In many languages we have the expression “to save face”. Basically, it means to keep up appearances in public so that others are respecting us. “Losing face” on the other hand implies that someone has disappointed due to his behaviour. This person’s image has been damaged, because he has compromised, disgraced or exposed himself to ridicule.
Face as social status
The Asian concept of face is similar in principle, but may take a lot more complex forms. It is also of a much higher significance for societal structures. Whatever people are doing is measured by the fact how well they themselves and others have saved face – or not. Every effort is being made to ensure that no one has been put into an uncomfortable or even embarrassing situation. If this can’t be achieved the feeling of shame is immense.
The face is equal to the social status of a person. It mirrors to which extent a person gains credibility and prestige within certain social structures (e.g. in business life, within a circle of friends or family). This pattern of thinking is based on the view that life in a society can only go well if every member strives for harmony at any time. To respect somebody else‘s face is as important as to save face. Anyone who once has lost face can’t gain it back that easily.
Loss of control leads to loss of face
Losing face can happen quickly in Asia, for instance when losing control over one’s emotions, since this would be regarded as extremely bad behaviour. This is why in many Asian countries people tend to smile a lot. They are hiding their negative feelings like disapproval, anger as well as shyness or nervousness. Should they not succeed in doing so, then not only their mask is dropped but also the social status falls apart. To shout at others, to express the felt anger, unleashing the wrath is simply unforgivable.
Not to harm others
Losing face happens as well, if someone does something that harms another person or even worse the related social group. This includes things like to refuse a request, to break a promise, to question the knowledge of the superior or simply to have a different opinion than co-workers. All such things endanger the harmony between the parties, while harmony is always valued a lot higher than the truth for example.
This is the reason why saying „yes“ in Asia is not always the same as saying „yes“ in many other countries. An Asian „yes“ can also mean “maybe” or even “no”. Saying “yes” but meaning “no” isn’t meant to be a ruse. Asians only try to fulfil the higher claim: not to affront another person by giving a negative answer. It is much safer to keep a low profile, not to disappoint anyone, certainly not to criticize others and not to refuse anything. With this attitude losing face by hurting or challenging feelings is prevented for one’s own sake and that of others.
However, the personal unawareness might also be disguised by a happy “Yes, sure!” not to show any weakness. Line managers in Asia often struggle to find out if their members of staff really have understood their instructions. And if asking someone for the way, in Asia you’ll always get an answer, no matter if the person you’re asking knows the address you are looking for or maybe not.
While Asians don’t use the word „no“, their body language speaks volumes. Thus, you shouldn’t search for words that are expressing approval or disapproval but rather pay attention to face expressions and gestures.
Save your own face and that of others
Being calm and courteous is the way to save face. Criticism should be expressed very carefully and only in private. Open confrontation has to be avoided at all costs in order to prevent oneself and others from being in danger of losing face. To criticise a member of staff in front of others will cost this person face. But the superior also loses face, because he is to blame for bringing his employee into this embarrassing situation. Obviously, he doesn’t know how to respect other people’s face. The least one can do in such a difficult moment is to help the other person out of this misery, for example by quickly pointing out lots of positives.
By the way, Asians will smile or laugh, if someone stumbles and falls while walking on a street. From a Western perspective this kind of laughing about someone’s mishap might seem tactless. For Asians their smiling or laughing entirely serves the purpose to save this person’s face and help him or her out of an embarrassing moment in a dignified manner. The helping hand is stretched out in two ways.
It is a question of honour to allow the other person a graceful retreat. This applies to a small mishap, to a mistake, in case of ignorance or criticism as well as to losing out in a lengthy negotiation. It is the responsibility of all to overcome such difficult situations.
Give face, receive face
Furthermore, in Asia you also can actively give face. To praise the performance of another person is giving this person face (status and reputation). To mention one’s own strengths, achieved goals or to demonstrate superiority on the other hand would be received as pretentious and intrusive, which equals a massive loss of face. Thus, whenever the good deeds are mentioned by others, a person gains face. However, the virtue of humbleness requires to downplay the praise immediately and to hide the inner pride in order to keep face to the outside.
Dignity and mutual respect are essential
The concept of face in Asia presumes that we meet our Asian business partners, co-workers and employees with dignity, respect and mindfulness at any time. Our face is always closely connected to their faces. And only who understands how to save and how to give face at the same time will gain face in front of others.
Author: Katrin Koll Prakoonwit – Before becoming an independent journalist, Katrin Koll Prakoonwit wrote country analyses for the FAZ. Today she works for publications of various consultancies and publishers. The author lives in Reading, Berkshire, near London.
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