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Saving Face and Losing Face

An Introduction to the Concept of Face in Asia


saving face Asia

Officials in China participating in a "face" exercise.

Photo by Greg Rodgers

From Japanese business etiquette to market transactions in the smallest villages in rural China, the concept of "saving face" guides daily life in Asia. Causing someone to "lose face" -- even if done on accident -- is an infraction rarely forgiven.

Being aware of how saving face affects daily life in Asia will enhance your trip and give you a tiny insight into Asian culture during your visit.

The Concept of Face

The abstract concept of "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, while saving or "building face" raises their self worth.

Although in the West we tend to appreciate people who are "brutally honest" or who get to the point quickly, the opposite holds true in Asia. Important meetings are often preceded with hours of face building before getting down to business.

Saving Face in Asia

The number one rule for saving face in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, is not to lose your cool in public. Shouting or arguing in public are strictly frowned upon; causing a scene actually makes bystanders to lose face through embarrassment. Although frustrating, always stay patient and calm until both parties reach a resolution -- even if a small compromise must be made.

Understanding the concept of face can be used to your advantage. When negotiating prices in Asia, keep in mind that you cannot allow the shopkeeper to lose face by making them feel like they were shorted during a transaction. 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 give in just a little on your final price, or offer to buy something else small from their shop.

Simple Tips for Interactions in Asia:

  • Avoid pointing out someone's mistakes openly in front of their peers or strangers.
  • Always give sincere compliments when they are due.
  • Politely refuse a gift at first, but always eventually accept the token with both hands.
  • Show extra respect and defer to all elders and people of rank, title, or uniform.
  • When negotiating prices in Asia, try to give a little on your final price.
  • If offered, aways allow your host to pay for your dinner.
  • Bending the truth is common in China, however, pointing out that someone is lying or embellishing will cause them to lose face.

Examples of the Concept of Face in Asia

Saving face is taken into account during all daily interactions in Asia. The value of 'face' can even outweigh the importance of the original issue, producing some bewildering and unexpected outcomes. In feudal Japan, suicide was often seen as an attractive alternative to loss of face!

  • 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.
  • While introducing you to his peers, your Chinese friend incorrectly states that you come from New York, the largest state in the US. Pointing out that Alaska is actually the largest state could cause him a loss of face.
  • You ask someone older than you for directions to a landmark. Rather than losing face by telling you that he does not know how to get there, the man confidently points you in the wrong direction!
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