Saving Face and Losing Face

How the Concept of Face Will Affect Your Travels in Asia

A man sitting on stairs, losing face in Asia

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One famous quote of many by American civil rights activist Maya Angelou goes: "I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

Keep that advice very much in mind during your interactions in Asia. Causing someone to "lose face"—even if done on accident with good intentions—can lead to poor interactions.

First-time travelers in Asia often end up perplexed after witnessing inexplicable, what-just-happened scenarios. For instance, sometimes letting someone be wrong is just better than pointing out they are wrong. Causing someone public embarrassment in any form is an unforgivable no-no.

From interactions in Tokyo board rooms to market transactions in the smallest villages in rural China, the concepts of saving face and losing face guide daily life in Asia. What many travelers lament as “culture shock” may simply be a misunderstanding of how the concept of face prevails in Asia.

What Is Face?

The abstract concept of face obviously has nothing to do with physical features. Instead, face can be described as a combination of social standing, reputation, influence, dignity, and honor. Causing someone to lose face lowers them in the eyes of their peers. Saving face or "building face" raises their self worth—obviously a better outcome for everyone.

Although in the West we tend to appreciate people who are "brutally honest" or those who get down to business, the opposite often holds true in Asia. Important meetings get preceded with hours of trust-building interaction and small talk—perhaps even drinks—before taking care of actual business. Some Western executives learn the hard way that building trust is more important than efficiency and “getting down to it.”

In a few extreme cases, suicide has even been considered preferable over suffering a heavy loss of face. As a traveler, you should always be aware of the potential impact your actions will have on how others feel.

Saving Face vs Losing Face

What you may perceive as a gesture of goodwill (e.g., telling an older gentleman that he has toilet paper stuck to his shoe) could cause him personal embarrassment, leading to loss of face. In some instances, less damage will be done by letting him trail that toilet paper down the hallway! He'll eventually discover it on his own and suffer less loss of face, especially as everyone pretends not to have seen.

The need to "save face" can cause people to demonstrate some strange behaviors. For instance, you may spend the day picking out a thoughtful gift for a friend and meticulously wrap it, only to have them put it aside like it's no big deal. This is done so they can open the gift in private and save face in case it's something they can't use. Also, if the gift is too expensive, they may lose face because they fear being unable to reciprocate later, as is typically expected.

Instead of avoiding the notion of saving face, embrace it and enjoy deeper interactions. Doing so allows you a quick peek behind the curtain of the local culture.

How to Save Face in Asia

Unless physical harm is imminent, there are very few reasons to shout angrily in Southeast Asia—particularly Thailand.

Raising your voice with someone in public is strictly frowned upon. Causing a scene makes bystanders lose face through embarrassment suffered on your behalf. They may actually scurry away from the scene to save face! Even if you win whatever argument, you'll lose as a whole.

Although frustrating, remain patient and calm until both parties reach a positive resolution. In Thailand, you are expected to calmly add one more smile to the "Land of the Smiles."

Even if you are in the right and your complaint is justified, making a small compromise will allow the other party to save face—and that's a very good thing for future interaction. Always be thinking of how you can help the other party to save face.

In many Asian countries, a nervous giggle or laugh can indicate someone is becoming uncomfortable. People will often laugh when risking a loss of face, or even when they're forced to say "no." For instance, if you ask for something unavailable on the menu, you may be told “maybe tomorrow” instead of them admitting they can’t provide what you want.

Handling Compliments in Asia

The opposite of causing someone to lose face is "giving face" (no fresh breath necessary). Giving face is about shifting the spotlight away from yourself, even when you may deserve the credit.

Humility is regarded as a highly honorable trait in Asia. Individualism tends to be less encouraged in Asia than in the West. Real heroes don't brag. Giving face is a game of deflecting praise; you shift the credit for a job well done to someone else, preferably your teacher, parents, or team.

Negotiating Without Loss of Face

Understanding the concept of face not only builds better relationships, it can save you money.

When negotiating prices in Asia, keep in mind that a shopkeeper cannot risk a loss of face. Even though the vendor may want to make the sale, they will avoid a loss of face by refusing to meet your inflexible price.

Naming a price as your “final offer” then refusing to back down even a fraction causes the negotiation to turn into a face-saving exercise.

Drive a hard bargain, but always give in just a little on your final price. This allows the merchant to not feel as though they lost something. Don't worry: No matter what they claim, they'll never actually lose money on a sale! You should be more concerned about how they feel after the sale is completed.

Tip: One option for smoothing over some tough negotiating would be to buy another small item from the shop for the listed price. Optionally, you could praise their business and promise to refer other travelers to them.

Simple Tips to Prevent Someone From Losing Face

  • Do what you can to avoid all potential embarrassment for others, especially in public.
  • Avoid pointing out someone's mistakes in front of their peers.
  • Politely refuse a gift at first but eventually relent and accept it with both hands. Don't open it immediately unless the giver requests!
  • Don't make a big deal when giving someone a gift. It's better not to demand they open it right away.
  • If you give to people in need or leave gratuity, do so discreetly.
  • Show extra respect by deferring to all elders and people of rank, title, or uniform.
  • When negotiating prices in Asia, be a little flexible on your final price.
  • Allow your host to pay for dinner when they offer. Resist a little, but eventually allow them to pay. No need to offer help with the tip in Asia!
  • Bending the truth seems common in China, however, pointing out that someone is lying or embellishing details will definitely cause them to lose face.
  • If enjoying a drinking session with local friends, don't try to outdo everyone. If they're grimacing after every sip, join them in a "whiskey face." Don't make a big deal over spilled drinks or if someone can't keep up.
  • Try a small sample of all dishes you are offered in formal settings, even if you don't prefer them. You won't be pushed to take seconds.
  • Don't correct someone's English unless they specifically ask for help.
  • Be very cautious—or avoid altogether—friendly physical contact (i.e., hugging) with members of the opposite sex.

Simple Tips for Building Face in Asia

  • Always be quick to give credit when due. Give sincere compliments when they are merited.
  • If you see that potential embarrassment for someone else is imminent, do something to distract from it (e.g., quickly change the subject). Preventing someone from losing face is a very good way to make a new friend.
  • Politely deflect compliments that come your way. Turn them around to compliment your teacher, parents, or team.
  • Laugh and smile at your own mistakes but then let them go. Move on without making a big deal or apologizing unnecessarily.
  • Turn the attention away from yourself. Don't be the loudest person at the table.
  • Take a small gift of appreciation along if invited to someone's home.
  • Compliment your host (or the chef) many times throughout the night.
  • Accept business cards with both hands; hold them by the corners and treat them as cherished objects of high value. Don't stuff them into your back pocket!

Examples of the Concept of Face at Work in Asia

The value of face can even outweigh the importance of the original issue, producing some bewildering and unexpected outcomes.

With a little practice, you'll be able to spot the interplay of face in simple interactions that happen throughout a day:

  • While introducing you to his peers, your Chinese friend incorrectly states that you come from New York, the largest state in the U.S. Pointing out that Alaska is actually the largest state could cause him a loss of face. In this instance, your friend's feelings are more important than accurate geography.
  • The police in Indonesia arrest a Westerner by mistake. Although proven innocent, they cannot release him immediately because doing so would cause the police chief to lose face by admitting that a mistake was made.
  • Your food in a nice restaurant was prepared incorrectly. Sending the food back immediately without at least complimenting the chef on the speed or presentation of the errant dish will cause him to lose face in the kitchen. Never make a sushi chef lose face.
  • You ask someone older than you for directions to a landmark. Rather than losing face by telling you that they have no idea how to get there, they confidently point you in the wrong direction! After all, they are expected to know everything about their hometown. Even if you know the directions wrong, proceed down the way a little before asking someone else.
  • Someone pays you a very nice compliment. Instead of just absorbing it, you immediately give credit for your achievement to your teacher or family for their wise instruction. You can also defer to your team for their excellent help.