Monday, April 8, 2013

Saving Face: East vs. West

One of the major differences between Eastern Culture and Western Culture is 'face'.  Call it dignity, prestige, reputation or honor.  It is all about what others think about you.

Most eastern cultures consider saving face to be extremely important.   What other's think of you - or more importantly, what they publicly say about your/what you can fool yourself into believing they think about you, is far more important in eastern cultures than in western cultures.

It's heavy in Japan, China, India and even as far west as the Middle East.  It's part of the reason why 'honor' killings still exist, as well as why suicide attacks are socially accepted.  It is all to retain or regain your 'face'.

The heart of saving face is not admitting that you did anything wrong - or publiclly stating that others did wrong.

As a result, telling someone that they have done wrong is in fact a huge insult - and sometimes considered a worse crime than actually doing the wrong.

When someone commits a social faux pas, and you point it out, you are the one shamed for pointing it out, not them for doing it.

Please note in all modern cultures I have found face is a thing for adults.  Childrens are not allowed face.  More about that later.

The thing is the west used to have that same attitude.  There are still remannts in our culture - which is why we understand the concept of face.   You can see it mostly in those with easy wealth - the celebrity saying "Do you know who I am???" to the cop.  But it also shows up in judges - Anthony Scalia is famous for his arrogance and insistence on face.  

But mostly we have abandoned it.  We did so for a very simple reason - "face" kills progress.

Sometimes face can even kill literally (read the book "Outliers" to hear how saving face caused airplane crashes - the eastern copilot wouldn't correct his boss the pilot, and neither would stand up to an air traffic comptroller).

If you don't admit you are wrong, you can never fix your mistakes.  When you prevent other people from telling you that you are wrong, you prevent them from teaching you.   In a culture where face is big, you can only learn from people that are clearly your superior.

That is why even eastern cultures don't give face to children.  They have to learn, so they are not allowed face.  Children must respect their elders and give face, rather than receive it.  Otherwise they could not learn.

But western cultures realized that it is quite possible to learn from people that are supposed to be your inferiors.  Yes, you may be 50 and your trainer may only be 20, but they can teach you how to exercise better.   One of the key advantages of the west is the constant attempt to learn - to better oneself.

And it's not just in specific relationships - it can be anyway.  Good teachers will learn from their students.   Bosses can learn from employees.   Parents can learn from their kids (especially how to use the newest electronic gadgets).  And yes, political leaders can learn from their constituency - even criminals.   Specifically we can learn that hey, smoking pot isn't so bad.  Or that they really shouldn't be kicking people out of their home to build a new mall (especially when an economic downturn lets that home be torn down, but does not let the mall get built).

Because we live without face, we come up with new ideas faster, improve our businesses faster, we catch corrupt officials faster, we fix malfunctioning government programs faster, we do progress faster.

If we are so fast, why is the east doing so well?  It's called shoulder surfing.  They looked at what we learned the hard way and are copying our answers.  But once they catch up, they will inevitablly fall behind again.  Because their is a big difference between modernizing an ancient system and inventing a better one.

Yes, it is hard to live without face.  To always be told we are wrong - by our inferiors?  It makes us look like we are lower than them.  But we can take it. We are strong.

But it makes life far BETTER when we do.

The west abandoned face on purpose.   We choose to live without it because it makes our lives easier and better.

It is our greatest secret weapon against the east.  Without abandoning face, the east will NEVER forge  the bleeding edge.  Because guess what westerns are doing while the eastern inferiors politely and carefully repeatedly explain the problems they are having to their superiors?  

That's right - we are building the future - and the east will always be running to catch up with us.

Of course, they won't believe this.  Because to admit your culture of saving face is holding you back would mean ... losing face.

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