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Sunday, November 14, 2010


We’ve all heard of the concept of “face”, that all-important facet of Asian society, which must be protected at all costs. When we hear about this “face”, we often think of it as something unique to Asian culture, which we have to make a special effort to respect if we ever visit an Asian country. Even the Vietnamese & Chinese people that I have met seem to think that “face” is an idea that is exclusive to the East.

But really, there is nothing distinctly Asian about “face”. We all want to protect the image that we show to the public, no matter what country we’re from. No one likes to look stupid or feel embarrassed in front of others – that’s a universal sentiment. We all want people to think we’re nice or generous or badass, & none of us wants that public image to be tarnished.

Everyone has a persona that we show to others, our various masks – or faces – that we put on & take off depending on who we’re with. At work I put on my “teacher” face – I’m responsible, organized, & knowledgeable. When I’m out with friends, I put on my “friend” face – I tell jokes & laugh easily, & I try to be accommodating. When I’m with strangers, I even have a “stranger” face – I’m kind & considerate without being invasive. These are the “faces” that everyone has & that everyone tries to protect.

If you trip & fall in public, how do you feel? That’s the feeling of losing face. If you make a big mistake at work & get fired, you feel embarrassed, ashamed, & rejected. That’s what it feels like to lose a lot of face. It’s the same the world over. In Asia they call it “losing face”, in the West, we call it “feeling stupid”.

Just like in the West, losing face – or looking stupid – in Asia is not such a big deal. You might make mistakes, as everyone does, but you & everybody else soon get over it & move on with your lives.

So why do we use this word "face" when we talk about being embarrassed in Asia? Probably because there's no one word in English that describes it as concisely - the English language is known for borrowing words when it doesn't have its own that are suitable. But no matter what you call it, we all have it & we can all lose it occasionally.

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