What Is “Saving Face” In Other Cultures?

What does “saving face” really mean? Westerners tend to think “face” means preserving one’s reputation… but that’s not right. It’s particularly important in high-context cultures, including most of Asia and the Middle East, where tradition is highly valued and the interests of the group outweigh the interests of the individual.

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, President of Hyrax International and I wanted to speak briefly about “what is saving face.” Face is a collectivist notion. It’s something that applies in many Eastern cultures and as such it’s an extremely foreign idea to Western culture.

Misunderstanding “Saving Face”

So, here’s an example of how not understanding face can go wrong with Western and Eastern interaction. Let’s say you are a Western Manager, applying western management theory. So, if one person does a particularly good job, the natural thing to do is to reward that person, to call them out and tell them they did a better job, possibly give them a raise or some kind of a reward within the firm.

But, in Asian society, this actually sends the wrong message. What you’re doing is saying that the individual failed in their responsibility, to their group, to their fellow employees, because that person did not show those individuals how to perform well. So, the net result is you tell one person that they didn’t do a good job, and you tell the entire group that they also failed to do a good job, in this respect. It backfires terribly when Western managers do that with Eastern cultures. And this is a great example on why it is so important to really understand what face is whenever you are doing business with the East or the Middle East.

What is Face?

It was first defined by David Ho, a social scientist working in Hong Kong. He basically defines saving face as saying that face is lost when an individual, or someone who is closely related or connected to that individual, act in a way that fails to meet the social obligations that are set up for that person. In other words, if they don’t meet their social responsibility with family, with work, with their friends, then they loose face.

In Asia and the Middle East, having face is a very bankable notion. It is a literal translation, or a literal representation, of your status in society, of your reputation and your abilities to fulfill your obligation within that social network. Because collectivist societies are so tightly integrated and tightly social, there is only one face. Social, work, family, it’s all integrated into a single representation of who that person is. That means that your face at work and your face at home can be damaged in the same way.

If you’d like to see another take on saving face, check out this short video (the bit on saving face is in the latter half of the video).

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