Chinese-Jewish Relations: The Mitzvah of Saving Face


I am writing this at 5 a.m. from my hotel room in the Haidian District of Beijing, steps from the West Gate of China’s most famed institution of higher learning, Peking University (“The Harvard of China”) —and I am completely exhausted. It’s not from jet lag — as this is my fourth trip in as many years, I’ve figured out how to adapt to the new a new schedule quickly. It’s not from last night’s long Chinese banquet where, as the Presentation Skills instructor for the Chinese government’s most powerful agency, I was feted as the guest of honor. It’s not from the brutal summer heat, where each day caps out around 102 degrees and the air conditioning in our classroom can best be described as temperamental.

So, why am I so tired? It’s from facilitating two days of training where I have had to constantly and artfully balance my role of giving feedback on people’s presentation skills with the crucial Chinese value of “saving face.” My brain is exhausted from translating my American (and New York) way of giving direct and honest evaluation – not unkind but not watered down – into the Chinese style where it is considered rude to point out someone’s mistakes in front of other people. And not only must I teach new skills while actively preventing the “loss of face”, I must also “give face” every single time I offer an assessment.

My conscious, deliberate effort to give useful, constructive feedback without bruising someone’s pride on one hand or, as we crude Americans might say, “blowing smoke” on the other, is requiring me to use a muscle that isn’t exercised on a regular basis. After two full days of this dance, I realize that I am far more used to putting people’s feeling second while putting my agenda of behavior change and skill development first. It’s a professional and personal habit which has served me, but may not best serve all of my clients, friends and family well – no matter which side of the globe they live on.

Yes, I’m tired, but I’m also energized because my current experience in China is reminding me of an all-important, oft-neglected value of the preservation of dignity. And like eating steamed dumplings on December 25th, it’s something that Chinese and the Jews have in common.

The mitzvah of bein adam l’chavero provides guidance for how we are to act in our relationships with others. It reminds us that our own egos should not reign supreme, but that we should behave and communicate with sensitivity that preserves the self-esteem of others. We are all created as equals, and we must remember this, ven when we’re feeling “a little more equal” than someone else. (Mathematically impossible, I know, but some of our egos didn’t do so well in math. I promise not to embarrass you about that, of course). In other words, our need to correct, revise or remediate someone’s behavior should be balanced with the other person’s need to preserve their pride.

Let’s face it: getting anybody to change any kind of embedded behavior is hard. I struggle trying to convince myself to alter my own actions, so I am well aware that anyone else who is trying to change me has their work cut out for them. But when I think about who has been successful over the course of my life in encouraging me to try a different approach, it has been those folks whom I believe have taken my feelings into consideration. And I can count on one hand that is missing all of its fingers the times that shaming me into change has worked.

When I was a mother of toddlers, I was committed to addressing and correcting my twins’ less-than-desirable behaviors on the spot. I believed that timing was everything, and that if I spotted a behavior that I didn’t want repeated, I needed to deal with it in the moment before the opportunity passed. But sometimes, dealing with it “that moment” meant that I was including the other people around us to bear witness to my remediation. That wasn’t fair to my kids, and it probably was uncomfortable to the people around us who didn’t want or need to hear another “no biting!” lecture. Whether you’re a tired parent or a frustrated manager, it’s important to remember that timing isn’t everything when someone’s self-esteem is on the line. Take a minute, an hour, or even a day to figure out how you can ask someone to behave differently in a way that helps them maintain their dignity publically and privately, over the short- and long-term.

Several years ago, I was a speaker on the topic of “Relationship-Building Communication” at a Shabbaton for Jewish singles who self-identified as modern Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox. After my speech, I mingled among the crowd to offer ad hoc coaching and lay matchmaking. As I approached one young man who stopped to talk to me, I held out my hand to shake his — and within seconds I realized that he hadn’t returned the shake. His religious observance prohibited him from touching me, and despite the fact that I had been prepped for this possibility, I blew this one. But his response was one that I’ll never forget: rather than putting his hand behind his back (awkward!) or reminding me verbally (“I don’t shake”), he held up his hand, gave me a little wave coupled with a giant smile, and said, “Hi! So nice to meet you!”

He had managed to maintain his religious principles while helping me maintain my pride. Rather than giving me a reason to get red in the face, he helped me save face instead.

I admit that it’s easier to let our feedback fly without concern for people’s dignity, but it’s no way to be Jewish, Chinese — or human. So I’m tired from the effort. And maybe, just maybe, I’m also a little bit tired because at last night’s banquet I was offered many, many drinks. The Chinese custom is that, when you are toasted, you should drink lest your host lose face. So I did – after all, it’s a mitzvah.