Culture Resource Centre

Losing Face and Losing the Deal

Losing Face

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‘Face’ can be explained by the way we present ourselves to others, it determines how we are judged and how we want to be perceived by others. According to Earley, it is a fundamental part of human interaction, and it can be seen as a reflection of the individual’s struggle for self-definition and understanding.

‘Face’ strongly relates to the cultural understanding of a persons’ respect, honor, dignity and social standing.

A multicultural team meeting

Consider the following scenario:

A Dutch Project Manager, working for an US company based in Singapore, was more than ready for the upcoming team meeting. Her American colleague, the Senior Project Director of her team, had managed to avoid her over the past few days. He recently decided to ignore serious ethical business protocols in order to win a business deal. None of her team members agreed with his decision but no one had spoken up to him.

Head-on collision
In the meeting, the Dutch manager confronted the American head-on: “You know very well that we don’t conduct business in this manner. What you did was unethical and extremely unprofessional. Also, If word got out…”. You could hear a pin drop. A Hong Kong colleague was suddenly extremely interested in an article in front of her, two Singaporean Chinese colleagues were studying something on the wall, and the Malaysian project assistant looked simply distressed.

The American did not respond at all, and moved to the next item on the agenda. The Dutch manager lost her temper and angrily asked her team members to voice their opinions, but nobody seemed to think that this was such an important issue anymore.

What is being ‘right’ after all?
By questioning his ethics, and pointing out his unprofessional behaviour, the Dutch manager had caused the American to ‘losing Face’. As a result, she lost a lot of trust and goodwill from her Asian team members, which she had so carefully developed over the past months.

Although convinced that she was morally ‘right’ to raise the issue, she found out that being morally right was not as important as using the ‘right’ approach within this cultural context. In fact, she had not given the required amount of face: she caused her American superior to lose respect, dignity and social standing in front of the Asian colleagues. This comes close to unacceptable behaviour in some cultures.

Western and Eastern perspective
Feelings of Guilt versus Shame

Westerners sometimes regard ‘losing Face’ as a simple case of personal embarrassment. When a Westerner is ‘losing Face’, feelings of guilt usually enter the spectrum. However ‘losing Face’ in many Eastern cultures invokes feelings of shame and this is felt by any team members who may be directly involved.
Actions or words that are considered disrespectful in Eastern cultures may cause the lowering of a persons’ standing, and this leads to shame in the eyes of peers.

Guilt is adaptive and helpful—it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

Brené Brown Shame vs. Guilt (2013)

Impact of ‘Saving Face’ across cultures

In Eastern cultures the impact of ‘Face’ seems to be more pervasive and more nuanced than in Western cultures.  In Western cultures, the expression “saving Face” usually means that someone is trying to protect their own interests or reputation. But in Eastern cultures, the phrase is not about covering up mistakes or avoiding accountability, but an intentional and authentic act designed to create a positive outcome for everyone involved (Maya Hu-Chan, 2020).

Hierarchy, social roles and interpersonal relationships across cultures

A reason that differences exist between Western and Eastern understanding of ‘Face’, might be that Eastern cultures value hierarchy, social roles and interpersonal relationships to a higher degree than Western cultures do.

  • ‘Face’ in Eastern cultures allows the group to have social control over the behaviour of the individual. This is most noticeable in dealings between superiors and subordinates; especially, in a more status and hierarchical oriented culture such as Singapore.
  • ‘Face’ in Eastern cultures also involves much more than just the individual, it involves the entire group of which they are part. ‘Face’ keeps relationships intact, it maintains group harmony and it promotes group solidarity. Most Eastern cultures are interdependent towards their group members, compared to the more independent Dutch and Americans. In Singapore, if one person loses face, the whole group is impacted.

Face can have a much deeper and stronger impact in Eastern cultures than what may be ‘a simple case of personal embarrassment’.

Losing Face and Saving Face
How to cause someone to ‘Losing Face’?

Some examples include:

  • doing or saying something which could cause a team member to be left out
  • saying no, or refusing someone directly
  • doing something that causes feelings of anger, envy, jealousy, or criticism in the group
  • showing anger by shouting or swearing at someone
  • making someone feel insulted, humiliated, embarrassed, inferior, or ashamed
  • doing something to bring shame on the group, 
  • criticising someone in public, especially when that person is more senior.
How to ensure ‘Saving Face’?

Some examples include:

  • Saving ‘Face’ includes offering gifts, awards and respect-giving actions to raising a persons’ respect and standing. Wherever possible, try to point out errors or problems discretely and delicately; always finding ways to help others to save face.
    For example, “Our company prides itself on ethical business protocols…” is a more cultural sensitive way compared to “John, you know very well that we don’t conduct business in this way.”
  • Furthermore, keep your cool, try not to lose your temper, don’t shout or swear, and discuss problems or difficulties without criticising.
    For example, “What can we do to prevent this from happening?” or “How can we work together to solve this situation?”. Always give a person a way out of a negative situation to avoid embarrassment.
Knowing what ‘Face’ is, but not truly ‘Feeling’ it…

The Dutch Project Director explained later that she was aware of the Eastern concept of ‘losing Face’. However, when it came down to something that incensed her ethically, her personal need to prove that she was morally ‘right’ was much stronger than her ability to practice the most culturally sensitive approach. By losing the goodwill and trust of her Asian colleagues, she had effectively lost the ‘deal.’

To be able to effectively practice ‘saving Face’ by raising people’s social standing and self worth, seems to produce much better long-term business outcomes across cultures. 

Joost Thissen, Partner & Interculturalist
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