What is FACE in Taiwanese Culture?

By Todd Blackhurst

First, a question. Have you ever told a white lie? Why?

One of the purposes we tell “white lies” is to avoid questioning the view that someone holds of him or herself. It is a way we save “FACE”. It may be saving your own FACE or someone else’s FACE.

In Western culture, we rarely talk about this, but we practice it all the time. It allows us to interact with all kinds of people. Let me give you a couple of examples.

You are feeling badly because of some particular stress in your life (relational, financial or otherwise) and your mom or dad calls and asks, “How are you doing today?” to which you reply, “I’m fine, everything is great.” The reason for this is you want to save your parents from feeling uncomfortable due to your stress. This is a face saving device. 

Another example would be if a friend got a new haircut which was particularly unflattering. Rather than just come out and tell them it looked terrible, you might choose to say it looked great instead. You prefer harmony rather than risk the potential relational problems that could incur from telling the truth. 

You run into a childhood friend on the street that you haven’t seen in many years and after a brief conversation you say something like, “let’s get together soon and grab lunch”. Something you have no intention of doing or following up on. You simply want to give a good feeling to this childhood friend.

These are all FACE saving devices in western culture.

It is a little different in Taiwanese/Chinese culture, but those examples should help you understand better what is going on when FACE is involved. In Mandarin Chinese, we say diu lian 丟臉  to lose face or be disgraced/diu mian zi  丟面子  to lose face / liu mian zi 留面子 to save face

In Eastern Culture, every person has a set of personal claims (their identity) that is socially vital and other people recognize those claims and expect them to be consistent most all of the time. This allows everyone to get along and interact.

This set of personal claims is also important as it becomes a person’s psychological identity – it conveys a sense of personal dignity, integrity and self-respect.

This set of claims is a person’s “FACE”. It is the sense of self that you put forward to others with reasonable, if not perfect consistency.

In every social and/or business situation, everyone present has a stake in preserving everyone else’s face as well as their own. The mutual preservation of face allows social life to proceed. “White lies” also allow people to preserve and “save FACE”.

Loss of face occurs when a person’s set of claims is implicitly or explicitly called into question by others. This creates embarrassment and possibly anger in the person questioned, because with or without justification it’s like taking the mask off – taking away the role that the person fulfills.

If you unintentionally cause someone to lose face – you will also lose face yourself, because you would think, how could I be so foolish as to do such a thing. On the other hand – to do something like this on purpose is a direct challenge to someone’s very person.

When someone loses face – the focus of the whole situation turns to what will be done about the person who lost face and the person who caused it.

There is a Chinese proverb – a person needs face like a tree needs bark.

Why is this so important in Taiwanese/Chinese culture?

Chinese culture over many thousands of years has been very stable – people lived in one place for a very long time, so stability in relationships, both personal, family and business was very important. You did not want to make people angry or upset. Maintaining harmony in relationships is still of paramount importance. This is a bedrock of Asian and especially Chinese culture. If you don’t understand this, you will have many problems living in close proximity to Taiwanese people.

In Taiwanese/Chinese culture, people spend their entire lives trying to build their social prestige and reputation, while at the same time doing their best to avoid causing anyone else to lose theirs.

A major difference from Western culture is that in Eastern culture FACE is gained less by individual achievement and more by promoting social harmony and by being seen as helpful. So, when someone loses FACE it means their ability to function as part of the social order has been damaged.

Loss of FACE is a threat to the social order as taught by Confucius. This has been ingrained into the Chinese mindset for hundreds of years. In all relationships, there is an obligation to preserve respect both from the lesser to the greater and the greater to the lesser.

So, what can you do? Here are some ideas that will help you as you live and interact in Taiwanese culture:

  • Be deferential to those above you in age and position
  • Be considerate of those below you
  • Do not expect that Chinese will act contrary to social norms
  • Do not insist that hosts respect your rights or opinions (especially in business / as a guest in someone’s home / or in another situation where you are being treated by someone)
  • You should not in any way defy your hosts accepted moral standards
  • You should not show anger and avoid confrontation if at all possible in most situations (many foreigners take issue with this. There are appropriate ways to express anger and confront people in Taiwanese culture, unfortunately if you make a mistake by expressing anger inappropriately without understanding the context and the people that you should express it with, then you could severely damage your credibility and character)
  • If you must say no, do so as tactfully as possible
  • If you must criticize – do so in private, or in public, in the context of upgrading an entire group. Never single out a person in public. Encourage stronger members to help weaker members. In a similar sense, if you must praise, do so carefully. Too much praise for one individual in front of a group will also cause damage by disrupting group harmony.
  • Expats in Taiwan will have more friends and greater success in business if they learn to show humility in public and allow others to save face in awkward situations and business deals.

2 thoughts on “What is FACE in Taiwanese Culture?

  1. I would like to hear from expats who have lived here for several years how they take part in this ‘face’-saving culture. I hope to stay long-term but find many aspects this article addresses very hard to respond to or understand

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