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).

How Do I Communicate With My Overseas Team?

When it comes to delegating work, how can you communicate tasks to your overseas team, and know those tasks will be handled reliably? Communicating with your overseas partner or your outsourced vendor can be a lot more complicated then you might think.

Communicating with your overseas partner or your outsourced vendor can be a lot more complicated then you would think. Yes, sure, it’s fine to pick up the phone and send an email — and actually you should do that a lot. It’s extremely valuable to build those strong relationships and to maintain a lot of communication with your overseas partner. But, its easy to make mistakes when you assume that they are going to be communicating with you in exactly the same way.

Assumptions And How We Communicate

So, for example, we have had clients that would pick up a phone and call their Chinese or their Indian partner to brainstorm about ideas. But, because of misunderstandings between the two parties and between power distance and saving face, the partner over in China, or in India, might take that brainstorming session to be a directive to get to work on something. And so they throw everything else out and the schedule goes out with it — and they start working on something new. And month’s later, you’re surprised — what the heck happened? Why are they working on that? We were just talking about a fun idea we had.

Communicate Assignments Without Misunderstandings

So, how do you avoid misunderstandings like that? Well, one of the most important things you can do is make sure that you have a procedure or a system in place to manage tasks, and assignments, and responsibilities between your teams. There are a number of systems that we’ve used with our clients. Some of them are pretty simple. Basecamp is very popular. We actually don’t recommend Basecamp. It’s not too hard to get lost in Basecamp and much like sending a phone message or an email, people can start pointing fingers, saying, “Oh, I thought you had that task,” “No I had that task.” Also, base camp doesn’t have a great audit trail. Instead we tend to recommend more advanced systems that provide better audit trails, better assignment tracking, and permission and workflow systems.

Salesforce, if you are in a sales organization, actually does a great job of assigning tasks to different people, keeping track of records, who made a call, who didn’t, where is that customer support ticket. If you’re in a more technical discipline, then tools like Rally and Atlassian’s JIRA products are excellent project management tools. They can also be used for customer service management, ticket management or even call tracking because they are very customizable. Especially JIRA which has a very powerful workflow management system that you can customize to do whatever you want. But the best thing with all of these tools — Salesforce, Rally, JIRA and host of other ones — they work over the world wide web, they work on mobile phones, and they all have excellent audit trails, so you can see what has happened, who was assigned the task, and why did they give it to somebody else… And they also make it very easy to expose all of this information to anybody that wants to see it.

So, our number one recommendation, when we are talking about how do you get a hold of your team whose overseas, you can get a hold of them on the phone and with email. But you shouldn’t use those methods to communicate tasks or assignments or new requirements. Those things, if its official, it needs to go into a system. And everybody needs to understand that the system is what dictates who is working on what. That way when your team in China receives a call from the CEO saying, “Hey, what about this great idea?” — well, they’ll understand that if it wasn’t assigned to them in the system, they’re not supposed to start working on it.

What Is Low Context Communication?

Many Western cultures are very low context, focusing chiefly on words to deliver a message. So, if so much attention is given to what is spoken (or written), why are there so many misunderstandings between Western and Eastern teams? As it turns out, to someone from a high context culture, there’s a lot more to a message than just words.

Low context communication uses chiefly words to get a message across. There was this great study done in which Canadian students and Chinese students were asked to go into a room, and negotiate a business topic, and their negotiation was observed by researchers. They found that there were huge misunderstandings between [the students].

Low / High Context Misunderstandings

For example, [the researchers] might talk to the Canadian, and the Canadian would say, “Oh, everything went great, I’m sure we’re going to be in business together.” Then, they’d go talk to the Chinese student, and they would find out that this person would never do business with the other person.

It turns out that these low context / high context communications were completely missing the mark. The Canadian would see the Chinese student, perhaps, lean back a little bit in their chair, take a very relaxed pose, or cross their arms a little bit, or establish some long eye contact. Well, the Canadian thought of that as being relaxed, and interested — and paying attention. Unfortunately, in Chinese high context cultures those are all indicators of hostility and rejection.

Low Context Communication: Chiefly Words

Westerners, especially Americans, are very low context. But there are also a number of European countries that tend to be low context, the Germans and Swiss, for example. These cultures focus on direct, clear statements. They focus on words, and because of that, they tend to miss a lot of high context cues. They interpret everything that is not a clear “no” as an invitation to just continue the negotiation or talk, which tends to send the message that they’re willing to push their own topic through, no matter what the cost.

This direct communication is usually a source of rejection or insult to a high context culture — whereas, the high context communicator is wondering, “Why isn’t he getting all of these messages I’m sending?” When low context and high context culture comes together, there tend to be a lot of problems that crop up.

What Is High Context Communication?

High context communication is very subtle. It uses many techniques other than words to send a message. And when words are used, those words are usually pretty subtle too. You might hear, “it’s not a problem,” or “let’s think about it,” or perhaps, “let’s talk about this again later.” In fact, those are usually pretty direct, high context messages that actually mean “no.” But, it’s about saving face, and learning how to communicate across cultures will mean avoiding nasty misunderstandings.

High context communication is about using many cues to send a message, not just words. So timing, when was a message sent, was there a delay, that can be very important. Stories are a way of sending a message without directly criticizing.

The Wrong High Context Message

Here’s a true story: There’s a Texan who went to Thailand to set up a new business venture, and he met his Thai business partner when he arrived. Towards the end of his trip, the Texan was really missing out on important communication cues. It all came to a head in the final day, when he thinks everything is going great and he’s expecting to sign a contract. He slaps the table and he pulls out a couple of cigars, offers one to his Thai host, and he puts his feet up on the table. Well, his Thai host stands up, marches right out of the room, and our Texan never hears from him again.

A number of different things happened there. One, the thing that really put it over the edge, is that putting your feet up on a desk, and showing the soles of your feet to somebody in Thailand is terribly, terribly offensive.

High Context Means “Rich,” “Subtle”

So, high context communication is very subtle. It uses many techniques other than words to send a message. And when words are used, those words are usually pretty subtle too. You might hear, “it’s not a problem,” or “let’s think about it,” or perhaps, “let’s talk about this again later.” Those are usually pretty direct, high context messages that mean “no.”

But, it’s about saving face. Specifically, it’s about saving your face. Your partner isn’t going to tell you that your idea is bad. Instead their going to circuitously say: This isn’t working for us right now; why don’t you take the time to come back, later, with a better answer? When you have an Asian business partner, and they’re telling you a story, it’s probably a good idea to look for the hidden meanings in that story.

This kind of subtle communication is often completely lost on Westernized cultures, meaning the United States, Canada, many European cultures, because those cultures focus on low context communication, which is all about just using words.

What Is Power Distance?

Power distance is about how employees relate to their boss. Think of it this way: How much distance do you feel between yourself and your employees? Low power distance cultures typically empower their employees to be critical and to make decisions on their own; but, this independent relationship is just the opposite of what many Eastern business cultures expect.

Power distance is about how employees relate to their boss. Think of it this way, how much distance do you feel between yourself and your employees?

John was a CEO of a company here in California that had outsourced product development to India. The problem was the Indian team kept taking all of John’s brainstorming and ideas as if they were directives. But, the Indian team didn’t want to criticize John. So, a the same time, John is feeling, “Where is all the criticism and critique of my ideas that I’m expecting? Why isn’t my team asking real questions about what we’re doing?”

Many western cultures have very low power distance. Employees are empowered to be critical and to make decisions on their own. They are independent, and western companies value that and delegate a great deal to their employees.

High power distance cultures, on the other hand, operate very differently. In a high power distance culture, the boss is respected for this wisdom and his position in the company. Employees don’t criticize their boss, it’s just not done. And decisions are made at the top of the company and they trickle down to the employees. Feedback is only given when very directly and clearly elicited.

So, power distance is the degree to which culture and society has separated the superior and the subordinate in a company. Asia and the Middle East have many very high power distance cultures, and South America as well as Europe have quite a few cultures that are also higher power distance than many Westernized cultures.

Should I Outsource?

Should I Outsource? The pros and cons of outsourcing are significant, as are the potential gains for companies that are successful. This short video introduces some of the ways outsourcing can be a boon to growth and efficiency, but also points out how important it is to make the right strategic decisions about sourcing.

With outsourcing, we can speed up our operations, lower our costs, and even open up entire new markets. But we don’t want to become one of the nightmare stories you hear about.

Outsource For The Right Reasons

Apple could never have become one of the world’s richest companies if it had not expanded outside the United States. With outsourcing we can automate our business processes, so that we don’t need a large internal staff, or we can turn to China for incredible manufacturing capacity. We can put offices around the world and have 24 hour operations by following the sun. We can even bring on board an entire new department overnight, if we need to.

But, it’s easy to make mistakes. Business culture is very important, and incompatible business culture leads to problems. For example, Audi recently had to recall thousands of cars because their Chinese manufacturer had substituted a substandard material, and gas pedals started snapping off.

It’s important to realize that different cultures and different markets are better suited to particular needs. Cost, quality and skill varies around the world. Technology is strong in China, but intellectual property protection is not. Apple gained huge advances by engaging with Foxconn in China but, 24 hours later, there were clone iPhones popping up on the market.

Multiple cultures bring complexity. And it’s important to remember that America is pretty isolated. Most of the world focuses on building very strong long term relationships. It’s those relationships that protect your business. Trusted relationships are key, and in most of the world, it’s more important to have experience and a trusted relationship than to have a written contract.