The Importance of “Having Face”

Most Asian countries are considered low context cultures. The communication style used in a low context culture is indirect communication. There can be many hidden messages in this form of communication. Indirect communication style is one where the context of the message determines the meaning of that message. Indirect communication uses nonverbal signs and signals such as eye contact, the intonation of the voice, pauses, and facial expressions. In different cultures, these styles can manifest themselves differently. Indirect communication is acting out rather than directly saying what you are thinking or feeling using facial expressions, tone of voice, or gestures.

There are many additional nonverbal contextual cues used in Asian countries including social status, age of the speaker and listener, and even posture. To interpret communication you must watch for facial expressions and hand and head movements when others are speaking. The tone and the formality of the voice is also an extremely good indicator of intention.

These types of nonverbal signals are often shown through facial expressions and crosses cultural barriers effortlessly – basic emotions like anger, fear, disgust, joy and sadness; or even more complex concepts like obedience, discipline, intelligence, cleanliness, talent, courage, and feelings of love. But other nonverbal cues demand a little more reflection to be understood. The Asian concept of face is one of those nonverbal cues.

Face is a concept that is uniquely Asian. The word “face” doesn’t imply expressions created by the face, although these are a frequently used element in indirect communication styles such as those used in Asian cultures. The Western understanding of face assumes “saving face”, which implies avoiding any communications that would publicly humiliate you or anyone else.

In Asian terms, this is not the case. Face refers to “having face”, something you want more of or are expected to give others. It has nothing to do with facial expression, but it is still a form of indirect communication, although the communication occurs through material objects and one’s environment. It is a representation of what you possess, your image, your worth.

Having face encompasses many elements such as the wealth or status of your family, as well as your social position and talents. It is something that instills pride in one’s self and one’s culture, and understanding this concept is magical because it is a collective concept practiced by all for the good of one’s family and the collective society. Your car represents a portion of your “face”, your house another, your possessions, etc. If you take someone to a nice fancy restaurant then you are implying you value them, thus giving them more face.

What kind of “face” would you have and how can you instill face in others?

– B


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