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Growing up in the suburbs of California, I never really understood just how central the concept of face was in Asian society until visiting China and seeing it for myself.

Over time I’ve come to realize that many of these social concepts exists in some form or another across all cultures, likely implicit in some part to the human condition, but it still surprises me to this day just how entrenched it still is in certain areas.

I’ve always been personally curious as to what the causes of these divergences in culture between different societies are. There must be some inciting reason that such a stark difference in communication exists.




FWIW, I've encountered several times that German or Russian directness was considered impolite or even offensive in the US, for example when you'd point out that there was a mistake or something not conforming to spec without prefacing it with "Thanks for the awesome work! This is real progress. A minor issue we could still improve might be this:", etc.

So, as you point out, these conventions exist everywhere, and (like the proverbial young fish asking "what's water?"), they're hard to see when you're in the middle of them, and consequently much easier to see when you observe them in a different culture.


We could use a little German-ness in that case.


Face is important because it came from a family oriented culture. If you were made to look bad, you'd feel even worse when the rest of your family finds out (Grandparents, relatives would talk negatively about this aka gossip). This morphed into businesses that build on relationships, the Chinese term for that is 'guanxi'.

For China, they would 'lose face' if Hong Kong became independent (or Xinjiang or Tibet for that matter).


If by "lose face" you mean display of weakness, then you probably right. The government don't actually care about face here, they only care about outcome.

In mainland, people sees the government as the ruler. They are not there to serve you, they are there to manage you. They never make mistake, and you must follow their lead.

The government needs Hongkong, and hey need Hongkong under control, just like the rest of China. If they failed, their public image of power will be damaged.

However, if they can turn Hongkong into "the rest of China" alike, then that's a success showcase of power for them.


At the same time, PRC government doesn't want to turn HK instead exactly another Chinese city... (the closest one would be Shanghai, I guess.)

There are interesting historical issues, economical issues, geopolitics (especially Taiwan) and international politics at play.

But yes, in a certain sense the PRC want to turn HK into "the rest of China" alike, in the sense that you can have economic freedom and many other things, however politically one must submit to the supreme rule of the party.


I am not sure how true it is thst the govt doesn’t want to turn HK into just another Chinese city.

The belief was that HK’s economic value to China would protect the one country 2 systems status.

However, the Chinese govt appears to have convinced itself with the rise of its major cities (such as Shenzhen) and general economy that HK isn’t unique, and any economic benefits the political autonomy provides is far outweighed by the political risk and control. The protests, ironically, strengthen this thinking. And they feel they can compensate for the economic losses by simply creating SEZs.

I think the Chinese govt now believes that HK is not really special anymore, and if anything, is probably falling behind other Chinese cities.



> In mainland, people sees the government as the ruler. They are not there to serve you, they are there to manage you. They never make mistake, and you must follow their lead.

Mostly right, but there is no sentiment on the mainland that the government never makes mistakes. Quite the opposite.


Well, that "never make mistake" is in a sense, like "I'm right, you're the one who did it wrong", or "Yes it's bad, but it's necessary, there is no other way".

I personally believe it's the root of China's domestic problem.

Our government never fully apologize for their own mistakes (Sometime they did a little, but they always trying to shift their responsibility away. The word here is "Damage control"), possibly because they don't want to show their weakness and handle the consequence. And that gives them a hypocrite vibe.

If somebody never going to take responsibility, then that somebody will not be trusted. Because people is clever, they will eventually figure out who is honest, and who is not.


I would be interested to hear more on this topic. What kind of things do mainland chinese think is bad about their government. What would they change?


From talking to my friends, pretty much what you'd expect:

- The government can't act quickly, and the things it does are often stupid.

- It also can't be trusted.

My favorite remark on this general topic actually came when I asked someone how Chinese generally thought of the US. Her response was along the lines of "Some people view it as the promised land, where everything is better. Some people are more cynical. There's one guy at my company who always has something negative to say about America. But even he says they did one thing we should thank them for: they published the air pollution numbers."

She was shocked when I told her, in another conversation, that there is a contingency in the US that is very vocally envious of how quickly the Chinese government can get things done.


This idea that "saving face" is uniquely central to Asian cultures is complete nonsense. It's a common metaphor in Asian languages, that's it -- the desire to avoid embarrassment is an absolutely universal human trait.


"face" is the word one uses when one wants to put a negative spin on it. It, along with "kowtow", are very much dog-whistles for a certain crowd.

Have you ever laughed at a joke even though you don't find it funny, because the teller made a great effort telling it and you shudders to think how you would feel if your interlocutor exhibited completely no reaction? If the answer is yes, the concept is as much operative for you as it is in Chinese culture.


You are correct that "face" isn't an idea that is unique to Asia. But on the other hand, if you don't think there is an extra emphasis on it in certain Asian cultures (can't speak for China, but I have lots of experience with Japan), you are simply wrong. The lengths Japanese people go to avoid bucking a trend, or staying within the cultural boundaries is, on average, much further than most Western cultures would.

For what its worth, I don't think this is a good or a bad thing. While it can certainly have its problems, I also think its a key ingredient in why many macro-scale societal issues in Japan (mega cities, public transportation, crime, etc.) simply seem to work better, more efficiently, and with less friction than Western counterparts (particularly the US).


Saving your own face is as common in Asian culture as in western. I mean, just look at Boeing doing everything to avoid taking responsibility (you still cannot name an individual in Boeing who has taken responsibility). How is that any different than Japanese “face saving”.

Being conservative about your culture, or not wanting to buck the trend probably has a lot more to do with appetite for risk (which in turn likely has more to do with poverty, and the lack of immigrants) than it has to do with a notion of “face saving”.

Let me clarify. I’m not saying additional “face saving” isn’t a thing in Asian cultures. My point is that it’s a lazy and easy fallback in Western discourse to explain a variety of differences.


How is that any different than Japanese “face saving”.

Very different.

I assume Boeing is arguing because they either believe they did nothing wrong (sense of justice) or they will get in trouble for admitting they were wrong (sense of security). There are probably other possibilities.

Those are very different than saving face. That has more to do with maintaining your own personal standing with your community (sense of pride and self-worth).

I don't think Boeing is refusing to take blame because they are worried that their standing within their community is at risk.


So face saving is defined as not accepting responsibility when the negative consequence has something to do with your standing in society. As opposed to not accepting responsibility because say it may cause legal liability. Am I understanding that right?

In that case I think it’s a meaningless distinction. Because it doesn’t say anything about the individual behavior, but rather, how the 2 societies handle wrongdoing. Japanese society handles wrongdoing by “shunning” the wrongdoer from police company. American society handles it by suing the person.

But either way, face saving has been redefined not by the action, but rather by the consequence of the action, which makes it a fairly meaningless difference in my opinion.


"Strong sense of pride" perhaps, characterizing it as "face saving" seems to imply that a loss has already occurred.


Asian cultures take it far further than western cultures.


Embarrassment may be universal, but the internalization of guilt and shame varies dependent on the culture both in degree and manner. See, e.g.:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/276464615_A_Cultura...


A clear example is the political discussion around the US China tariff war.

Most commentators will present the reason why China cannot back down as the government not wanting to lose face, while presenting the reasons Trump does not want to back down in very different language (not wanting a loss, for example), although they’re the same thing. The former is presented as a cultural trait, while the latter as an objective outcome.

The reality is that Xi can not afford to “lose face” not because of cultural reasons, but because it would greatly undermine his strength and power.


One would expect Trump has more reason to "save face" in this trade war, with an election coming up.


Actually I don't think so.

It is much more than losing face. Losing sovereignity in East Asian countries, where nationalism is hyper active, is an attack directly on national identity.

The Chinese government now will cease to exist if it yields to independence demands from any of the separationist region. The nationalistic education has been ingrained into society at large, something nobody dares to question.


Yes I agree with you nationalism is ingrained from childhood and this makes it harder for minority who are against blind nationalism. This has been true for all the 70+ countries I lived and traveled. But I still believe in this quote:

"Patriotism cannot be our final spiritual shelter; my refuge is humanity. I will not buy glass for the price of diamonds, and I will never allow patriotism to triumph over humanity as long as I live."

By a Noble Laureate.


patriotism != nationalism


Actually this is another such explanation to justify one over the other. I am a believer that world should be built and bound by human to human connections and love, not by some utilitarian construct like nationalism. You can read the book of that noble laureate who influenced me, on this subject from Gutenberg press:

https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/40766


obviously he just gave a quote explaining that


Losing sovreignity is the country scale version of losing face.


In my view it's not losing face, but loss of identity and dignity given nationalistic education. If one wants to conflat the meaning of face to identity and dignity then it can apply to any country or individual.


Like what happened when HK was stolen by invaders. The over-correction in response is to be expected, regardless of how delayed it might seem.


It is very sad to compare an iron fist of holding power with a more subtle aspect in Chinese culture. The violence committed is incomparable. Though you might argue the face and guanxi culture is more subtle brutality.


This has also been observed about Southern (i.e. Southeastern US) culture - it has an emphasis on "honor" and "face" that is much-reduced in other American regional cultures. These probably generally go back to historical social structures where reputation was important on a day-to-day level. (e.g. where personal relations took over some economic or legal functions that would be handled through more distant institutions in e.g. Northeastern US culture).


I'm inclined to believe it is driven by the economic situation and how power is consolidated. Where power and prestige creates strong economic advantages is where this kind of behavior wins out. And where innovation speed creates strong economic advantages is where you find more cooperative and negotiative cultures.


If you lose a major war, all you have is your pride. That's probably at the core of this observation.


"Face" is also tied into shame and handling feelings of shame.

Shame is a major emotion (or idea) and one which is often internalised. Shame is the negative feeling about yourself. "The definition of shame is a discrete, basic emotion, described as a moral or social emotion that drives people to hide or deny their wrongdoings" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shame

Much of western street violence is about shame at it's core. One basic over simplified version is that if I ask for respect I'm asking you not to reveal my own shame. The idea that violent criminals are shameless is wrong - they have deep shame about themselves - and violence is often one reaction to this internal feeling.

Of course there are different types of shame. Sometimes what we think as wrong isn't wrong and sometimes it's not our fault. Society and shame is entwined - and because of this being able to talk about and manage shame is almost impossible.

I'm not sure how this relates to Asian society but I thought it could be a useful avenue into investigating face.


The main negative driver in asian societies is shame, while the main one in "western" societies is guilt.

And yes, both emotions are often at the root of street violence.


What would you say is the difference? Isn't guilt just a form of shame that is consciously acknowledged?


I could be splitting hairs, but to me, guilt is established by another party, and something you may or may not recognize, whereas shame is mostly sourced internally. Someone, including the government, my employer, and other people, can declare me guilty of something. I also can admit guilt, but its not required. Shame on the other hand is something that only exists if I personally feel it.

I do agree with the notion that this may be somewhere close to one of the major differences between Western and some Asian societies (I'm thinking of Japan primarily, as that is what I have experience with, so this may not extrapolate to other Asian cultures). In Japan, I was shocked at the low crime rates. I could leave my bike unlocked pretty much anywhere and not worry about it being stolen. They leave vending machines on random alleyways everywhere with no fear that someone will break into them. Crime in general is just so much lower, despite opportunity potentially being much higher. Additionally, streets are so much cleaner than American cities. People don't defecate on the sidewalk. They clean up after their animals. Public transportation is clean and reliable and you aren't going to be screamed at by a homeless person. I think a lot of this comes from the fact that Japanese culture has a strong element of shame attached to people who transgress societal rules. In Western countries, the emphasis is more on guilt, which leads more to a culture of "getting away with what I can", and "its only a problem when I get caught". We litter more. We steal more. We are more violent. We tend to put less effort into our jobs.

Of course there are flip sides. I think the strong sense of shame and societal responsibility in cultures like Japan's also leads to more mental health issues, higher suicide rates and societal isolation. Tougher work environments and cultures. Sometimes a stronger apprehension towards challenging the status quo. I'm not sure if one is more ideal than the other. I'm personally a big fan of the societal cohesion that seems to exist in Japanese culture, but I have friends who found it stifling and sterile.






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