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Answering questions about the concept of face-saving Answering questions about the concept of face-saving
by Joseph Gatt
2020-09-28 08:04:14
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A few questions I received on face-saving.

Q: In cultures where “saving face” is important, are they always cultures where people are authoritarian?

A: No. A common mistake is to think that there are no “authoritarian” people in free cultures. There are many authoritarian people in free cultures!

But face-saving authoritarianism and “free” authoritarianism are two different types of authoritarianism.

Let's use this example. The Algerian soccer team was coached by Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic. Halilhodzic, despite being from Bosnia, a country where face and reputation and honor are very important, Halilhodzic did not care about “losing face” and was a “free” man of sorts. But he was very, very authoritarian.

societ003_400Halilhodzic would boss players around, but he would explain his tactical choices. He was very often stubborn about his tactical choices, but he was never offended when people asked him questions or made suggestions. He was however offended when players pretended to agree and then refused to follow his guidelines. Those players, even when they were star players, were kicked out of the game.

Halilhodzic was also not scared of debating journalists. This was something new for Algerian journalists, who were used to coaches who refused to answer questions or who would threaten journalists and so on. Halilhodzic took a few “violent” questions, and answered “violently” as well, although he was never off topic. Halilhodzic focused on the questions, and never questioned the journalists' credibility. Although Halilhodzic did remind journalists that “he was in charge” and that “he owes explanations to the federation, not to journalists.”

Halilhodzic surprised many Algerians by his lack of “face-saving.” He left the team when his contract expired, despite petitions gathering millions of signatures for him to stay, the president of Algeria writing him a letter asking him to stay, and very generous financial offers. The reason he left? “Journalists investigated my family. That was crossing the line.”

Second lack of “face-saving” was that Halilhodzic moved from coaching Algeria to coaching Trabzonspor, a relatively unknown Turkish club, albeit one of four major Turkish soccer clubs. Any “face-saving” person would have taken an “elite” job after the Algerian gig, not some random Turkish club.

Other odd lack of “face-saving” in Halilhodzic is that he always generously responds to invitations for interviews with Algerian journalists, and chats about the good old days coaching Algeria and his new jobs. Any “face-saving coach” would have refused to talk to those journalists who “were investigating my family.”

A few years later, coach Rabah Madjer was called to lead the team. Madjer wanted an imitation of Halilhodzic, and claimed to be a “straight-talking” guy. Problem with Madjer? Very “face-saving.” Always offended by journalists who criticized him. He responded to journalist criticism by questioning the journalists' credentials. Madjer called Algeria's star journalist Maamar Djebbour “incompetent” and told him to “retire” and let “young journalists replace you.”

So in “free” cultures, authoritarianism means you can debate my choices, but I have the final word. And you will follow my instructions.

In “face-saving” cultures, authoritarianism means “you don't debate my choices” and “if you disagree with me, you're incompetent.”

Interesting case of “face-saving.” When Madjer was fired from his job coaching Algeria, after losing a series of games, including against relatively very much weaker team Cape Verde, Madjer told journalists “now that I was fired, the team is going to collapse!”

Final interesting case in point. When Halilhodzic left the team, he apparently spent a lot of time with his successor Christian Gourcuff, and did not make any attempt to sabotage anything. So Gourcuff pretty much played with the same team and tactics Halilhodzic used, and that produced rather good results.

When Madjer was sensing that he was going to get fired, he apparently started sabotaging the team, by choosing players who were very much unqualified to be on the team, benching the best players, humiliating the better players, praising the low-performing players and so on.

I use soccer as an example, but you could use the example for business or politics.

Q: How do free people and face-saving people react to recessions?

Free people with excessive optimism, face-saving people by refusing to discuss the recession, or even acknowledge that there is a recession. Face-saving people will even fabricate statistics and make it sound like they have had excellent economic results.

Q: How do free people and face-saving people solve problems differently?

Free people usually discuss the problem as it is.

Face-saving people usually designate someone to solve the problem all by himself, discreetly, in some cases without clearly telling the person that it's an important problem or that his or her solution will be used and that they are exclusively counting on him or her.

And in face-saving cultures, the problem usually stays. They just hope the boss forgets about the problem. If it's a loan the hope the creditor forgets about the loan. If it's a violence problem they just hope the person will stop being violent.

Q: How do free people and face-saving people react to mistakes differently?

Free people tend to believe that the mistake was due to human factors and environmental factors, that the mistake can hopefully be fixed, and that the person who did the mistake can be trained not to repeat similar mistakes. Furthermore free cultures believe in sharing information about past mistakes, hoping that people and employees will keep the past mistakes in mind.

Face-saving cultures believe mistakes are 100% human error and tend not to believe in environmental or contextual factors. However, the person who does the mistake will blame his or her mistake 100% on environmental or contextual factors.

Face-saving cultures will tend to punish the person who did the mistake (as if that only would prevent them from doing future mistakes). And because punishment rarely works as a remedy to prevent mistakes, the human will tend to make a series of mistakes which will lead to more punishments, emotional torture, in some cases public shaming, in other cases violent punishments and so on.

Q: How come free people don't use collective punishment when face-saving people do.

Let's use this example.

French coach Aimé Jacquet (something of a face-saving coach) kicked out every single player from the Paris Saint-Germain team from the 1998 World Cup. The reason was that apparently there was this one person from Paris Saint-Germain that he did not want to deal with, so star players like Alain Roche, Vincent Guérin, Eric Rabestandratana or Mikael Madar were kicked out of the team. The only player from Paris Saint-Germain that was kept was goalkeeper Bernard Lama, and Lama was benched, replaced by less experienced keeper Fabien Barthez.

In sum, because of one single dispute, an entire elite team lost the chance to have any of its players play at a World Cup.

In free societies we talk to people even when we have a problem with them. We talk to people even when we have a huge problem with them. We don't “escape” from people unless they really threaten to kill us or something.

In face-saving nations, people can avoid an entire event just because there's this one teeny-tiny person that they're trying to avoid. In face-saving nations you can halt a mutli-million dollar project just because there's this teeny-tiny person you no longer want to deal with. In face-saving nations, you can stop dealing with an entire team or company just to avoid one or two people.

This doesn't mean awkward encounters don't exist in free societies. In free societies there could be people that you're trying to avoid, but you'll usually “man up” and “confront them” and “try to talk things out.”

Q: Is revenge always a “face-saving thing?”

Yes, usually. Because in free societies we usually let the justice system take care of the thing. Or we just fire the guy. Or we just divorce the guy.

But, in face-saving cultures, you don't just let the guy go like that. When people harm you in some way, you must harm them in some way before you let them go. That's how you “save face.”

Revenge isn't always for people who “harm” you in face-saving cultures. It's also for people who “bother your reputation” including by “looking better than you.” So if they make you look bad (for example because the team discussed some smart topic and you looked dumb at that conversation) you find some way to gain revenge (by starting rumors about them or trying to get them fired).

Now you know where few smart people work at Big companies or the Government in “face-saving” nations. The smart ones are usually teaching at small private schools, in some cases driving taxis, after getting fired or pushed out by their company or government.

Q: Is jealousy necessarily a face-saving thing?

In free societies we are usually jealous when someone who really doesn't deserve something gets something. Like some people can be jealous of Kim Kardashian because we're not sure what she's famous for, and I could be doing what she's doing, that kind of thing.

But in face-saving societies, if you lose at anything, you will tend to be jealous of those who beat you fair and square at anything. Someone gets a better grade, you get jealous, you try to sabotage them. Someone dates someone and finds happiness, you're miserable; you try to split the couple. That sort of thing.

Final Q: Is indirect speech necessarily a face-saving thing?

In free societies, you can use code-words if people surrounding you should not be hearing the conversation, or if you're sharing secrets or something.

But in face-saving cultures, remember that you're competing, remember that you're jealous, remember that you're trying to sabotage. If you tell people straight out something like “you're really bad at this!” They're usually going to quit or stop talking to you.

So to keep the conversation going, you drop hints, more hints, more hints at their inferiority. You try to slowly wear them out by using codes, or to irritate them by using codes, and then further humiliating them by telling them those codes were not intended to them and that they're “paranoid” and should “talk to a psychiatrist.”  

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