The Asian Concept of ‘Face’

Face, giving face, saving face, showing face, losing face..

These are foreign terms to many people, bring confusion to some and blank looks from others. It’s something that is at least partially ingrained into Asian culture, most noticably amongst the Japanese but also strongly with Chinese too.

Let’s start with a quote (my usual style).

To gain face, give face; to lose face, try to save face or take face away. Frydherik Eysenkopf

If we look at the dictionary definition of the word, the most applicable in this context would be:

6. a. Value or standing in the eyes of others; prestige: lose face.

So there we have it, face is the societal standing of a person from the perspective, this ‘face‘ thing is all about how others see you, how they percieve your value, status, credibility or social standing. The Chinese terms for face are ‘lian‘ and ‘mianzi‘.

By understanding face and how to ‘give face’ one can suceed in negotations and avoid conflict with all egos and relationships intact. As with anything it’s always better to give than to take, especially in Asian culture, they are a very respectful and honour based society, so people get higher social standing by ‘giving face’ left right and centre. It boils down to tread carefully and avoid humilating your opponent, in Western societies, we have thick faces, so we tend to be more sarcastic, less polite and a hell of a lot more open when we criticise..In Asia this is not acceptable, criticism must be done very gently, a lot of ego rubbing is required.

This is known as low-context and high-context cultures. Most cultures would combine the two in part, but sway more towards one side. Western countries would tend to be low-context, this means it’s an individualistic society, and believes in freedom of the individual. Due to this most verbal communication very often direct, and that there is very little concern about non-verbal cues. So in UK and US for example the right to individuality supercedes any non-logical duty to your family, clan, race, or country. People are direct, they “say what they mean and mean what they say.”

High-context countries would be those such as Korea, China, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, parts of the Middle-East and South America. These would be considered more traditional, hierarchal countries which are referred to as collectivistic, or interdependent.

The main difference is in low-context societies, conflict is normal, it happens, we deal with it, it’s nothing special. In high-context societies, it’s a big deal, group harmony is paramount. For example people from high-context societies will tend to avoid conflict and in general (Especially Japanese) will rarely utter a full-on ‘No’. For us barbaric Westerners, saying ‘No’ is not a consideration, it’s a normal answer to a request or question.

All these subtle societal nuances cause conflicts, I mean…how are people supposed to know?

Ok so now you understand what ‘face‘ is. Let’s get onto the others.

The most familiar term to most would probably be ‘saving face‘, which we can take to mean not being disrespectful to others in public, also it can mean taking preventive actions so that we will not appear to lose face in the eyes of others, or even helping out someone else in a situation where they could possibly lose face. Generally it’s meant as allowing someone to ‘lose’ with dignity and still allow them to be portrayed as a good leader/person/partner/colleague or whatever. Giving face can be said to be pretty much the same thing, to give someone face would be to let them come off worst but still look good.

Best defined as such:

“When one party states their needs and wants in an honorable manner, taking into consideration the notion of mutual face-concern, this is called face-assertive behavior. When one side purposely takes action to enhance the honor of the other, especially in regard to national face, this is called face-giving behavior. As can be expected, low-context cultures tend to engage in more face-threatening exchanges, while high-context cultures will focus more on face-honoring exchanges.”

Source: Face – Sarah Rosenberg

Showing face, is acting repsectfully and not causing yourself or others to lose face.

Losing face can happen under any number of circumstances that cause a damaging social event such as being humiliated in front of your peers, exposure to personal insult, failure to achieve goals, damage to a valued relationship, being belittled or losing your temper. Meetings often exist solely for the purpose of giving face to one another.

Some tips:

1. Don’t show anger, don’t lose your temper
2. Avoid saying no directly
3. Try and make everything win-win wherever possible
4. Apologise if you think you offended someone
5. Defer to those ‘above’ you (Age and seniority)
6. Address people using the Honorific
7. Be mild in giving criticism
8. Follow what others do (e.g. if someone hands you something with 2 hands, take it with two hands)


[1] Culture’s Influence on Managerial Behavior
[2] Face – Sarah Rosenberg
[3] The Mediator as Face-Giver
[4] Revelations of Face and Self

On another note I also re-organised my side bar, added some new blogging widgets, some new links and removed some stale “blogs. It looks a bit tidier now.

Played some hardcore DOTA last night, mostly noob games though. Can’t wait to get my Stimx at home then I can pound some noobs every night (should be coming on Friday, along with the Telurcon engineer, the curtain guy and a lot of drunken folks).




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4 Responses to The Asian Concept of ‘Face’

  1. phung January 30, 2005 at 3:59 pm #

    so are you afraid of losing face? or are you a very proud man?

  2. x-ray June 3, 2009 at 9:39 am #

    never lose face

  3. samuel welsh August 14, 2010 at 8:44 am #

    these are good ways to avoid conflict

  4. mao zedong January 13, 2013 at 1:46 pm #

    web search: the great needham question:

    why science did NOT take place in china..

    why china /india missed the:

    1. scientific revolution/industrial revolution… why no “science” in china.

    2. why china did NOT invent the internet/web/transistor/cpu or the information age….

    smart people know it 80/20 or 90/10….

    bury the idiotic idea of “loose face”

    WHY CARE WHAT OTHERS THINK???????????????

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