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.

——————-

Dear blog subscribers,

In order to clean up the spam, all blog subscriptions were deleted and a new subscription system installed.

Please re register on the right side of the blog – sorry for the trouble.

Allon

Share

16 thoughts on “How to explain “face saving” to a Western Executive

  1. Hi Allon, thanks for this intersting post. Many say that “face” is an unique value preference in Asia. Your post makes sense. The difference is in the degree and perspective.

  2. Hi Allon- great explanation!
    As a chinese person who has spent more time in the West than the East, this is a fantastic explanation/ translation of ‘face’ in different cultural contexts. As I am writing my response, what’s popped into my mind is ‘face saving’ in some situations is also similar to the British ‘stiff upper lip’ where you don’t show your true feelings. An example in chinese culture might be to treat your guests/ clients to a lavish dinner to give them face- to show them how important they are to you even though the dinner is costing way more than you can afford- but you smile and bear-up. In this context, as host, you don’t want to lose face by going to a shabby place. As guest, even if the lavish dinner was not so great, you give face to your host by enjoying the meal. This is deep cultural and social conditioning!
    As westernised as I am, I still have this in-grained habit of wanting to pay for dinner when we are out with clients and guests. It is an automatic ‘thing’. In Hong Kong or in Asian company (usually) and even with my relatives, there is usually a battle to get to pay the bill. So I am shocked (every time) and sometimes appalled (internally) when there is no battle- even when there ‘should’ be- because the other person ‘should’ be treating me (in my deeply embedded face-giving/ saving mental schema). Crazy-but true!
    So, bravo, Allon!

    • Dear Amy-This is fascinating! I often facilitate discussions between Israelis (who show caring by emotional advocacy) and Mainland Chinese.
      They both speak English but it takes a lot for both sides to get it.
      I must say that I find it VERY hard to give face, but I have learnt how to do it.
      I remember having a horrible time getting to a meeting in BKK (3 hours) and I was asked by client how I like the city. I replied with lavish praise….and he the client told me that there “is no need to klenjai me” 😉
      allon

  3. allon
    thank u for another great post.
    yet i have a quistion.
    u worte in a post that od consultant should speak truth to power.
    so how can a consultant that needs to speak truth to power work taking in consideration face saving?

  4. Thanks for sharing your insight on ‘Face Saving’ which is considered as an important matter for Asian. In my understanding this is because for Asian and other traditional cultures it is common that since childhood an individual being taught by the collective that he/she belongs to (family, villages, etc) that he/she always ‘represents them’. Therefore if he/she making mistakes it will reflect bad to his/her people.

    Therefore ‘Face Saving’ is a way for others to express their support and understanding about this duty.

  5. Yes..Western people are blunt and frank…Asian are kinda conservative and not
    straight forward..but in business which is more needed ?

  6. Great stuff! Now I know why I always insist on paying in the restaurant when I invite someone 😉 But seriously, your blog is one of the few on the subject where every time I really learn something that I didn’t know before. Thanks a lot!

  7. Pingback: Communication in Asia and America-selected challenges | Allon Shevat

  8. Excellent expressions of face saving. Having lived in North America for several years they Russian Igor example is widely prevalent. Let’s do lunch and it never happens. While in North America being direct to drive productivity is acceptable but sometimes in feedback they do the “sandwich approach” and the person does not know where they stand ( Canadians ). Also observed that many times they don’t say a no to invitations but walk away “will think about it or check with spouse”. To me they are all facing saving.

    I have relocated from Canada to India and the face saving comes across with an emotional approach. Can’t say NO for sure. And avoid conflict because they have to see the person at work next day.

    Question: Why in culture trainings the focus on Face saving in Asian cultures while it is a global phenomenon.

    Anita

  9. Excellent expressions of face saving. Having lived in North America for several years they Russian example is widely prevalent. Let’s do lunch and it never happens. While in North America being direct to drive productivity is acceptable but sometimes in feedback they do the “sandwich approach” and the person does not know where they stand ( Canadians ). Also observed that many times they don’t say a no to invitations but walk away “will think about it or check with spouse”. To me they are all facing saving.

    I have relocated from Canada to India and the face saving comes across with an emotional approach. Can’t say NO for sure. And avoid conflict because they have to see the person at work next day.

    Question: Why in culture trainings the focus on Face saving in Asian cultures while it is a global phenomenon.

    Anita

  10. I believe the British call it chivalry and it can be called diplomacy, but in the end, it is simply good behaviour towards the people you get in contact with. One of the biggest problem makers will always be if you tell your opponent that you don’t like something about them, and that can be anything, even the colour of their shirts. You always say, it is looking good Sir.
    Leif

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *