The Asian concept of “face” is complex and highly significant for societal structures. It applies to China, Japan, Korea as well as South and Southeast Asia. A person’s “face” equals their social status. Anything someone does or says can either gain face or be responsible for losing face. The “face” mirrors credibility and prestige. Anyone who has lost face will find it challenging to gain it back.
Saving Your Face And Their Face
To respect somebody else’s face is as important as to save one’s own face. This is based on the perspective that society can only thrive if everyone strives for harmony at all times. Naturally, every effort is being made to ensure that no one is being put into an uncomfortable or even embarrassing situation that could possibly cause loss of face.
However, losing face can still happen quickly, for instance, when losing control over one’s emotions. Shouting at somebody in public, for example, will always be regarded as bad behaviour. Losing face also happens if someone harms another person or the related social group. This includes simple things like refusing a request, having a different opinion, breaking an agreement, or even questioning the knowledge of one’s superior.
Smiling Means Saving Face
This is why many Asian business partners or co-workers tend to smile in difficult situations. They are hiding negative emotions such as disapproval, anger or nervousness. If smiling can’t be kept up anymore, their mask will drop, and they are losing face. Asians will also smile or laugh about someone else’s mishap. From a Western perspective, this might seem disrespectful. For Asians, smiling or laughing serves the purpose to save this person’s face by offering them a way out in a dignified manner. It is a question of honour to allow the other person a graceful retreat. This applies to a minor mishap, a mistake, or losing out in a lengthy business negotiation. It is then the responsibility of all to overcome such painful situations.
Open confrontation or criticism has to be avoided at all costs in Asian business life to prevent oneself and others from being in danger of losing face. To criticise a staff member in front of others will cost this person face. But the superior also loses face because they are to blame for bringing their employee into this embarrassing situation. 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. Things like that can endanger harmony in the workplace, which is valued higher than anything else. Being calm and courteous is the way to save face.
Saving Face Is More Important Than Speaking Facts
This is also the reason why saying “yes” does not necessarily equal agreement but can also mean “maybe” or even “no”. Saying “yes” but thinking “no” isn’t meant to confuse. Asians only try to fulfil the higher goal: not to put another person in a difficult position by giving a negative answer or focusing on facts. It is much safer for everybody not to disappoint, certainly not to criticise and definitely not to refuse. Line managers may struggle to determine if the staff understood instructions because no one will say “no” if prompted. 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 not. However, while Asians don’t use the word “no “, their body language speaks volumes. Pay attention to face expressions and gestures, read between the lines to figure out if a yes is agreement.
Actively Giving Face
Furthermore, in Asia, you also can actively give face. To praise the performance of another person is giving this person face in the form of status or reputation. To mention one’s own strengths, achieved goals or demonstrating superiority, on the other hand, would be received as pretentious and intrusive, which equals a loss of face. Thus, whenever others mention good deeds, a person gains face. However, the virtue of humbleness requires downplaying the praise immediately and hiding the inner pride to keep face to the outside.
The concept of saving face in Asia presumes that we meet business partners, co-workers and employees with dignity, respect and mindfulness at any time. Our face is always closely connected to their face.
Katrin Koll Prakoonwit
- Anything someone does or says can either contribute to gaining face or be responsible for losing face.
- The “face” mirrors credibility and prestige.
- Anyone who has lost face will find it difficult to gain it back.
- To respect somebody else’s face is as important as to save one’s own face.
- Being calm and courteous is the way to save face.