Shame society


Face, idiomatically meaning dignity/prestige, is a fundamental concept in sociology, psychology, and political science. Chinese author and translator Lin Yutang (1895-1976) claimed ‘Face cannot be translated or defined.’ However, some definitions have been attempted: ‘The term face may be defined as the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact. Face is an image of self delineated in terms of approved social attributes.’

”Face is the respectability and/or deference which a person can claim for himself from others, by virtue of the relative position he occupies in his social network and the degree to which he is judged to have functioned adequately in that position as well as acceptably in his general conduct.’

‘[Face] is something that is emotionally invested, and that can be lost, maintained, or enhanced, and must be constantly attended to in interaction. In general, people cooperate (and assume each other’s cooperation) in maintaining face in interaction, such cooperation being based on the mutual vulnerability of face.’ ‘Face is a sense of worth that comes from knowing one’s status and reflects concern with the congruency between one’s performance or appearance and one’s real worth.’ ‘Face means ‘sociodynamic valuation,’ a lexical hyponym of words meaning ‘prestige; dignity; honor; respect; status.”

‘The concept of face is, of course, Chinese in origin,’ yet many languages have ‘face’ terms that metaphorically mean ‘prestige; honor; reputation.’ Marcel Mauss, who sociologically studied the indigenous people of British Columbia, interpreted the Kwak’wala word ‘q’elsem’ (‘rotten face’) meaning ‘stingy potlatch-giver (potlatch is a gift-giving festival); one who gives no feast.’ ‘Kwakiutl and Haida noblemen have the same notion of ‘face’ as the Chinese mandarin or officer. It is said of one of the great mythical chiefs who gave no feast that he had a ‘rotten face.’ The expression is more apt than it is even in China; for to lose one’s face is to lose one’s spirit, which is truly the ‘face.’ the dancing mask, the right to incarnate a spirit and wear an emblem or totem. It is the veritable persona which is at stake, and it can be lost in the potlatch just as it can be lost in the game of gift-giving, in war, or through some error in ritual.’ Michael Carr lexicographically investigated ‘face; prestige’ dictionary forms in Chinese, Japanese, and English. Within this sample, Chinese dictionaries include 98 forms (e.g. ‘rip up face’); Japanese dictionaries list 89  (e.g. ‘sell face’); and English dictionaries include 5 forms (e.g. ‘lose face,’ borrowed from Chinese). Carr found that the Chinese and Japanese lexicons have roughly equal numbers of words for ‘losing face’ and ‘saving face,’ while English has more for ‘saving face.’

Two influential Chinese authors explained ‘face.’ Lu Xun referred to the missionary Arthur Henderson Smith’s interpretation: ‘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.’ Lin Yutang considered the psychology of ‘face’: ‘Interesting as the Chinese physiological face is, the psychological face makes a still more fascinating study. It is not a face that can be washed or shaved, but a face that can be ‘granted’ and ‘lost’ and ‘fought for’ and ‘presented as a gift.’ Here we arrive at the most curious point of Chinese social psychology. Abstract and intangible, it is yet the most delicate standard by which Chinese social intercourse is regulated.’

The English semantic field for ‘face’ words meaning ‘prestige; honor’ is smaller than the corresponding Chinese field. ‘Save-face’ is found in ‘Chambers Journal of Literature, Science and Arts’ (1917): ‘The civilian native staff had bolted at the first sign of trouble, ‘going to report to the authorities’ being their ‘save face’ for it!’ ‘Face-saving’ first appears in Enoch A. Bennett’s ‘Lilian’ (1922): ‘She had been trapped beyond any chance of a face-saving lie.’ ‘Face-saver,’ defined as ‘something that ‘saves one’s face,” originated in Edgar Snow’s ‘Scorched Earth’ (1941): ‘As a face-saver, however, Doihara was given enough support, from the Kwantung Army in Manchuria.’ Carr notes, ‘It is significant that the earliest usages for English lose face, save face, save-face and face-saver refer to China, while later ones are more international in application.’

By expanding ‘lose face’ into ‘save face,’ English developed oppositely from Chinese, which has many ‘lose face’ collocations, but none literally meaning ‘save face.’ ‘Yao mianzi’ (‘eager to gain reputation’; ‘be concerned about appearances’) is ‘the closest Chinese approximation’ for ‘save face.’ The underlying reason for this difference is that English ‘face’ lacks the sociological contrast between Chinese ‘mianzi’ and ‘lian.’  ‘Mianzi’ is associated with prestige and status, in terms of education, wealth and social position (society’s positive assessment of a person). ‘Lian’ pertains to moral integrity and social conduct and constitutes the respect a person commands as commendation of their decency and sense of honor, regardless of social position. Since Chinese lian is ethically absolute while mianzi is socially quantitative, losing the former is more significant. According to Huang: ‘The fact that Chinese lexicalizes ‘losing face,’ but not ‘gaining face’ is a potent reminder that losing face has far more serious implications for one’s sense of self-esteem or decency than gaining face.’

Ho explains how ‘losing’ one’s ‘face’ is more sociodynamically significant than ‘saving’ it: ‘Previous writers on face have treated losing face and gaining face simply as if they were opposite outcomes in a social encounter and have thus failed to notice the basic difference between two social processes that are involved. In the first instance, while it is meaningful to speak of both losing and gaining mien-tzu it is meaningful to speak only of losing lien. One does not speak of gaining lien because, regardless of one’s station in life, one is expected to behave in accordance with the precepts of the culture; correctly conceptualized, exemplary conduct adds not to one’s lien, but to one’s mien-tzu.’

‘Losing face’ brings into question one’s moral decency and societal adequacy, but not ‘gaining face.’ The ‘lose’ verb in ‘lose face’ means ‘fail to maintain’ (e.g. ‘lose one’s life’), while the ‘save’ in ‘save face’ means ‘avoid loss/damage’ (e.g. ‘save one’s honor’). “The English creation of ‘save face’ as the opposite of ‘lose face’ was arbitrary because ‘lose’ has other antonyms: ‘win, find, keep, catch, maintain, preserve, gain, and regain,” Carr notes, ‘Speakers occasionally use the last three (esp. ‘gain’) regarding face ‘prestige,’ though less frequently than ‘save.”

Among the English words of Chinese origin, ‘lose face’ is a uncommon verb phrase and a unique semantic loan translation. Most Anglo-Chinese borrowings are nouns, with a few exceptions such as to ‘kowtow,’ ‘to Shanghai,’ ‘to brainwash,’ and ‘lose face.’ English face meaning ‘prestige; honor’ is the only case of a Chinese semantic loan. Semantic loans extend an indigenous word’s meaning in conformity with a foreign model (e.g., French ‘realiser’ ‘achieve; create; construct’ used in the sense of English ‘realize’). The vast majority of English words from Chinese are ordinary loanwords with regular phonemic adaptation (e.g., ‘chop suey’ is a rough translation of a Cantonese phrase meaning: ‘miscellaneous pieces’). A few are calques where a borrowing is blended with native elements (e.g., chopsticks). ‘Face’ meaning ‘prestige’ is technically a ‘loan synonym’ owing to semantic overlap between the native English meaning ‘outward semblance; effrontery’ and the borrowed Chinese meaning ‘prestige; dignity.’

in Arabic the expression ‘Hifz Ma’a Wajh’ is used widely, it translates literally to ‘save(Hifz) face(Wajh) water(Ma’a)’ which is used in situation where an individual or an entity is trying to maintain dignity and prestige.

‘Face’ is central to sociology and sociolinguistics. Martin C. Yang analyzed eight sociological factors in losing or gaining face: the kinds of equality between the people involved, their ages, personal sensibilities, inequality in social status, social relationship, consciousness of personal prestige, presence of a witness, and the particular social value/sanction involved. The sociologist Erving Goffman introduced the concept of ‘face’ into social theory with his 1955 article ‘On Face-work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements of Social Interaction’ and 1967 book ‘Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior.’ According to Goffman’s dramaturgical perspective, ‘face’ is a mask that changes depending on the audience and the variety of social interaction. People strive to maintain the face they have created in social situations. They are emotionally attached to their faces, so they feel good when their faces are maintained; loss of face results in emotional pain, so in social interactions people cooperate by using politeness strategies to maintain each others’ faces.

‘Face’ is sociologically universal. People ‘are human,’ Joseph Agassi and I. C. Jarvie believe, ‘because they have face to care for – without it they lose human dignity.’ Ho elaborates: ‘The point is that face is distinctively human. Anyone who does not wish to declare his social bankruptcy must show a regard for face: he must claim for himself, and must extend to others, some degree of compliance, respect, and deference in order to maintain a minimum level of effective social functioning. While it is true that the conceptualization of what constitutes face and the rules governing face behavior vary considerably across cultures, the concern for face is invariant. Defined at a high level of generality, the concept of face is a universal.’

Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson expanded Goffman’s theory of face in their ‘politeness theory,’ which differentiated between positive and negative face. Positive face is ‘the positive consistent self-image or ‘personality’ (crucially including the desire that this self-image be appreciated and approved of) claimed by interactants.’ Negative face is ‘the basic claim to territories, personal preserves, rights to non-distraction — i.e. to freedom of action and freedom from imposition’ In human interactions, people are often forced to threaten either an addressee’s positive and/or negative face, and so there are various politeness strategies to mitigate those face-threatening acts.

Tae-Seop Lim and John Waite Bowers claim that face is the public image that a person claims for himself. Within this claim there are three dimensions. ‘Autonomy face’ describes a desire to appear independent, in control, and responsible. ‘Fellowship face’ describes a desire to seem cooperative, accepted, and loved. ‘Competence face’ describes a desire to appear intelligent, accomplished, and capable. Masumoto, Oetzel, Takai, Ting-Toomey, & Yokochi defined ‘facework’ as ‘the communicative strategies one uses to enact self-face and to uphold, support, or challenge another person’s face.’ In terms of interpersonal communication, Facework refers to an individual’s identity in a social world and how that identity is created, reinforced, diminished, and maintained in communicative interactions.

Face is central to intercultural communication or cross-cultural communication. Bert Brown explains the importance of both personal and national face in international negotiations: ‘Among the most troublesome kinds of problems that arise in negotiation are the intangible issues related to loss of face. In some instances, protecting against loss of face becomes so central an issue that it swamps the importance of the tangible issues at stake and generates intense conflicts that can impede progress toward agreement and increase substantially the costs of conflict resolution.’

In terms of Edward T. Hall’s dichotomy between ‘high context cultures’ (focused upon in-groups) and ‘low context cultures’ (focused upon individuals), face-saving is generally viewed as more important in high context cultures such as China or Japan than in low-context ones such as the US or Germany. Low context cultures do not cater to ‘in-groups’ (a discrete group having similar experiences and expectations, from which, in turn, inferences are drawn), and there is less use of similar experiences and expectations to communicate. Much more is explained through words, instead of the context. Conversely, high context cultures prefer high context messages over low context messages in routine communication. This choice of communication styles translates into a culture that will cater to in-groups. In a high context culture, many things are left unsaid, letting the culture explain. Words and word choice become very important in higher context communication, since a few words can communicate a complex message very effectively to an in-group (but less effectively outside that group), while in a lower context culture, the communicator needs to be much more explicit and the value of a single word is less important.

Stella Ting-Toomey developed ‘Face Negotiation Theory’ to explain cultural differences in communication and conflict resolution. Ting-Toomey defines face as: ‘the interaction between the degree of threats or considerations one party offers to another party, and the degree of claim for a sense of self-respect (or demand for respect toward one’s national image or cultural group) put forth by the other party in a given situation.’

The psychology of ‘face’ is another field of research. Wolfram Eberhard, who analyzed Chinese ‘guilt’ and ‘sin’ in terms of literary psychology, debunked the persistent myth that ‘face’ is peculiar to the Chinese rather than a force in every human society. Eberhard noted: ‘It is mainly in the writings of foreigners that we find the stress upon shame in Chinese society; it is they who stated that the Chinese were typically afraid of ‘losing their face.’ It is they who reported many cases of suicide because of loss of face, or of suicide in order to punish another person after one’s death as a ghost, or to cause through suicide endless difficulties or even punishment to the other person. But in the Chinese literature used here, including also the short stories, I did not once find the phrase ‘losing face’; and there was no clear case of suicide because of shame alone.’

The psychotherapist Michael Harris Bond observed that in Hong Kong, ‘Given the importance of having face and of being related to those who do, there is a plethora of relationship politics in Chinese culture. Name dropping, eagerness to associate with the rich and famous, the use of external status symbols, sensitivity to insult, lavish gift-giving, the use of titles, the sedulous avoidance of criticism, all abound, and require considerable readjustment for someone used to organizing social life by impersonal rules, frankness, and greater equality.’

One Comment to “Face”

  1. It’s been a while, and I can read better than I can understand but I’ll give it a shot.

    Source? http://www.docin.com/p-47750089.html

    The (simplified) text is


    Roughly speaking it says something like:

    Talking about sensibilities/feelings/honor (or criticize maybe?) is a very costly/difficult thing to do. If the cost of talking about it is exceedingly difficult, doing so will cause oneself to lose face (literally to injure one’s face). —- A boastful person/people (literally those with a ‘big face’) may have a little honor. Those with excessive honor (hubris even) don’t necessarily have a face (ie have something behind them. In other words the excessively honorific person often puts on a big face but has nothing behind to back it up).

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