Photo by Mike9Alive (Flickr)
This is the text of my That's Men column published in The Irish Times on Tuesday, March 18th, 2008:
You are at work and you make a mistake. Your boss is a bit of a bully and she berates you in front of your colleagues. Even customers and people from other departments can hear the dressing down you’ve been given.
It’s bad enough to be told off for making a mistake but to have it done in public is many times worse. Why? Because you have lost face in front of colleagues and customers. In the aftermath of such an event, you find it hard to look them in the eye.
We tend to think of ‘saving face’ as a particularly oriental preoccupation. And in our individualistic society we may even regard it as a redundant concept.
I think we’re wrong on two counts. First, saving face is more important to us than we admit. Second, a desire to save face has, in my opinion, a softening effect on an otherwise harsh society.
Each of us has a social face. Your social face is the aspect of yourself that you can show to other people without shame. Sometimes you can’t even look at yourself in the mirror but you still have a social face – behind which a multitude of sins may be concealed – to show the world.
Your social face can be physical. The sudden appearance of a blemish on your face will send you to your doctor faster than any invisible discomfort. I read in a recent New Statesman that many Iranian women see having a small nose as an essential component of an acceptable social face. In Teheran alone, 35,000 women had nose jobs in 2006. Even the Ayatollah Khomeini reckoned nose jobs were okay though I don’t think, on the evidence, that he had one himself.
But there’s more than this to saving face. Countries such as China, Japan and Korea which inherited the Confucian philosophy all have a strong concept of face and of saving face. There, your moral okayness and your abilities all contribute to your social face. If you lose face you feel shame. You can lose face in your own eyes because you know you have not lived up to an acceptable internal standard. You can also lose face because others believe your performance or your behaviour are not good enough.
It is losing face in public that is the most devastating – think of Japanese businessmen committing suicide when they fail spectacularly. Think of your own darkest, deepest secret being revealed and how hard it would be to walk down the street afterwards.
So when the bully mentioned in the first paragraph attacks you in public she is targeting your abilities in a way which hurts at a very deep level. This is why such incidents have a profoundly unsettling effect, especially if repeated.
It’s the same with the person who attacks their partner in public, making no attempt to spare their dignity in front of an audience. The audience, if they are half-decent at all, is embarrassed to witness someone’s social face being spat upon, so to speak in their presence. As an audience, they have been made to collude in what is going on.
Which leads us to the softening aspect of the culture of face-saving: it takes two to do it.
When people are polite with each other, they help each other to save face. If you are in trouble and someone you love treats you kindly, she is helping you to save face. Gardaí who are good at defusing situations are skilled at allowing people to save face while stopping what they are doing. Good negotiators in industrial relations know that enabling the other side to save face while climbing down is essential – otherwise there may be no deal. Doctors, nurses, care attendants, hospital porters and other health workers can be very good at helping patients to save face in otherwise embarrassing situations – and when they’re not the patients feel diminished and hurt.
Sometimes we’re silly about this. The waiter asks you if everything is alright and, though everything is not alright you say it is. I did that myself only the other week. It’s almost as though you are saving face for the waiter. Silly, yes, and very Irish.
That said, though, it seems to me that face-saving, far from being an odd, oriental notion is a core part of what we are. And if we play the face-saving game with compassion we can make life better for ourselves and for all those others who also badly need to present an acceptable “social face” to the world.