Tradition and Saving Face
“Tradition and Saving Face”
By Levi Bloomer
In my time in Vietnam I’ve noticed a very interesting cultural trend called saving face. Saving face is a combination of reputation, social standing, dignity and individual honors. This tradition is steeped in longstanding notions of respect held in Vietnamese society and other East Asian cultures like China, Japan, and Korea. There is a definite social hierarchy and respect is due to those of higher social standing. Students defer to their teachers, children are expected to obey their parents, and generally wives are expected to listen to their husbands. When someone loses face, others in their community look down at them and their social standing is lowered. In Western terms saving face could be compared to not stepping on someone’s toes. This is incredibly important because in Vietnam one’s self conception is not nearly as important as the views of the community at large. When one brings disrespect on themselves it is not merely his or her own honor that is sullied, but that of their family and possibly their immediate community as well.
Vietnamese are extremely sensitive to public outbursts. One should never raise his or her voice or cause as scene as this could cause someone to lose face. While Western societies usually prefer a more direct and upfront approach, the Vietnamese use a more round about method. Instead of telling someone that they are wrong and embarrassing them in front of their peers, the Vietnamese would instead prefer to offer suggestions and tips for improvement in the future. When asked a direct question that they don’t know the answer to, a Westerner is more apt to just say that they don’t know the answer or don’t understand the question. On the other hand if a Vietnamese person doesn’t know the answer to a direct question, they would likely answer a related topic that they do know the answer to or talk around the question. To admit that they don’t know the answer to the question would be to lose face and bring shame on themselves.
If one insists on embarrassing a Vietnamese person in front of others it will not soon be forgotten. Causing someone to lose face is a serious offense and it is likely that any kind of relationship with that person will be severely impacted. If one were to cause a Vietnamese person to lose face while negotiating a business deal for instance, the deal would be dead in the water. More than one working relationship has been permanently destroyed by a few second exchange of words that causes one or both parties to lose face.
This desire to save face has very real and serious implications for society at large. Because of the importance of social standing, even the poorest Vietnamese will not ask for help unless it is direly needed. The Vietnamese would rather live frugally and go a bit hungry than ask for help and lose face. For Westerners it may seem ridiculous, but the fact is it is a very really and important part of Vietnamese society that needs to be respected. The desire to save face is best illustrated by the book How Vietnamese See the World.
“From each according to his desire for face, to each according to his willingness to lose face.”