Readers' Submissions

Understanding The Concept of Face in Asia

  • Written by Professor
  • February 7th, 2014
  • 7 min read



This is a response to the submission of yesterday (“Face: The most ridiculous and unproductive concept ever invented”). Certainly everyone is entitled to their opinion, and you may dislike the concept of face, but in Asia you ignore it at your peril.

Face can be defined in many ways, but I see it as primarily being about giving people public respect, and not causing them to lose this respect or reputation publicly.

In the West we tend to appreciate people who are open with their views and speak their minds; however, in Asia, these types of people tend to be looked down upon, and people who are quiet and respectful in their demeanor tend to be looked up to.

An extremely important aspect of face is to show respect at all times, especially to your elders and superiors, while never losing your cool.

This does not mean you cannot complain or criticize; it is simply the manner in which you do so.

For example, your steak is badly prepared at a restaurant. You call over the waitress and loudly berate her for being a bad waitress and messing up your order. You have caused her to lose face in front of her fellow workers and other customers. She will be extremely embarrassed and, rather than improving her work, might sulk, perform worse and/or quit. In addition YOU have lost face by losing your temper in public. You might get extremely bad service the rest of the meal, and if you went back to that restaurant might be refused a table or asked to sit in the back.

On the other hand, if you called the waitress over and softly said "I know you are working very hard tonight, the place is very busy and I can see how much you try. Everything I have is great to eat, but this steak isn't the way I like it; is it possible for you to go back and see if the chef can fix it?"

I guarantee you will get much better service.

If you are negotiating to buy something, rather than shouting out a ridiculous price, or saying the object is no good and why is the shopkeeper asking so much, you compliment the shopkeeper on his excellent taste, explain that you are on a budget and cannot afford to pay the correct price, and could he see his way to reducing the price to help out a foreigner?

You will get a much better price than if you had bargained aggressively, because you did not cause the shopkeeper to lose face.

I do a lot of business negotiations in Asia, especially in Japan and China. It always helps to "leave a little on the table" rather than trying to squeeze every last dollar out of the deal. Complimenting the other person, going out to dinner with them and showing them respect yields great results at the bargaining table. In fact, I just completed a deal where I helped to sell a business to an Asian company, and now the buyer wants to hire me to assist them in future deals because they feel I understand their culture and way of doing business.

Many Westerners mistake the concept of avoiding losing face with lying. In the West, telling the truth "even if it hurts" is considered the correct thing to do. Many Asians will go out of their way to avoid telling the truth if it means hurting someone or causing someone to lose face, even at the expense of telling an outright lie.

We have all had the experience of asking for directions and being told to go one way, when it turns out the person being asked does not have a clue where to go. While it seems they are lying, in reality they are trying to avoid losing face by admitting they do not know how to give directions. The proper way to ask might be "I don't know if you are from around here, so you might not know where to go, but do you know someone who might be able to tell me how to get to XXX?" If the person really does know he will tell you, but if he doesn't you have given the way to save face by claiming not to be from the area.

In business meetings, I often see this…when someone says something wrong, another person, rather than saying "You're an idiot, you don't know what you are talking about" might say "I am sure you have been very busy lately working so hard. Maybe you have not had the chance to read the latest memo/report/research…"

All of us have had the experience of being taken to the wrong place by the taxi driver and being asked to pay for his mistake. It happened to me the other day and my GF paid the meter which was more than it should have been had the driver taken us directly. When I asked her why she said nothing about face but simply that the driver was poor and while he had made the mistake, the extra amount wasn't worth arguing over. But as a Thai she tends to be non-confrontational.

I took the taxi in from the airport to my place the other day, and the fare is always plus/minus 220 baht. When we arrived by the usual route, with no excess traffic, the meter said 450 baht. It was clearly a case of someone tampering with the meter to make it go faster. I calmly said to the driver that his meter must be broken, and handed him 220 baht, which he accepted with a smile. I am sure that had I accused him of meter tampering I would have ended up with a knife in my gut, as actually happened about a year ago to a foreigner who got into a fight with a taxi driver in Bangkok.

Here’s another true story. Many years ago my GF and I were eating in Gulliver’s and my GF ordered a chicken pot pie. The waitress brought a beef pie. Now my GF does not eat beef, never has and never will. So she explained in Thai that she didn’t order the beef and wanted chicken. The waitress insisted that we had ordered beef. At this point I decided to get involved (stupid me) and insisted that the waitress take the beef away and bring chicken, which she finally did. At the end of the meal the bill came and, you guessed it, we were charged for both the chicken that we ate and the beef that we sent back.

I exploded, called over the manager, berated the waitress for being a fool and demanded that the bill be changed. Finally the beef pie (which we never ate) was taken off the bill, and I paid, refusing to leave a tip.

My GF and I left the restaurant and when we got outside my girl excused herself and dashed back inside. A few minutes later she came out and we went home. The next day I asked why she went back in and she explained it was to pay for the beef pie and to leave a tip, which she did out of her own pocket. I said, why did you do that, the waitress made a mistake. My GF responded, of course she made a mistake. Everyone knew that. But what difference did that make? The waitress would have to pay for it herself, which meant she would make no money that night. My girl felt sorry for her.

But since I had made such a fuss, she couldn’t pay the waitress in front of me or I would lose more face; so my girl waited until we were outside and then quietly went back in to reimburse the waitress.

Of course, it was years before I could convince my GF to go back to Gulliver’s as she was too embarrassed to show her face there in case she met the same waitress.

I finish as I began, by repeating that you are free to ignore and criticize the concept of face, but I am afraid it might make your time in Asia much more difficult. Alternatively, you could try to understand the concept better, and why so many billions of people follow it. If you do so, you might find it greatly improves your experience here.


Professor


Firehouse


Stickman's thoughts:

It seems to me at times that Thais get more upset with face loss than others in the region. What annoys me is that a person who could potentially lose face should actually attempt to perform better / try harder so as not to lose face in the first place, but what so often happens is that they hide behind the concept of face, almost like they cloak themselves in it so as to be above criticism or reproach – and that to me is highly questionable. Too often the same old problems repeat time and time again because someone is hiding behind the idea that another cannot call them on it because that would cause them to lose face.