“Saving face.” I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase. But what does it mean?

The concept of “saving face” means preventing people from embarrassment or shame—others, as well as yourself.

It’s a cultural value that is important to understand when working or doing business with people from other cultures.

If you’re going to work or do business in a culture where saving face is important, you may need to adapt your communication style. To find out some best practices, and which cultures tend to value saving face, keep reading.

Cultures in which saving face is important, will usually not appreciate direct comments or criticism. It’s important to speak diplomatically, even indirectly.

Therefore, if you need to give feedback to a group of people, be careful. Try to avoid pointing out mistakes, which may embarrass them in front of their peers. Don’t use any harsh language or show anger, as it might shock them, break the relationship, and make working together difficult.

You can try two techniques for saving face when giving feedback:

Saving Face

1.     Use the feedback “sandwich” method

Give a positive comment followed by your critical comment (stated diplomatically of course) and ending with another positive comment.

2.     Give the feedback one-on-one. 

Even in an individual scenario though, it is advisable to use the feedback sandwich method mentioned in #1.

Keep in mind that the saving face dynamic exists also the other way around, when you ask them for feedback about you, your company, or the project you’re doing together. They will most likely refrain from saying anything negative, in order to avoid embarrassing you.

If you ask for feedback, you may or may not get an answer. If you get an answer, it might seem vague. If they have a negative opinion about something, they will most likely not say it to you.

This dynamic exists especially when asking a question to a group of people, as in a meeting situation. In an effort to save (your) face, they will avoid answering with any critical comments in front of others.

Another aspect which affects saving face is hierarchy. If you are a manager asking your team to help you get to the bottom of a problem, but people in upper positions are responsible for the issue, those in the lower positions will usually not say so.

If something is going wrong and employees are unhappy, a manager may ask for details during a weekly meeting. In a hierarchical society, people will never express their true opinions in this situation, although they may complain openly to fellow colleagues outside of the meeting. In many cases, two dynamics are at play: saving face, and respect for hierarchy.

This is totally opposite from some North American and European cultures where basically everyone is equal in the workplace, and challenging your boss during a weekly meeting is acceptable. 

What can you do if you are in a leadership position, working in a hierarchical culture that values saving face, and you need to obtain feedback?

You can try collecting it in an anonymous way through the following methods:

  1. A group activity. If you are attempting to get feedback in a meeting, ask them to discuss matters with their peers in groups, then write their comments on a paper anonymously.
  2. An online feedback collection form, which they submit without including their name.

But what if you really need to just discuss matters openly with your team? 

Maybe you don’t have time to address every situation individually with different members of the team. If you’re working in a culture where saving face is important, but you really need to get honest feedback verbally, what can you do?

Some managers have succeeded in getting feedback by cultivating an environment of psychological safety. That is, a place where sharing is okay, and feedback is given constructively, in the spirit of positivity, encouraging improvement, and teamwork, rather than criticism.

It takes time to inculcate a company culture like this, in a place where saving face is important, but it can be done. In these situations, the manager’s positive attitude is of utmost importance, and so is building relationships with their team.

So in which cultures do you have to be careful about saving face?

A few of the cultures that value saving face are:

China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

If you are going to work or do business abroad, be sure to read up on the country’s perception towards saving face before embarking on your journey. Relationships are key when working and doing business abroad. And in many places, saving face is central to preserving relationships.

Saving Face is a cultural value that we often take for granted. However, in some cultures, it can be one of the most important things in life and should not be disregarded when working with these populations. If you understand this concept, then your work will go much more smoothly! Let us show you how to incorporate saving face into your marketing strategy so that you don’t offend or confuse potential customers who may come from an Asian culture where saving face is crucial.

Simply contact our team today for a consultation if you need help incorporating such concepts into your company’s marketing plan. We’re waiting to hear from you soon!

To watch my YouTube video about this topic, click here 

saving face