Do Americans Have a Face?

Several years ago, when I was visiting my vacation home on China’s Hainan Island, my brother-in-law asked me to go with him to a business meeting being held at a major hotel. I was reluctant to go at first. But after some nudging and persistence on his part, as well as by my wife and sister-in-law, I agreed.

I put on a pair of dress pants and a cleanly pressed shirt because, I was told, going in my typical uniform (workout shorts and a T-shirt) wasn’t going to cut it.

The four of us arrived at the hotel around 7 p.m. The host ushered us into a room where a group of 20 men, all of them dressed in suits, were sitting at a table talking. They were having a meeting.

Was I invited to sit in on it? No.

Was my brother-in-law going to attend this meeting? No.

Instead of sitting in on the meeting, my brother-in-law and I and our wives were escorted into a room adjacent to the larger meeting room. Inside was a big-screen television, a selection of karaoke to choose from, tea, wine, beer, fruit, nuts, and pretty much anything else we’d want to eat.

“What in tarnation are we doing?” I wondered.

My wife leaned over and whispered to me, “You’re giving him ‘face.'”

Huh? What on earth was she talking about? Giving my brother-in-law face? How? Most importantly, for what? Toward what end? Twas definitely not the way I would operate.

We stayed in this room for an hour, listening to music, eating, talking – and from my perspective (at the time), wasting time. Before we got up to leave, the “da lao ban” – Mandarin for “big boss” – came into the room and said hello to my brother-in-law. He gave me a simple nod and handshake.

On the ride home, I let it be known that I NEVER wanted to go to anything like that again.

“But you gave your brother a lot of face,” my wife insisted.

“How?” I replied.

“You came to the hotel with him while they were having a business meeting. He was seen with his American friend, who happens to be a businessman too. This makes him look good,” she replied.

“But what did it lead to? Was a deal done?”

“Different culture,” came the reply.

But is it really THAT different? The more I think about it, the more similarities I see. Don’t people in America want to “be seen” with someone whom others think is important? We do it all the time. It just feels different when the language and customs are different.

Before my first trip to China in 1993, I read that the Chinese believe Americans have “no face.” At the time, I thought it was true. After all, we have celebrities (or unknowns like Monica Lewinsky) who IMPROVE their careers after a sex scandal or some other over-exposed peccadillo that is supposed to sink them but often has the opposite effect.

Today, some 12 years after my first trip, I have come to believe that Americans do have a face. But it’s very different from the Chinese face. In some cases, it’s a matter of having a “thick face” – being immune to the petty criticisms of others that is rampant in our society. Especially the attacks launched against those who are trying to be successful.

Recently, a friend who has launched his own successful website wrote to tell me that the hooligans are on the attack on Internet discussion forums. Their criticisms of him are totally unjust and untrue – yet they are there to read for anyone who comes to the site.

I told my friend not to worry. That this was a good thing. That the criticism will help, not hurt, him in the long run. He just needs to weather the storm with guts, courage, and intestinal fortitude. He just needs to maintain focus on his vision. And, truth be told, the naysayers aren’t part of the vision, so he should pay them no heed.

To me, what I advised my friend is the apex of “face” in America. Be not concerned about what others think so long as you know in your heart you are on the right track.

Another form of face can be observed along the ladder of success. The more successful someone is, the more “face” you should give him. Failure to do so has consequences.

I remember watching a television program about the late Joe DiMaggio. One of the things mentioned on the program was that when Joe made an appearance at a baseball game, when he was introduced, the host had to give him major “face” – including saying that he was the greatest baseball player of all time. If the host did not agree to this condition, DiMaggio did not appear.

Now, let’s think of former President Reagan for a moment. Reagan was not only the consummate communicator, he was also a master of positioning.

Before he took office, I recall the typical press conference ala Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. After the president answered a question, a horde of reporters would yell and scream, “Mr. President! Mr. President!” They were literally trying to yell their way into the man’s ears.

When Reagan took office, during his first press conference he let it be known that HE would choose whom he wanted to call on – and there would be no yelling at him by the journalists.

Smart move.

Even during Reagan’s funeral, whenever his casket was brought to a new venue, it was preceded by his favorite hymn. I can still hear it today: “Dant dant da da, dant da dant da dant da …”

Each time it was played, I was pulled to attention and excited beyond belief. Something of major importance was going on. Someone of major importance was making an entrance – even if he was now residing in a casket.

In China, the playing of Reagan’s presidential hymn would be called “face.” There are many kinds of face in China. And sometimes I have trouble understanding which is which and what is what – but it’s happening less and less.

In a restaurant, for example, my brother-in-law often berates the waitress for making mistakes in our order. I asked him, “Why do you yell at her and humiliate her like that? What about face?”

“Different,” he replied. “She is to give me good service. This is not about face.”

I admit, yelling at a waitress having nothing to do with face is still a bit of a mystery to me. But there is one situation that I now understand. When I am invited out to a dinner party, I don’t have to do much to give the others a good “face.” The other night, for example, when the evening meal was finished and our group was standing in the parking lot saying our goodbyes, I walked up to one lady, put my hand on her shoulder, and said, “I hear you have started your own business.”

She nodded.

“That is very nice,” I said. “I hope you make a lot of money.”

She almost cried with joy.

Then I moved to the next lady, who was with her son. I put my right hand in the palm-up position and told him to give me five. He did. I then looked at his mother and said, “Your son is very smart. He will make you proud.”

To another lady, I said, “Thank you so much for inviting us to dinner. I am very happy you included us.”

And to the older man who came with his wife, I said, “Someday I hope we can meet again. You are truly good people.”

Everything I said was genuine and from the heart. I didn’t need to say it. But I did. And afterward, when driving home with my brother-in-law, he said, “You gave the other people a very good face. They are very happy.” (I was, too.)

Whether you live in China or the U.S. (or anywhere else) – understand that “face” IS important. We may not call it “face” – but that’s exactly what it is. Successful people understand it more than anyone – and they demand it.

Think about how you can give others “face” and your life will improve. Why? Because everyone wants to feel important. Everyone wants to be honored. The more you can give others a good feeling about themselves, the more that good feeling will be reciprocated.

[Ed. Note: Matt Furey is a national champion collegiate wrestler and has earned a world championship in Shuai-Chiao, the oldest form of Kung Fu. He has authored several books and fitness courses, including “The Martial Art of Wrestling” and “Combat Conditioning”. Matt also writes a free, daily health and strength-training e-letter. You can sign up by visiting his website:]