Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Many Faces of Face

I have a very complicated relationship with face.

As an expat in Asia, I have to deal with it almost daily - from those little social niceties that allow people to preserve their status, pride or dignity all the way to outright lying, doing anything to avoid admitting fault and back again to roundabout, indirect turns of phrase that ultimately mean nothing but preserve a semblance of social harmony.

Two events have caused me to think about face in more depth and pointedly explore how I feel about it and my relationship to it. After all, I have a sense of face, too - made all the stronger from having lived in countries where it is a strong component of national culture.

The first was this incident in Sanliurfa (a historic city in southeast Turkey). Yes, face exists in Turkey as it does in Taiwan, although within its own cultural paradigm. You can read the actual story through that link.

The second is something I'll speak about more vaguely, as it's currently unfolding: events at work. Basically, a series of screw-ups, poorly timed decisions, manufactured problems and outright incompetence have caused both of us to be dissatisfied. He's quitting now - I have a few things to finish up before I throw in the towel but rest assured I won't be there much longer, either (and before anyone leaves a comment to warn me that I shouldn't say so openly online, don't worry. I've stopped caring. I could figure things out if my workplace got ahold of this post. This is a bridge I don't mind torching - to quote some song lyrics, we don't need no water, let the mother****er burn). Their actions have generally not caused me to lose face - and when I do mess up (and I do, everyone does) I own up to it and apologize. I expect my basic dignity to remain intact and demand respect, but I won't use face for that other twisted purpose of covering up my shortcomings or refusing to acknowledge fault. They have, however, caused my husband to lose, if not face, then dignity, and he is absolutely right to reclaim that and leave. They've also got a bad - but very East Asian - habit of doing anything and everything to maintain their own face, even if it's to the detriment of someone else's.

What I've realized from this is that there are two types of face: the "it doesn't affect anyone else to preserve my dignity" face, which includes "social harmony" face, and the other, more insidious "this is a zero-sum game" face in which saving your own skin requires skinning someone else alive.

The first one doesn't bother me as much as it used to, depending on the situation. Culturally speaking, I'm predisposed to being direct, saying something is wrong when it is, and holding people accountable. Where I come from - New York, which I find to be a region of plainspoken people - the frankness of what someone says isn't meant to be taken personally, and isn't expected to do so. You messed up, say you're sorry, do your best to fix it, and OK. We can all move on. Nobody's going to harp on it forever, because you owned it. When I first moved to Asia, I was of the mindset of: well, you screwed up. Don't try to pussyfoot around it, and don't try to glaze over it with elliptical speech. Just apologize and do your best to make amends, and we can move on. I respected people who rose to this standard much more, and I generally don't hold grudges (with a few exceptions, but even those are passive grudges rather than active ones. I don't have the energy to actively hate someone for long periods of time). The mistake is no biggie - we all make them - but the vague, glassy speech of someone trying to save face (mistakes were made...happenstances were happened...you know...it's very difficult to...things...stuff...oh, ah...) is something I find deeply irritating. I didn't really respect it, and still don't.

What has changed is that now I understand it. I'm used to it, and I've been known to play the game to allow someone else to save a bit of face. I've even been known to do this at work by smiling and nodding through sheer idiocy, because it behooves me to allow the person to save face for now.

Other times, I really can't condone it: what happened in Sanliurfa was this kind of face-saving: oh no, they weren't trying to cheat you, it was a language misunderstanding. Oh no, they thought it was a tip. No, of course they didn't try to cheat you, it's just a culture gap - with the expectation that the other person will just play along. As Brendan noted in his post, the money wasn't important. Five lira really is nothing to us in the vast reaches of time. It was that we weren't interested in saving the face of someone who just tried to cheat us.

But the social harmony aspect of saving face is something I'm fine with, most of the time. You know, a newbie on the job screws up royally, and everyone glosses over it because she's new, trying hard, and she'll get better (and usually, she does). I have no problem with that. If it means not responding to every idiotic thing a person says, no matter how crazy right wing (or left wing) or conspiracy theorist it is, because you have to deal with that person in the future and it's best for you if you just let those things go...well, OK.

Of course, if there's a massive underlying problem, like, I don't know, an office that consistently makes huge mistakes, manufactures problems and acts to solve them with all the efficacy of a car whose wheels are spinning in the mud - and everyone's trying to pretend that it's all fine and everyone is doing an outstanding job and we should all clap politely - then no.

Then there's face as a zero-sum game. The kind where there are two people or groups involved, and one of them is either fully or nominally at fault, but desperate to do anything possible to save face even at the expense of the other. This is what started to happen in Sanliurfa before we walked away: what started as a stupid game to save the faces of two guys trying to cheat us turned into a zero-sum catfight. When we refused to smile and nod politely at the idea that this was just a language misunderstanding it turned into "don't be rude!". By not playing along, the only choice left to the cafe owners and the English speaking customer who came over to help us was to save their face by trying to take away ours by accusing Brendan of being "rude". Those of you who know Brendan know that basically the last thing he could ever be called is "rude"!

It's happened at work, as well - but I won't go into too much detail.

I don't feel that it's the norm in foreigner-Taiwanese interactions that it'll always be a "my face over yours, foreigner!" situation, although it does happen. I do feel that this is exactly what happened in Sanliurfa - the English-speaking customer, being Turkish, was more interested in saving the face of the also-Turkish cafe owners than in admitting the truth, right up to the point of causing (or attempting to cause) us foreigners to lose face as a preferable outcome to shaming the cafe owners.

I have felt at work that, while it was very rare (I can only think of one instance) in which they tried to make me lose face personally, that at times I felt that my face, as a foreigner, was not as important as the face of a local. I remember a time before we left for Turkey that my company made the same mistake three times in one month, a mistake that caused me to look like a bit of a dunderhead in front of clients. I told them so, even using the phrase "these mistakes have caused me to lose face in front of clients", and felt that the reaction was more than a bit apathetic, as in yeah, we'll try not to screw up again, but we don't really care if you personally look bad in front of clients because of mistakes we made. We care more if the company looks bad.

That's work, though, and I do not feel that these examples can stretch to encompass all Taiwanese people. It does happen, but I'm not going to point my finger at the entire society (something I feel happens far too often on expat blogs around the world).

So, in the end, it's a complex topic. Sometimes I play the game - and I admit to having my own sense of face - sometimes I won't even pick up the dice. Sometimes I understand it, rarely do I respect it. Sometimes I just can't condone it. Sometimes it has a relevant place in social interaction and sometimes it's a big ol' shield of lies and elliptical speech meant to preserve some idiot's fragile sense of status, even when he doesn't deserve it.

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