I Sometimes Wonder if “Face” in Asia is a Figment of People’s Imagination

Everybody’s heard that “saving face” is important in Asia. It turns out Koreans think the Japanese place particular importance on this. But on a recent discussion on Korea Business Central, a member familiar with Japan mentioned that Koreans take the concept of “saving face” to a whole new level, and later clarified that he thinks it’s the same in both countries but that each culture manifests it differently. I, on the other hand, have some suspicions about the whole thing. The following is what I posted in response:

I harbor a suspicion that the supposedly unique Asian characteristic called “face” is a figment of people’s imagination.

Perhaps some Westerner long ago traveled to the Orient and found it to be a mysterious place. One day, he learned that the Asians even have a word for one’s sense of personal dignity (“chaemyun” in Korean) and observed that we don’t have a word for it in the Western languages (well, we do, but it takes us several words to make the phrase.. it’s called, “sense of personal dignity”) and he and the Asians all got excited about this newly found trait that nobody’d noticed until then.

Before you knew it, the concept had taken on a life of its own and it was used to explain all kinds of odd behavior and it became generally accepted that Asians will do anything to “save face” and that this makes them special and hard to understand. I guess that means Westerners don’t really give a damn if we’re insulted, shamed or otherwise made to feel less than special.

I’m certainly open to other opinions (and very likely I’m wrong here), but I do suspect there’s not much to the chaemyun myth at all.

Click here to read the rest of the KBC Relay Interview with Greg Sheen, including insightful comments by other Korea Business Central members.

1 Response

  1. Sung Kim says:

    Brother Steven,
    This is a fantastic post! As a Korean-American, I can see your point from both vantages and yes, it’s true. People have started to exploit the true definition of “chaemyun” as justification for insensitivity, bad behavior, or “excusing away” undesirable traits. The fact of the matter is, it’s here and it won’t go away.
    Wiser Koreans (both young and old) know exactly what you’re referring to. Some will admit to it and others may not acknowledge it at all. The key is to take people on a case-by-case basis. Not every tradition in the Far East will agree with you nor will you agree with every tradition. If you can stay above the fray, pick good (honorable) people, and accept certain things as “facts of life”, you should manage just fine.
    Keep fighting the good fight!
    -Sung

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