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Cultural Dimensions of Expatriate Life in Singapore
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Cultural Dimensions of Expatriate Life in Singapore

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The Chinese aversion to self-assertion is well-illustrated by the concept of Lien, or "Face". Lien refers to the many ways in which a person earns or gains the respect of others, and develops and maintains that respect once earned. There are many aspects of Lien: one can lose Lien, gain Lien, lose Lien for others. One can also get the most unfortunate reputation of one who does not want Lien, or worse, as one who has no Lien.

Title: Cultural Dimensions of Expatriate Life in Singapore

Author: Bill Drake
Edition: 2009
Pages: 145

One's Lien is referred to by the "thickness" of the "skin" over the Lien - it is either thick or thin. One with a thick skin on the Lien is a person who is not overly sensitive to the potentially negative behavior of others, which is a good attribute in some circumstances. On the other hand, you may well run across individuals in Singapore who have a very thin skin on their Lien - and it will pay you dividends to know who these people are - in advance.

Face is a difficult phenomenon to describe. One way is to say that it is the prevention of embarrassment at all costs. Asian cultures emphasize a concern with loss of Face for the individual personally and for others as well. For example, a son would never disagree with his father in public. This would not only cause loss of Face to his father and himself, but to his mother and siblings as well.

The use of anger or an excessively loud voice is not acceptable behavior. This results in the loss of Face for all involved. In matters of conflict, Singaporeans may prefer methods of indirect confrontation rather than direct (i.e. not returning phone calls rather than saying "no").

It is advisable never to make a Chinese person feel ashamed - lose Face - in the presence of others. This undermines his respectability or authority with those who witness the shaming. A person should always speak with care and sensitivity in situations that have the risk of loss of Face.

Your Chinese friends’ and associates' Face is as important to them as your sense of personal identity is to you as an American. It is important to remember that many if not most Chinese see themselves as SEAMLESSLY INTEGRATED with their group, meaning their business unit, their family, and their social, professional, and friendship networks.

This seamless integration depends upon the integration of each person's individual Face with the Face of all others AND with the collective Face of the group. Anything that affects the Face of one individual or one group affects the Face of all those connected with that person or group, and the intensity of this effect is not moderated by distance, time, or rank/status.

This means that being aware of and tending to the Face of Chinese colleagues will not only avoid problems, it will encourage them to tend to your Face in very positive ways.

The American concern for the integrity of the Self occupies a similar place in our culture to that occupied by concern for Face in Chinese culture . Perhaps the closest that it is possible to get is to understand that to a Chinese person Face is important in the same way that an American's Self is important - both Face and Self are at the core of the persons being - with some very interesting implications for Chinese-US relationships. Just as many Westerners get extremely concerned and threatened when their Self-respect is compromised, Chinese tend to be extremely concerned about losing Face, which means losing the respect of others.

Face has been given many different explanations by Westerners. It has been compared with our concepts of dignity, Self-esteem and pride, but these are superficial comparisons. The reason many Westerners have a hard time grasping the deep meaning of Face is because it reflects a uniquely Asian/Confucian point of view - the seamless integration of the person with the group, the community and with all of the relationships which define and give meaning to their existence.

Since we don't have this sense of integration with the group in our culture, the concept of Face is based on a relationship between people which is literally FOREIGN to us. By explaining Face as shame, embarrassment, or loss of honor we are individualizing and personalizing the concept in a very American way, which prevents us from understanding it the Chinese way.

It’s difficult for an American to understand the Chinese concept of Face because we really have no equivalent in our culture. The reason why a clear understanding of Face is vital for American expatriates in an overseas Chinese community like Singapore is because we don't really have an equivalent concept, so it is difficult for us to understand what Face even is, much less how to influence our Chinese friends and associates in positive ways using our knowledge of FACE.

"Faces" are, in fact, interdependent, with individuals enjoying "Face" through association (whether within families, work groups or even national groups) with high status persons, gaining Face when one group member gains it and losing it the same way . An individual's loss of Face can be the cut that unravels the complicated, carefully woven fabric of social relationships, the Guanxi, upon which his success in society depends.

As mentioned above, Chinese speak of a person having either a thick or a thin skin on their Face, referring to how easily their Face is compromised by the actions of people upon whom their Face is dependent. A Chinese with a thick skin on their Face is not easily affected by minor instances of loss of Face; a person with a thin skin on their Face is likely to become upset over even small matters.

One good way to think of Face is to think of the actual Face - the eyes, nose, mouth, ears, and all of the associated organs which taken together with touch are our entire human connection with the world. Now think of losing one or more of these organs - this would be the same as a severe loss of Face. Now think of losing all your sense organs - but not losing your life. This would be the same as complete loss of Face. So, in one sense "Face" is quite literal. To lose Face is to have jeopardized or to lose some or all of the ways one relates to others.

One of the most damaging reputations any person can have is that he BU GEI MIANZI (does not give "Face"), in other words, he embarrasses the people he deals with and causes them to lose "Face." Conversely, a person who is proficient in the art of "Giving Face" not only enhances his own "Face" but ensures the most effective possible professional and personal relations with the Chinese he deals with.

Losing Face is much more intense than suffering embarrassment or shame. In extreme cases it can be like losing all the senses, losing one's place in life. Complete loss of Face is like full exile. You become a non-person, even to family and close friends. You can't speak or be spoken to; you can't be heard or seen. You are just not present. Keep in mind that gaining Face in Singapore and all other Chinese communities worldwide enhances what is most precious, the nurturing bonds which comprise one's whole identity. When a person gains Face by the act of another, there is no gift more appreciated or significant. Keep in mind that regardless of the business or technical concerns of your Chinese associates and colleagues, it is very likely that on a deeply personal level nothing you can offer them is more important than for their Face to be enhanced by the act of dealing with you.

For an American to say or do anything which separates a Chinese counterpart from this source of personal identity is painful and frightening in ways which as a westerner you can never fully comprehend. Nevertheless developing an appreciation of the importance of Face, and avoiding trivializing it by making inappropriate comparisons with western ego-centered concepts, will be one of the most important things you can do to make your adjustment to living in Singapore a success.

This concept is deeply embedded in Chinese belief, history and mythology. Do not underestimate the power of what may seem small matters to injure another person, which will seriously threaten your effectiveness with all who know him.

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