How to explain “face saving” to a Western Executive

The concept of “face” and “face saving” do exist in Western Cultures, although it is far less prominent, salient and discernible in the business domain than it is in Asia.

When I consult executives who are about to/have just assumed a role in Asia, one of the first things I address are the behaviours deriving from the concept of face. Unlike many consultants, I begin by giving examples of face in the Western world.

For example-

1) Your aging father calls you in the morning and ask you, “how are you feeling, sonny boy?” The “truth” is that you are very worried about an income tax issue, and you have a severe headache. Yet you answer “fine Dad, and how are you”. You want to save your father from feeling uncomfortable.

Preventing people from feeling uncomfortable is a key aspect of face saving; the Thais call this type of face saving “kleng jai” (deferential heart).

2) Your partner asks you “how do I look in this new dress”. The “truth” is that you are very busy with other issues and clothes are not your thing. “Great, darling”, is your answer. You prefer harmony to telling her “I am not the person to ask, and this is not the right moment”.

The preference of harmony to conflict is another component of face saving.

3) You tell a visiting colleague, Igor from Russia, “Why don’t you come by and visit next time you are in the States?” You have no intention to ever follow through on that, but you want to make Igor feel good.

Imparting a good feeling without any intent to follow through with action is another element of face saving.

4) You compete for a tender and loose. You pick up the phone, call your lost potential client, and “thank” him for giving you and chance and wish him “success”. You avoid telling “truth” because civility, not truth, serves the relationship.

Civility at all costs is another major component of face saving.

Face and face saving exists all over the world. In Asia, the use of face saving behaviours in business is overwhelmingly dominant, yet there is nothing that does exist, mutatis mutandis, in the west.

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