Face

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Public Service Announcement

I have just started an intensive Chinese course.  The demands of said course, along with my awesome job of moulding young minds will be taking up a lot of time, so I may not be able to write as much as I have been for the duration of the course.

If you enjoy reading, I am very sorry;   I’ll get back on the horse as soon as I have more spare time.

If you are reading because you are my friend and are obligated to, you get a break. (But I expect you back as soon as I start writing again!).

Thanks.

End

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I was out on a double date.  My Taiwanese friend wanted to meet a girl, so he asked me if I could hook him up with someone nice.  Not really being a bar going people, the majority of relationships here are formed through introductions by mutual friends.

Someone nice eh?….hmmm…I have rarely known “nice” girls, usually preferring the company of ladies with questionable values.  Those types always seemed more fun.

But I was in Taiwan to start a new life, and in the interest of being mature and all that, I was doing things differently.  I asked my gf (who is very traditional), if she knew anyone that might be suitable for my friend.  To my relief, she was thrilled at the chance to play matchmaker, and the project was thankfully lifted out of my hands.

So, we were out on a double date.  The conversation was flowing, and everyone seemed to be having a good time.  But then, I noticed that my friend seemed pretty strained.  He avoided making eye contact with me, and I could tell something was wrong.  This unease continued throughout dinner, and finally when it was time to leave, I pulled him aside and asked him if everything was ok.

“Why you make fun at me?”

“Huh??”

“You make fun and embarass at me!”

“Oh…Ummm…sorry.”  I didn’t have the faintest idea what he was talking about, but figured that it was just a miscommunication.  “What did I say?”

“You say {insert some joke at his expense that I don’t remember anymore}.”

“That was just a joke…C’mon…relax”

But he was genuinely upset, and I didn’t know what to do.  I wanted to tell him to stop acting like a baby, but figured one grevious injury for the evening was enough.

Later on when dissecting the situation with my gf, she explained to me that he was upset because I had caused him to lose “face”.

Half an hour of Google-ing later, I was armed with the knowledge of face.  It’s a concept that’s very prevalent in Taiwanese (and most Asian) culture.  It encompasses a person’s dignity, prestige, social standing, social esteem and many other factors.

It’s hard to define accurately, but in the west, we are familiar with a watered down version of it – a person’s reputation.  While it doesn’t encompass the whole sense of face, reputation is the closest approximation.

Face can be gained and lost.  Like Christians believe that children are born sin free (except for the Original Sin – which is washed away after baptism), Taiwanese believe that every person is born with face.  And while Christians view accumulating sins as bad, Taiwanese view losing face in the same light. So, they will do everything they can to prevent the loss of face.

It’s interesting to note that Mandarin has a term for losing face, but doesn’t have one for gaining face.  Seems like not losing face is much more important than gaining face.

This results in cultural behaviors that are new to me.

It’s hard to get direct answers and advice.

I’m used to giving and recieving direct answers.  I like to know the reality of things so that if needed, changes can be made.  Because of the fear of losing face, Taiwanese will not always be direct.  If there is something unpleasant to be said, no-one will say it.  They are conscious of their own face, as well as of the face of others, so they will not want you to lose face by being the recipient of an unpleasant remark.

While this is very curteous and polite of them, it’s also damn frustrating for me.  I hate having to think about cryptic remarks to decipher meaning.  One such example:

“Oh, they don’t have street sweepers here.”

“Uhhh..ok…so what?”

“So no one will sweep the street.”

What the hell is that supposed to mean?  As I later deduced, my friend was trying to tell me that this was a non smoking area.  The logic goes something like this:

  • No one cleans the street here,
  • so no one will sweep your cigarette butts,
  • so you shouldn’t have cigarette butts,
  • so you shouldn’t smoke here.

A simple “Don’t smoke here.” would have sufficed, but for a Taiwanese that would mean criticizm and loss of face.

While this is an extreme example, it illustrates how face works in these situations.

Mistakes go unfixed

No one will tell you if you are making a mistake.  And you can’t tell anyone if they make a mistake.  So let’s all go around making mistakes so that we don’t have to lose any face.

Because of this way of thinking, it took me a long time to realize that everytime I stuck my chopsticks in a bowl of rice, I was comitting a cultural faux pas (it reminds people of the incense stick used during funerals).

Sometimes it seems that Taiwanese would rather live with mistakes in the hope that they will eventually fix themselves rather than upset the social balance and fix the mistake, BUT lose face.

This also has reprecussions in companies.  Because employees will NOT point out the mistakes of an incompetent boss by jumping the chain of command (obedience to authority is absolute), things can go unnoticed for a while with the potential for disasterous consequences.

I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I have heard that local companies have started hiring loud mouthed foreigners, because they know that we will NOT be quiet about obvious problems, and we WILL give our opinion whether wanted or not.

Excessive flattery

A way to give face is to pay compliments.  I’ll bet that I have been called “handsome” here more times than Brad Pitt.  While it’s ok (maybe even a bit flattering) at first, it gets really annoying after a while and then just seems fake.  After I learned more about face, I understood why they do it, but I still find it mildly annoying.

This is also slightly dangerous because if you take it seriously, you may very well start thinking that you are god’s gift to the opposite sex.  And then you would become a douche-bag (or -baguette as the case may be).

Male Bonding

Back home if a male friend says, “You are one ugly mother******”, it means he’s your buddy.  Guys tossing around friendly insults and one-upmanship is a normal part of male bonding.  If a friend said I was “handsome” or “very witty”, I’d wonder where he got the crack he was obviously smoking.  We expect (at least the guys I know) and even sometimes welcome a certain amount of abuse from our buddies.  If you aren’t getting ribbed, you aren’t REALLY a part of the group because no one feels comfortable enough to make fun of you, and after all, that’s what real friends do…right?

In my (limited) experience, this doesn’t work in Taiwan.  You can’t make friends by making fun of each other.  And I’m sure as hell not telling any guy how great his hair looks.

 Because I don’t know the language well enough yet, I can’t really say how guys bond here.  Sure I have a few male friends, but unlike the friends I have back home, these are superficial friendships.  I don’t mean that my Taiwanese friends are fake, but more that we haven’t really got to know each other very well.  Since face is a big thing, I am sometimes hesitant to even joke around for fear of being offensive.

These are just a few ways among many that face affects day to day dealings with Taiwanese.

In modern times (and especially in the cities), westernization has made face less important with the younger generation.  With older people and more traditional folks from the countryside, it still plays an important role.

Since I am a foreign barbarian with no face to begin with, I am (thankfully) excluded from having to observe these rules.  I would find it very hard to keep constant tabs on how I am percieved compared to my peers.  I can speak my mind and not worry about losing face, because in their eyes, I don’t have any.  And I certainly cannot judge other people as being “better” or “worse” than me.

While they are constrained by these social customs, more than a few people have mentioned that they are envious of foreigners’ ability to speak directly and  not worry too much about judgement.  This freedom of speech and action is an invaluable commodity that I had always taken for granted.  Living in a culture with unwritten social customs that inhibits such freedoms has made me realize how lucky I am to have been able to grow up in Canada and not have to worry about “face”.

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3 Responses to “Face”


  1. 1 Blah Blah Blah Whatever August 3, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    About the buddy part. In Taiwan, people tend to swear a lot if they’re close friends(know each other well), while they might not do that among coworkers, bosses(people might swear if they want to quit or got fired), and not enough close friends(afraid of ticking others off)

  2. 2 Michelle December 23, 2013 at 12:13 am

    You have once again articulated my frustrations. I can’t be better if no one tells me what I’m doing wrong! I’ve witnessed guys making fun of each other though, usually at the expense of the fat one who takes it pretty lightly, surprisingly.


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