If there is any one concept that bewilders — and often frustrates — Westerners in Asia, it's the concept of "saving face" and "losing face."
Western travelers in Asia often end up perplexed after witnessing inexplicable, leave-you-head-scratching scenarios. Sometimes it's just better to let someone be wrong than to point out that they are wrong. Many of these occurrences that are filed away mentally as just culture shock are actually driven by the culture of "face."
Once understood, applying the principles of saving face will help you see the Matrix code behind these sometimes frustrating cultural situations.
The Concept of Face
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. Causing someone to "lose face" — even if done on accident — is a serious infraction.
On the other hand, "giving face" (no fresh breath necessary) is about shifting the spotlight away from yourself, even when credit is due. Humility is considered a highly honorable trait in Asia. Real heroes don't brag. Giving face is a game of boosting egos while simultaneously declining and deflecting praise.
The need to save face causes people to demonstrate some strange behavior. Being aware of how saving face affects daily life in Asia will enhance your trip tenfold. It also allows you a tiny insight into the local culture during your visit.
What Is Face?
The abstract concept of face obviously has nothing to do with anatomy, but instead 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, while saving or "building face" raises their self worth.
Although in the West we tend to appreciate people who are "brutally honest" by cutting to the point quickly, the opposite often holds true in Asia. Important meetings are often preceded with hours of trust-building interaction — perhaps even drinks — before getting down to actual business. Some Western executives have learned the hard way that building trust and face is more important than efficiency and crossing off bullet points.
In extreme cases, suicide has even been considered preferable over suffering a heavy loss of face. That's how seriously reputation is valued. As a traveler, you should always be aware of the potential impact your actions will have on others, even complete strangers or onlookers.
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 is done just by letting him trail that toilet paper down the hallway.
How to Save Face in Asia
Unless physical harm is imminent, there are very few good reasons to shout in Southeast Asia — particularly Thailand.
Shouting and arguing in public are strictly frowned upon. Causing a scene actually makes bystanders lose face through embarrassment suffered on your behalf! Even if you win whatever argument, you'll lose as a whole. Although frustrating, always stay patient and calm until both parties reach a resolution.
Even if you find yourself fully in the right, making a small compromise will allow the other party to save face — and that's a very good thing for future interaction.
Tip: In many Asian countries, a giggle or nervous laugh can indicate someone is uncomfortable. People will often giggle nervously when risking a loss of face. If you trigger too many giggles with statements or questions, it may be time to back down.
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.
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. It's more about the feeling after the sale is completed.
One option for smoothing over some tough negotiating would be to buy some other small item from their 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.
- Avoid pointing out someone's mistakes openly in front of their peers.
- Politely refuse a gift at first but always eventually relent and accept 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 beggars, 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.
- Always allow your host to pay for dinner. You can offer a little resistance, but eventually allow them to pay. Don't offer to leave a tip!
- Bending the truth is 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 drink, join them in a "whiskey face."
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- Express interest in the local culture and history of a place you are visiting.
- 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 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- You ask someone older than you for directions to a landmark. Rather than losing face by telling you that he has no idea how to get there, the man confidently points you in the wrong direction! After all, he is expected to know everything about his hometown. Even if you know he's wrong, proceed down the way a little before asking someone with a clue.
- 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.