Different race, different face
The odd notion of 'face' is often thought of as typically Chinese; evidence of baffling Asian ways, as impenetrable as their languages. But actually, it is universal. Everybody has to learn how to give, take, gain and lose face according to their society's social interactive rules of the road.
Classic 'face' wrong-footers are when westerners automatically ascribe falseness to Asians who are reluctant to come out with a plain and honest 'no'. For their part, Chinese recoil from the westerner's pushy 'adversarial logic', as Chinese University of Hong Kong's Michael Harris Bond calls it. They fear it will cause lasting ill-feeling and so they instinctively use the indirect methods of face-giving to save unappreciative westerners from their own unintended blundering.
The differences are rooted in social structure. Chinese societies tend to stress relationships and pay as much attention to the situation in which an exchange takes place as to its literal content. Theorists call this collectivist and high-context. Anglo-American societies, in contrast, emphasise individual needs, and people focus their attention more tightly, largely ignoring the subtle clues to be found in surrounding circumstances.
Because they look at life from the point of view of relationships, Chinese are naturally more concerned about avoiding conflict. This helps explain the mechanism of face - the sort of mutually constructed social safety net of affirming gestures, invitations, compliments and minor services which the Chinese use to negotiate looming discord indirectly.
Westerners are less averse to open disharmony because they see it from an impersonal, task-orientated perspective. 'Healthy debate' is a defining feature of maturity and sophistication, an integral feature of western liberal democracy and public discourse. In Chinese societies, says David Ho Yau-fai, of Hong Kong University, 'the hallmark of social skill and experience' is preventing face-loss. The more tightly knit the society, the more important the rituals of face. And, within societies, the more precarious one's position, the more developed one's face skills are likely to be.
European class systems illustrate the point. A commoner has a rudimentary repertoire of face relations. He can even stage a mini-rebellion from time to time by calling a spade a spade, much to the amusement or horror of the aristocrat.
The noble, on the other hand, is a model of good manners because his elevated social position requires the tacit support of those below him. He has to juggle getting the face fitting to his rank and giving enough to maintain it. Noblesse oblige, for example, is a seemingly contradictory concept by which aristocrats buy the complicity of their social inferiors by staging elaborate face-giving rituals like charity work and annual garden parties.
We are not charitable when we give face; we do so in our own best interests. In our commerce with the wider world, we give face because we hope it will be reciprocated. Face is a way of avoiding the truth about ourselves and those around us. Those truths are in any case impossible to agree on and certainly far less digestible than the version we and our inner circle collude to pass off as the truths about each other.
Whatever our social position, we shield and adjust ourselves by strategic blindness, omissions, half-truths, illusions and rationalisations, and depend on the face-saving support of others to be the person we wish we were. That is the nature of all social lubricants, Chinese or otherwise.
Jean Nicol is a psychologist specialising in issues of cultural identity and change in an era of globalisation