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Reflections on Face and What It Really Means for Life and Business in Korea

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One of the appeals of the Far East to many Westerners is the mysteriousness of these cultures that we are told have been around for so long and developed independently of Western influences. With all the yin-yang thinking, concepts of body centers of energy in martial arts and Oriental medicine (e.g. accupuncture) and other "deep" ways of seeing things, can we be anything less than awed?

A concept that gets bandied about a lot when describing E. Asian culture is "face" and it is sometimes described as an especially important aspect of life in Asia that should be respected at all cost. However, I've had my doubts that the Western conception of face is more than an approximation of the true meaning of it in Asia or that it's any different than a universal desire not to be humiliated or insulted. (See previous blog post from 2011.)

This article explores the topic and attempts to identify nuances of face in Korea (and by extension, Korean business) that are overlooked in the common Western understanding.

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Some Definitions

My first encounter with "face" came just a month or two into my Korea experience back in 1994 when the Korean owner of my place of employment fought with my American boss in public and afterward was heard saying (in English), "I lost my face"... Notwithstanding that adding "my" to the sentence changes the nuance in English a bit, I recall wondering how he would have expressed this thought in Korean. It took me awhile to figure out what the Korean words and phrases are for face and its variants, so for the record, here they are:

  • face - 체면 (chaemyeon)

The word is derived from Chinese, with the first character meaning "body" and the second meaning "face, surface, side". The dictionary on Naver describes chaemyeon in Korean as "sense of one's duty or face that one presents to others". This is a little (but not much) different than "one's sense of honor or dignity", that I would say is probably the best way to represent the meaning of face in English. 

  • lose face - 체면을 잃다
  • save face - 체면이 서다
  • to be honorable - 체면이 있다
  • to be dishonorable - 체면이 없다

These are not words and phrases Koreans use all that often though and they are not standard terms you would normally hear when a Korean is expressing embarrassment, offense, anger, or even certain types of shame. It's also not the word a Korean would use when talking about how they feel after losing in a competition or negotiation. It might not even be the most appropriate term to use in the context of getting tricked or deceived, unless it involves some deeper personal disgrace.

On the other hand, Koreans might discuss chaemyeon when referring to information about themselves that they wouldn't want to share publicly if it would make others think less of them, or when wondering why someone else would behave in such an undignified way ("Have they no shame?").

So what's really different between Korean "face" and Western "honor"?

"Face" Seems to Be an Inexact Western Interpretation of Asian Chaemyeon

4016608384_40dc9403afThere's a dish in Korea called "donkas" (돈까스 in Korean and most often translated to English as "pork cutlet" - Photo of donkas at left used with permission from ZenKimchi.com). One thing that makes this meal interesting to me is that it's a Korean interpretation of a Japanese interpretation of a Western meal. It's popular enough in Korea to be a true Korean food (kind of like tacos are to Texans), but having originated elsewhere and been adapted to Japanese and then Korean tastes, it's not exactly what we'd expect from a pork steak dish back home.

The reason I bring this up is to illustrate how a concept can change when it moves from one culture through the filters of another.

In my 2011 article mentioned above, I suggested that the concept of saving face as we often understand it may have been the brainchild of a Westerner observing things about Asian culture that were hard to for him to understand. I've suspected that since Asians have been hearing Westerners talk about Asian face for so long, they've started to believe the rhetoric themselves and have come to see it as a uniquely Asian trait after all. 

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I recently had the opportunity to see what a Korean understanding of the Western concept of face might look like when reading the book 박근혜의 인생. I picked this book up because I thought it was going to be a biography of the current Korean president, but it turned out to just be some guy's hagiographic exposition on President Keun-Hye Park's wonderful traits as a leader. It's a crummy book. (I'm not saying she's a crummy leader, BTW.) But one spot that caught my attention was on page 193 where he quoted another book describing Park and then added his own explanation. The following is the original Korean passage and then my translation of it, and I added the red font for emphasis.

"굉장히 냉철하고 자기중심이 확고하다. 상황이 어려울 때 참모가 우왕좌왕해도 지도자는 자기중심을 잃으면 안 되는 법이다. 어떤 상왕에도 자기 페이스를 잃어버리지 않기 쉽지 않은데 이처럼 갖기 어려운 자질을 갖췄다."

- 진희정, 박근혜 사타일, 154쫒

어떤 상황에서도 자기 페이스를 잃어버리지 않는 그런 자질을 그녀가 가질 수 있게 된 또 다른 이유 중의 하나는 그녀는 최선의 노력과 지혜를 다한 사람은 하늘의 뜻을 겸허하게 받아들이고 초연할 수 있다는 사실에 대한 확신 때문일 것이다.

“She is extremely level-headed and firmly maintains her sense of balance. When things are difficult, and even if one’s staff can’t make up their minds, a leader must not lose her bearings. It’s easy to lose face in any situation, but she has this kind of rare character trait.”

- Geun-Hye Park’s Style (Hee-Jeong Jin), p. 154

Another of the reasons that she has the character trait of never losing face in any situation is that she is certain of the fact that people who exert their best efforts and act wisely can humbly accept the will of Heaven and rise above it.

I don't think the author ever used the Korean word chaemyeon in this book; but here, he quotes another Korean author using the Korean transliteration of the English word "face" and then uses it himself in the same context. Both authors seem to understand "losing face" when written with an English pronunciation as being the opposite of "calm, cool and collected", which is not quite the same as the way Westerners understand it. 

Sometimes Koreans use foreign words to express concepts that carry connotations not as easily expressed in Korean (other examples include "leader - 리더", "charisma - 카리스마" and "style - 스타일"). And in this case, it turns out that "face" can be another word Koreans, at least sometimes, choose to interpret from an outside perspective and not using Korean terminology.

This tells me that the concept of "face" is at least partially something Koreans are interested in because they've heard so much about it but that they don't feel entirely comfortable using chaemyeon to describe what they're thinking we mean by it. It also tells me that "face" and chaemyeon don't actually mean exactly the same thing, and apparently even the word "face" has different nuances for Westerners and Koreans.

Face is merely an approximation of chaemyeon, and not something particularly unique to Asia. In any culture, nobody anywhere likes to have their honor or dignity compromised.

So, if this is what face is, what's chaemyeon?

Face in Korea is Not Uniquely Korean, But It is Manifested in Uniquely Korean Ways

I've recently been watching a Korean TV series on KBS called Eun-hee. It's the fictional story of several families trying to come to terms with events that happened before and after the Korean War. These modern TV "dramas" (which is another English word used in Korean with an English pronunciation but slightly different meaning) set in the 1950s, 60s and 70s are particularly interesting to me. Perhaps it's because I didn't experience this Korean history directly and shows like this let me see, not what it was really like back then, but what Koreans of today want to remember it was like during those years.

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Anyway, in a series of recent episodes, the good-for-nothing nephew of the owner of a tofu factory embezzles money from the company and tries to blame it on Eun-hee, the lead character of the show. Amid rampant rumors among the factory staff, it gradually comes to light who the real perpetrator is and the characters are left figuring out how to deal with the situation.

Several options are considered and attempted. Since the guilty party is the nephew of the president, it would really reflect badly on the good owner to announce the truth to the factory workers, but the president can't let the issue slide either (that would look bad too). Somebody has to take the fall for the crime and Eun-hee is about to get fired. However, before this happens, a friend of Eun-hee borrows money and gives it to the company management saying he'll take responsibility for the crime, and then quit his job. Eventually, another friend of Eun-hee's sells his camera equipment to get some money, which he then takes to the nephew, telling him to return it to his aunt (the owner), explain it was an oversight and apologize for an honest mistake. This is what ends up happening.

We see the Asian concept of "face" in various forms here. To expose the nephew would have shamed the owner because it was her relative. But to leave the crime unpunished would have also called into question the owner's commitment to a clean work environment. On the other hand, to punish Eun-hee would have been terribly unfair, so her friends looked for options -- and eventually found one -- to save everyone's chaemyeon.

Somehow, in a Western context, I think we would find this situation pitiful. If the owner of the company can't keep her nephew in check, she should kick him out. Letting someone else take the fall for it, though not unheard of in a Western context (called "scapegoating"), is simply shameful. I don't think a Westerner would be terribly impressed by the efforts of the friends either to take false responsibility themselves. 

But in a Korean setting, this is a story of heroism and evokes sympathy for just about everyone (except the nephew). I would say this cuts to the essence of what "face" really is in Korea. It's not that Koreans have a unique sense of honor, it's that they prioritize it above some other values (an honest reckoning of wrong or squeezing the last advantage out of a situation, for instance) to avoid situations that would bring unpleasantness out into the open.

6a011279704a5b28a4014e89940928970d-800wiI'll point out that this Asian concept of face reminds me of the doctrine of atonement in Christian theology, where someone's got to take the punishment for sin, and it doesn't necessarily have to be the person who did the crime. This came to mind several years ago when former Korean President Moo-Hyeon Roh committed suicide during a corruption investigation. (Photo at right is the site of President Roh's death and his memorial from my photo weblog.) He doesn't appear to have been completely clean, but he must have judged that his death would a) atone for whatever errors were committed, both for himself and for others, b) bring the investigation to an end for everyone involved, and c) allow those who had previously worked with him to move on in their political careers without the baggage of the scandal. As for a), his political enemies still see him as seriously flawed, but his decision was successful in terms of b) and c), especially as his former confidante Jae-In Moon made a respectable run for the presidency last year.

Applying the Concepts of Face and Chaemyeon to Life and Business in Korea

I have found (from unhappy experience, sometimes) that showing unpleasant emotions in business in Korea can be unexpectedly counterproductive. It can be tempting to cross the line of civility since, for example, a Korean is more likely than a Westerner to stay on the line while being yelled at over the phone. Koreans will often appear to maintain their cool (and even a smile or laugh!) in an awkward situation, but this apparent calmness should not be mistaken for compliance or agreement. Verification of intent may require waiting for actions, rather than words.

Being aggressive with a smile rather than a frown, using extra words to avoid coming out and saying things directly, yielding on small points and even behaving in passive aggressive ways could all be more effective negotiating techniques in a Korean setting than a bulldozer approach. (Nevermind that "bulldozer" is the somewhat popular nickname given to some Koreans who've been successful in business, such as former Korean President Myung-Bak Lee (who was less successful with this approach in politics of late)).

Westerners doing business in Korea would be advised to handle awkward situations with a delicate hand and with as little direct confrontation as possible. It's not that wrong must be overlooked, but a solution that doesn't require people to admit error overtly can go a long way toward keeping important relationships going. Even if everyone knows what happened and the outcome is the same, the path toward that income in Korea is likely to have more bends and turns than it would in a similar situation in the West and if you stay cool, important relationships may just survive the turmoil.

** Visit the related discussion on Korea Business Central.

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