...

Yes, I am moving... to Beijing. Really excited about that. That's how I found your blogs, researching life in Beijing. It's going to be a huge change from the 3rd or 4th tier we've been living in!

Froog said...

Well, I'm delighted to have finally been of some use to someone. I hope the move works out well for you.

Say hi when you get here. I am number 100 of the froogs on yahoo, if you feel like dropping me a line.

JES said...

You didn't address this directly in your list of reasons, but the one about encouraging conventionality -- I've wondered about something like that myself: why would a culture at least nominally built upon revolution be so hidebound? (The emphasis on "face" being just one facet of, er, hideboundness.)

Froog said...

The short answer I would venture is that the society may be founded upon a revolution but the culture isn't.

If the culture is unusually 'hidebound' (meaning 'resistant to change'?), I suppose that might be partly due to the low level of education available and the very restricted diffusion of literacy. (I've had long discussions before - with irritable Chinese antagonists - about whether there are certain non-ideal features of the writing system which may hold back individual intellectual or collective cultural development. It is so damned hard to learn Chinese characters that it limits the amount of school time - and the amount of available brain capacity? - for other studies. And it does seem to make linguistic innovation much more difficult than in most other languages.)