What does the Asian expression “saving face” mean?

Ever wondered what Asians might mean when they’re talking about “saving face” and “losing face”? I’ll hint at what it means with this sad example that perfectly illustrates the expression. Here is the South Korean girl group GFriend (whom I actually didn’t know of until today) illustrating what I mean:

Losing face vs. saving face in Korea

When I began working in Korea three years ago, I didn’t know about the expressions “losing face” or “saving face”, but they were explained to me thus: if you lose face, it’s an unforgivable infraction and you’ll be shunned. If you save face, you’ll be a hero.

So basically, if you put someone down for a mistake they make, you’ll be treated like you’re the worst sort of asshat that ever walked this Earth. If you point out someone’s mistake publicly, bad mojo on you. It’s a little difficult to tread the waters of teaching particularly because of that. You have to balance the compliments in with the mistake-pointing. More examples:

  • If you get a gift that you want to refuse… just don’t.
  • Always defer to the elders’ judgment. That means accepting that your co-teacher’s ways are always best. Even if it means continuing to doom the kids to lessons that are not crafted for them. It also means deferring to their in-class statement that Canadians use American dollars.
  • If someone invites you for dinner, just accept that they’re not going to let you pay. (That was weird at first, but it is pretty awesome if you’re underpaid)

But let’s get back to that video, shall we? You see how many times that girl tripped and gets right back up and into the dancing fray? In the end, she is probably lauded by all her fans and non-fans for how brave and nonplussed she seems. Whereas in the west you might see some backstage person shoot out after the third or fourth time, or even at the end, to help her off-stage and see if she’s hurt, you never see that in this video. Only her group mates are allowed to help her up and away. But she is never allowed to show any pain publicly, lest her career suffer for it.

The Chinese face

Considering that China is undoubtedly the home of many Asian cultures, including Korea where I stayed, Wikipedia can shed a little bit more light on the concept. Arthur Henderson Smith interpreted it thus:

The term “face” keeps cropping up in our conversation, and it seems such a simple expression that I doubt whether many people give it much thought. Recently, however, we have heard this word on the lips of foreigners too, who seem to be studying it. They find it extremely hard to understand, but believe that “face” is the key to the Chinese spirit and that grasping it will be like grabbing a queue twenty-four years ago [when wearing a queue was compulsory] – everything else will follow. (1934, 1959:129)

In other words, losing face is, psychologically, what getting “defaced” physiologically would be. The spirit of the person is therefore defaced and derided, making them little more than a shell of themselves. Refusing a gift from someone is disrespecting them and their feelings. Helping someone up after a fall is disrespecting their dignity. Not doing anything gives them the power to regain their lost honour (say, not saying anything if an ahjumma makes a scathing remark about a black person on the bus basically allows them to regain their dignity and choose to stay quiet next time). Saying “Let’s split the bill” when you’ve been invited is an insult to your inviter’s ability to pay for you.

It’s convoluted, for sure, but that’s how society is and somewhat works in Korea and many other Asian countries even to this day.

Also, Koreans are made of freaking steel.