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No one likes to be embarrassed or lose dignity in front of other people. But what may constitute as offenses against the social image differ between cultures. Especially in Southeast Asia, where the collective sense of being is strong, important, and sensitive, understanding the culture of ‘face’ will help you understand what would otherwise be a confusing scenario and avoid causing yourself or others any embarrassment.
Of course, we don’t mean the anatomical face, although the metaphorical suitability is well-fitted. In this context, the ‘face’ refers to a social image, reputation, dignity or honor. It’s something we put out for everyone else to see and must be protected at all cost, kind of like the way we instinctively sacrifice our arm to protect the face when tripping forward.
The culture of saving face takes form in everyday interactions, from a formal board meeting to bargaining for a bundle of vegetables in the market. Our insider’s guide to ‘saving face’ in Southeast Asia will help you interact better with locals, which in turn will grant you practical perks like getting a better deal at the market.
Disclaimer: This guide will not focus much on saving your face. It’s important to remember that in most Asian cultures, the collective is often more prominent than the individual. Think of it this way. By helping others maintain their ‘face’, you save yourself embarrassment and when you find yourself in a similar situation, you can count on them to help save yours.
Causing a scene is never good anywhere. But in Southeast Asia, arguing in public, for example, is not only embarrassing to you; it causes almost the same degree of embarrassment and discomfort to bystanders. So, as much as they judge you for losing your cool in public, they also suffer a similar embarrassment on your behalf. It’s always best to stay outwardly calm during a disagreement or wait until you have the privacy of your own space to settle a dispute.
You’re talking to a nice local lady and you notice a tiny patch of chili on her teeth. You mean well by telling her about it so she can immediately clean it up and maintain a neat appearance. But that may actually cause the kind lady to lose face. The same thing applies when someone says something you know is inaccurate. Refrain from pointing others’ flaws and blunders (especially in front of other people) unless you’re already very close.
Sometimes vendors give you negotiable prices in traditional markets and it’s okay to haggle. But many tourists have made the mistake of insisting on their initial asking price and end up with nothing. Even when you’re convinced that the price you’re asking is appropriate, local vendors may not approve of it directly in order to avoid feeling shorted at the transaction and lose face. The key is, always drive a hard bargain first, and when the seller said no, increase the price so they would feel like you appreciate the goods they sell.
When giving anything—a gift to an acquaintance, a tip for service, even money to beggars—do so discreetly and as casually as possible. Making a big deal and draw too much attention while giving something to someone may cause the receiver to blush and lose face.
When someone wants to give you anything, it’s polite to refuse at first, by saying, “You shouldn’t have,” or such. If they really want you to have it, they’ll offer again and this time you’ll accept with both hands and say thank you. Opening a gift in front of the giver (unless explicitly requested) may also cause the kind giver to lose face and feel uncomfortable.
The key to saving face is avoiding what may cause others discomfort or embarrassment. This may vary depending on the person and situation. It’s important to always pay attention to whom you’re interacting with and the social context in which you interact. If you pick up on any kind of discomfort on the other party’s behalf, stop whatever you’re doing right away. This may be tricky as most Southeast Asian people are too polite to expressively tell you if you’re making them uncomfortable. So you’re going to have to learn to be sensitive and distinguish a genuine laugh from a nervous giggle, and friendly engagements from reluctant nods.