Most of us think of face as an eastern idea. The clichéd understanding is that face is an inscrutable, stiff-expressioned honor unrecoverable once compromised. In movies, losing face precedes resignation and/or seppuku, ritual suicide. On that scale, few of us have ever lost face.
Of course, it’s more complicated. Stella Ting-Toomey, a leading researcher on face theories, defines it more broadly as the image one projects of oneself. Saving face is the attempt to negotiate the way others perceive us, to bring their impressions more in line with our wishes. Doing so is much harder than it seems.
The trouble with face, especially in the US, is that you can’t give it to yourself. It is conferred, granted by a community on the basis of experience and esteem. When you are new to a place, for instance, you can have little more than institutional stature—your title and being hired to fill that title. The respect you garner by doing your job well takes time, maybe years, but all the time in world won’t replace the consent of the community. When you lose that job, you lose the community and nearly all your stature.
Ting-Toomey regards the U. S. and other pioneer cultures as “low context societies,” because they honor autonomy more than face. Individual rights are more important when a high value is placed on self-reliance and self-preservation. Individual rights supplant loyalty to a nation, institution, or even family. Low context societies believe in direct communication—saying what you want and why you want it, fighting for it—and they accept conflicts where competing desires result in one individual or group losing.
According to Ting-Toomey, in the “high context societies” of the east, inclusion has a much higher value. Group harmony is a crucial attribute and some nonverbal signaling, indirection, or pretense in communication occurs because it preserves a pleasant and agreeable atmosphere where all have a value. Put simply, institutions absorb individuals. Individuals accept knowing less about colleagues because they perceive it as essential to avoiding conflict and preserving unity. Thus, in a high context society, losing face is the ultimate insult—it is losing a place in a world designed to keep places. Without face, you have little value. Acknowledging the importance of the community encourages institutions to retain their members.
In a low-context environment, even extensive explanation leaves people free to form what conclusions they can. They have autonomy and invest absolutely nothing in believing official versions, and, though an individual might try to save face by revealing a more complete picture, face is conferred and not claimed. Placing emphasis on individual perceptions also makes people quick to judge and might lead them to regard any explanation as rationalization. When people invest in their own beliefs before and above others’, they’re unlikely to buy any attempt to save face.
In other words, you’re on your own. Americans don’t give face. Yet face is real—even in the US individuals have stature arising from institutional affirmation. You cannot be important simply by saying you are. Institutions still make us.
Ting-Toomey says that in low context societies, a personal feeling of guilt serves as a moral corrective. Face issues aren’t nearly as significant as they are in high context societies because Americans are free to apologize, be forgiven, and resume their station. In theory, society will not prevent and may even encourage redemption. We love comebacks and makeovers. In theory, you can never be entirely lost when you control your destiny.
But what if confession or apology don’t seem the proper correctives? What if you really don’t have much to apologize for? What can you do to regain face, when you can’t really insist upon it and it must be given?
Very little, which is why losing your job is so devastating… and why corporations’ delusions about employees easily finding other work is either naive or self-serving. We Americans like to believe ourselves masters of our own destinies but are instead masters of another sort of hubris, believing in the self-made man or woman when really it’s so much more complicated than that.