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  • confusedsafferinkorea
  • Waygook Lord

    • 5733

    • October 08, 2010, 01:02:32 pm
    • Zhubei, Hsinchu County, Taiwan (not part of China)
    more
Saving face
« on: August 31, 2012, 01:56:49 am »
I only really got to experience the concept of saving face when I came to East Asia.

I initially thought is was a Confucianism thing but I am wondering if it really is, since it appears in societies that don't have that history or am I wrong?

Does 'Honour Killings' (seems to be prevalent amongst Indian and Pakistani's) fall into the 'face saving' thing?  I also read that in some SE Asian countries it also happens but not to the extent of East Asia.

Could someone help me here please? I would like to know its origins and the philosophy behind it as it seems so illogical that 'saving face' is more important than justice or is it just that it has been abused (adapted) by some in society to justify crime and injustice?

Thanks.
There is no known medical cure for stupidity!


  • 5mori
  • Adventurer

    • 54

    • May 25, 2012, 09:21:38 am
    • Gunpo
Re: Saving face
« Reply #1 on: August 31, 2012, 10:15:14 am »
I only really got to experience the concept of saving face when I came to East Asia.

If that is the case, then your definition of 'saving face' would have to be quite limited.  As far as I am aware, this term comes from within English, and was not initially coined to describe foreign habits.

Quote
I initially thought is was a Confucianism thing but I am wondering if it really is, since it appears in societies that don't have that history or am I wrong?

Good that you saw why this is problematic.  If any of the details might be of interest, I complained at some length about an annoying tendency for some foreigners to ascribe seemingly everything to 'Confucianism' a few months ago in a thread called (I think) 'Confucianism in a nutshell'.  Part of the reason I mention that here in this thread is that I think I also talked about SE Asia a fair amount.  Anyway:

Quote
I also read that in some SE Asian countries it also happens but not to the extent of East Asia.

Comparing 'East Asia' with 'Southeast Asia' would be difficult (and how would one measure it?).  Anecdotally, though, I lived an equal amount of time in Korea and Thailand (three years each), and would say that 'face saving' gets every bit as convoluted in Thailand as it does here.

Quote
Could someone help me here please? I would like to know its origins and the philosophy behind it as it seems so illogical that 'saving face' is more important than justice or is it just that it has been abused (adapted) by some in society to justify crime and injustice?

Let's say you buy a new shirt, and ask me what I think about it.  I think it's dreadful, but instead say 'It looks nice'.  What are the origins and philosophy behind that?  Basically, I think you are 'exoticising' things too much.

In general, my personal feeling is that 'saving face' is a pretty slippery concept, is sometimes resorted to as an explanatory device when people simply don't know what is going on, and generally is more likely to be discussed at length in pop-psych books like the 'Culture Shock!' series, rather than formal anthropological works, which might talk about broader themes like 'shame and honor' rather than 'saving face', in the case of the 'Honor Killings' you were talking about.

Hope this helps some. (And no snark intended, I'm just a bit rushed this morning.)


  • Bulgogi
  • Veteran

    • 92

    • December 07, 2011, 01:45:04 pm
Re: Saving face
« Reply #2 on: August 31, 2012, 11:28:30 am »
I only really got to experience the concept of saving face when I came to East Asia.

If that is the case, then your definition of 'saving face' would have to be quite limited.  As far as I am aware, this term comes from within English, and was not initially coined to describe foreign habits.

Quote
I initially thought is was a Confucianism thing but I am wondering if it really is, since it appears in societies that don't have that history or am I wrong?

Good that you saw why this is problematic.  If any of the details might be of interest, I complained at some length about an annoying tendency for some foreigners to ascribe seemingly everything to 'Confucianism' a few months ago in a thread called (I think) 'Confucianism in a nutshell'.  Part of the reason I mention that here in this thread is that I think I also talked about SE Asia a fair amount.  Anyway:

Quote
I also read that in some SE Asian countries it also happens but not to the extent of East Asia.

Comparing 'East Asia' with 'Southeast Asia' would be difficult (and how would one measure it?).  Anecdotally, though, I lived an equal amount of time in Korea and Thailand (three years each), and would say that 'face saving' gets every bit as convoluted in Thailand as it does here.

Quote
Could someone help me here please? I would like to know its origins and the philosophy behind it as it seems so illogical that 'saving face' is more important than justice or is it just that it has been abused (adapted) by some in society to justify crime and injustice?

Let's say you buy a new shirt, and ask me what I think about it.  I think it's dreadful, but instead say 'It looks nice'.   What are the origins and philosophy behind that?  Basically, I think you are 'exoticising' things too much.

In general, my personal feeling is that 'saving face' is a pretty slippery concept, is sometimes resorted to as an explanatory device when people simply don't know what is going on, and generally is more likely to be discussed at length in pop-psych books like the 'Culture Shock!' series, rather than formal anthropological works, which might talk about broader themes like 'shame and honor' rather than 'saving face', in the case of the 'Honor Killings' you were talking about.

Hope this helps some. (And no snark intended, I'm just a bit rushed this morning.)

I agree with most of what you said...and got another example to add to what I underlined above. It's like MOST westerners saying Koreans don't have a 'sense of humor' or  don't understand 'sarcasm'...when most Westerners are so easily offended when Koreans offered their slightest remarks of sarcasm by being so honest.  "Oh your nose is so big and pointy it might pop the ball", "You're like a Rhino, you eat only Vegetable but still get so BIG",  "You're fat...you should try to lose some fat"...etc.  When westerners get offended by these remarks...THEY are the ones who didn't understood the Korean's sense of humor, not the other way around.
« Last Edit: August 31, 2012, 11:30:25 am by Bulgogi »


  • TheWB18
  • Expert Waygook

    • 634

    • October 27, 2011, 07:51:30 am
    • South Korea
Re: Saving face
« Reply #3 on: August 31, 2012, 11:58:58 am »
I agree with most of what you said...and got another example to add to what I underlined above. It's like MOST westerners saying Koreans don't have a 'sense of humor' or  don't understand 'sarcasm'...when most Westerners are so easily offended when Koreans offered their slightest remarks of sarcasm by being so honest.  "Oh your nose is so big and pointy it might pop the ball", "You're like a Rhino, you eat only Vegetable but still get so BIG",  "You're fat...you should try to lose some fat"...etc.  When westerners get offended by these remarks...THEY are the ones who didn't understood the Korean's sense of humor, not the other way around.

Meh.  I think the issue here is we do understand it, but in the West, simple physical comedy and insults without wit are considered rude and childish.  The rhino comment is really funny, I laughed out loud, and if a Korean said that to me, I'd give him props.  But by western standards, "gag shows" and things like that are pretty childish.  Whether it's snobbishness or what, western humor standards tend towards sarcasm, irony, and wit, with physical comedy and straight insult further down the list.  In Korea, things seem to be the reverse.

Face saving though, that's pretty universal.  I correct people (in private, later) if it's important, but it's still quite an awkward feeling approaching them. "So, uh, when you said that everyone in Korea speaks Chinese..."


  • confusedsafferinkorea
  • Waygook Lord

    • 5733

    • October 08, 2010, 01:02:32 pm
    • Zhubei, Hsinchu County, Taiwan (not part of China)
    more
Re: Saving face
« Reply #4 on: August 31, 2012, 12:00:21 pm »
Thanks for the detailed replies.

I understand 'saving face' is in  fact an English word or concept, but I must admit I never really saw it in action in my country.

I really only experienced it upon arriving in the 'East'. I think many of us Westerners see it as a way of avoiding the consequences of your actions, however.

I guess there will be some argument as to the validity of that feeling.

Comparing 'East Asia' with 'Southeast Asia' would be difficult (and how would one measure it?).  Anecdotally, though, I lived an equal amount of time in Korea and Thailand (three years each), and would say that 'face saving' gets every bit as convoluted in Thailand as it does here.

The reason I raised this is that in the Philippines, saving face is also important BUT not to the extent it is here and I just quote one example. In another thread there was discussion around holding students back that are guilty of teacher abuse and a teacher discussed this with there KT and the reply was it wouldn't happen (or words to that effect) since then the student would lose face.

Filipinos on the other hand have absolutely no problem in holding back a student that does not deserve to move to the next grade, saving face is not an issue in that instance.

I am also reminded that it seems to be pretty much a common thing here in Korea in that often when a crime is committed, payment is offered to obviate the crime and save face.  As an outsider too, it appears that the law system here favours Koreans when it comes to a us vs them situation.

I am not on a crusade to bash Korea, it is just for me it is really my first experience of this sort of thing.
« Last Edit: August 31, 2012, 12:09:19 pm by confusedsafferinkorea »
There is no known medical cure for stupidity!


  • Hongsam
  • Super Waygook

    • 418

    • August 17, 2011, 12:24:57 pm
    • Ansan
Re: Saving face
« Reply #5 on: August 31, 2012, 12:01:46 pm »
Bulgogi, I get that Korean humour and sarcasm might be different. I can't quibble with you there. I can't say that the situations you mention are examples of either though.

I've spoken to quite a few Koreans in depth about this issue of talking bluntly about a person's appearance. They all pretty much said that it's a not so subtle power play. Especially when it's done in a work context.

I guess friends will rib each other over appearance in most countries. That's different though. That's just your friends teasing you.

saffer, I'm also South African. I reckon that there is fair bit of saving face going on our country.

For example, South African society is fairly misoginistic. It's hard for a lot of men to take direction from a woman. I've observed men who have a woman as boss try and undermine her when she's not there. I'd argue that they do this because they don't want lose face in front of their peers.
« Last Edit: August 31, 2012, 12:23:29 pm by Hongsam »


Re: Saving face
« Reply #6 on: August 31, 2012, 12:27:00 pm »
I understand 'saving face' is in  fact an English word or concept, but I must admit I never really saw it in action in my country.

I think by being an outsider to the culture a person is living inside of gives distance to the customs and behaviors and so the observations become something different or more clinical.

My favorite professor was a sociology professor from India who wrote brilliantly on gender in America; she said something along the lines of being unable to critique her own culture as well as she could America's because of the relative personal distances between herself and the two cultures.


  • confusedsafferinkorea
  • Waygook Lord

    • 5733

    • October 08, 2010, 01:02:32 pm
    • Zhubei, Hsinchu County, Taiwan (not part of China)
    more
Re: Saving face
« Reply #7 on: August 31, 2012, 12:27:51 pm »
Bulgogi, I get that Korean humour and sarcasm might be different. I can't quibble with you there. I can't say that the situations you mention are examples of either though.

I've spoken to quite a few Koreans in depth about this issue of talking bluntly about a person's appearance. They all pretty much said that it's a not so subtle power play. Especially when it's done in a work context.

I guess friends will rib each other over appearance in most countries. That's different though. That's just your friends teasing you.

saffer, I'm also South African. I reckon that there is fair bit of saving face going on our country.

For example, South African society is fairly misoginistic. It's hard for a lot of men to take direction from a woman. I've observed men who have a woman as boss try and undermine her when she's not there. I'd argue that they do this because they don't want lose face in front of their peers.

I would agree on that level, but here in the East it is taken to a whole new level, I don't think it is on that level in SA.
There is no known medical cure for stupidity!


  • Hongsam
  • Super Waygook

    • 418

    • August 17, 2011, 12:24:57 pm
    • Ansan
Re: Saving face
« Reply #8 on: August 31, 2012, 12:36:32 pm »
loswillyams, that's an interesting point that you've raised. I reckon we're so unconsciously attuned to the nuances of our own cultures that we hardly ever stop to analyze them.

saffer, sure, I'm with you. Especially with regards to apologizing and dealing with failure.


  • Gansie
  • Veteran

    • 119

    • September 21, 2011, 08:01:42 am
    • Incheon, South Korea
Re: Saving face
« Reply #9 on: August 31, 2012, 12:37:44 pm »
I understand the term "saving face" to mean that you try not to humiliate others in public, or that you take preventive actions so that you, yourself will not be humiliated. I think people get confused about the two very different meanings. In the first meaning it just comes down to basic good manners and social tact.

Quote
I understand 'saving face' is in  fact an English word or concept, but I must admit I never really saw it in action in my country.

Really? I thought this had always been a very important thing in SA? Always being considerate and trying not to put someone in an awkward position. And the second meaning of shifting blame is definitely also part of SA (especially the politicians.... :P). Although the shifting of blame is certainly not so in-your-face as here in Korea.

I think the reason we become so aware of this in Korea, is due to the strict social hierarchy. It is good manners to help your superiors save face. You never question their decisions or show that you doubt them in any way. And many superiors abuse this by openly shifting blame to others, knowing that they will not be socially allowed to offer any protest.

As an example, we had a staff dinner and the principal put his half-full glass (oooh, I must be an optimist, who would have thunk) on the side of the table where it got knocked over, The one teacher said that she will get him a new glass and he suddenly got quite upset and denied that it was his glass. We all knew it was his glass (and it was just a freaking glass with some cider in it, not the end of he world), but the teacher just acquiesced and suggested that it must have been her glass. The situation was diffused and everyone was happy (well, they think he is an idiot, but they will/can never do anything about it).


  • confusedsafferinkorea
  • Waygook Lord

    • 5733

    • October 08, 2010, 01:02:32 pm
    • Zhubei, Hsinchu County, Taiwan (not part of China)
    more
Re: Saving face
« Reply #10 on: August 31, 2012, 12:55:24 pm »
I understand the term "saving face" to mean that you try not to humiliate others in public, or that you take preventive actions so that you, yourself will not be humiliated. I think people get confused about the two very different meanings. In the first meaning it just comes down to basic good manners and social tact.

Quote
I understand 'saving face' is in  fact an English word or concept, but I must admit I never really saw it in action in my country.

Really? I thought this had always been a very important thing in SA? Always being considerate and trying not to put someone in an awkward position. And the second meaning of shifting blame is definitely also part of SA (especially the politicians.... :P). Although the shifting of blame is certainly not so in-your-face as here in Korea.

I think the reason we become so aware of this in Korea, is due to the strict social hierarchy. It is good manners to help your superiors save face. You never question their decisions or show that you doubt them in any way. And many superiors abuse this by openly shifting blame to others, knowing that they will not be socially allowed to offer any protest.

As an example, we had a staff dinner and the principal put his half-full glass (oooh, I must be an optimist, who would have thunk) on the side of the table where it got knocked over, The one teacher said that she will get him a new glass and he suddenly got quite upset and denied that it was his glass. We all knew it was his glass (and it was just a freaking glass with some cider in it, not the end of he world), but the teacher just acquiesced and suggested that it must have been her glass. The situation was diffused and everyone was happy (well, they think he is an idiot, but they will/can never do anything about it).

Gansie, I think there is a difference between being polite and saving face. I was raised to be polite (or risk being smacked into the middle of next week by my mom  :P ). Here and indeed in other parts of Asia it runs much deeper as you cited in you fairly simple illustration of how it worked with your Principal. I seriously doubt that would have happened back in the 'Vaderland'.   ;D
There is no known medical cure for stupidity!


  • Cereal
  • Hero of Waygookistan

    • 1239

    • March 16, 2011, 12:51:55 pm
    • Earth
    more
Re: Saving face
« Reply #11 on: August 31, 2012, 01:04:50 pm »
I understand the term "saving face" to mean that you try not to humiliate others in public, or that you take preventive actions so that you, yourself will not be humiliated. I think people get confused about the two very different meanings. In the first meaning it just comes down to basic good manners and social tact.

Quote
I understand 'saving face' is in  fact an English word or concept, but I must admit I never really saw it in action in my country.

Really? I thought this had always been a very important thing in SA? Always being considerate and trying not to put someone in an awkward position. And the second meaning of shifting blame is definitely also part of SA (especially the politicians.... :P). Although the shifting of blame is certainly not so in-your-face as here in Korea.

I think the reason we become so aware of this in Korea, is due to the strict social hierarchy. It is good manners to help your superiors save face. You never question their decisions or show that you doubt them in any way. And many superiors abuse this by openly shifting blame to others, knowing that they will not be socially allowed to offer any protest.

As an example, we had a staff dinner and the principal put his half-full glass (oooh, I must be an optimist, who would have thunk) on the side of the table where it got knocked over, The one teacher said that she will get him a new glass and he suddenly got quite upset and denied that it was his glass. We all knew it was his glass (and it was just a freaking glass with some cider in it, not the end of he world), but the teacher just acquiesced and suggested that it must have been her glass. The situation was diffused and everyone was happy (well, they think he is an idiot, but they will/can never do anything about it).

I think the whole idea of saving face is absurd; I always have and I always will. The highlighted part above is a prime example. The principal wasn't saving face, he was being a spineless wimp.

Man up for God's sake! 
"The urge to destroy is also a creative urge."
Bakunin