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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.:


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.

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