“Saving Face.” It Ain’t Just for the Chinese

January 16th, 2016 | Author: Leil Lowndes

As the Chinese say, “ren hou lian, shu hou pi.” Umm, for the rest of us 85% of the world who don’t speak Chinese, that means “Trees can’t live without bark. Men can’t live without face.”

In our culture, it’s a little different. Here two young guys can start a friendly conversation with, “Hey fartface, how ya doin? Pretty good shithead, how about you?” Or telling a girlfriend she’s too sensitive because her lip quivered when you told her she looked tired. Face it, we are a nation of teasers, “friendly teasers” usually. But no matter what your intentions, teasing can hurt.

Conversely, China is a nation of showing respect (whether someone feels it for another person or not!) In fact, inadvertently not showing respect makes someone “lose face” which is a BIG deal there. It can ruin a friendship, abort an important professional connection, sometimes a devastate relationship with another country. A slight—perceived or otherwise—has the power to be disastrous both personally and internationally.

In 2006 the then president of China, Hu Jintao, visited the United States. An otherwise somewhat pleasant trip was ruined by several incidents that we would laugh off. One of the most obvious blunders was committed by our president at that time, George W. Bush. He was obviously not quite up on the importance of “face saving” in Chinese culture.

One afternoon, Hu Jintao was on the platform with Bush addressing a crowd. The Chinese president, already visibly shaken by a lone heckler, started exiting toward the right side of the stage. Instead of following him, George Bush reached out and grabbed, not his arm, but the elbow of his sleeve to tug him off to the left. Seeing Mr. Hu’s traumatized expression staring in shock at his tugged sleeve would be truly hilarious—-if it hadn’t been our President committing such a serious blooper.

In the negotiations following, Hu Jintao granted nothing tangible to the US on delicate matters such as the nuclear problems in North Korea and Iran, the Chinese currency’s value and the trade deficit with China.

In our country we don’t perceive “saving face” as so important. In fact, it’s seldom spoken of. But that doesn’t mean Americans don’t hurt just as much when someone says or does something that doesn’t show respect. They may laugh at your teasing, but it doesn’t mean that they too won’t later withhold something that you want—like perhaps their friendship. Save your teasing for your little sister or brother. On second thought, cool it on that one too. It’s probably more important in the long run.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *