Thursday, August 18, 2016

Saving the face, lies and a narrative

It is been a while since we moved to Asia, and we still learn new things every day – what is actually good, it keeps our mind healthy and active. Something we had to learn right from the beginning was that saving face is the most important cultural difference in Asia. And sure it is. As a German, who was raised to come straight to the point, arguing for the sake of the issue and never taking it personal, the cultural gap couldn't have been wider. 
While saving face can be experienced all over Asia, we found that it was most obvious used in Thailand. 
We can actually learn a lot from dogs behavior, like walking away from a confrontation.

So what does saving face actually mean? According to Wikipedia, it comes from China where face means "prestige; honor; reputation" It also defined by it's opposite: Losing face means to lose honor or the good name. It is rooted deep in the culture of south-east Asia and China, and it is the main parameter for any conversation and negotiation. In particular between people of a different social status. The worst thing that can happen to a higher ranking person is that he or she is losing face, and those who force this person to do that sometimes end up with a shorter lifespan. Yes, it's that serious.

Bert Brown sums is it up pretty good:

Among the most troublesome kinds of problems that arise in negotiation are the intangible issues related to loss of face. In some instances, protecting against loss of face becomes so central an issue that it swamps the importance of the tangible issues at stake and generates intense conflicts that can impede progress toward agreement and increase substantially the costs of conflict resolution.  (Negotiations: Social-Psychological Perspectives. Sage. pp. 275–300)

For us westerners, this concept is an alien expression, and quote often we see it as a lie. And actually, it is. When someone in Asia wants to save face, a lie is just a tool to do so. See it the same way we may not tell a business partner everything about a deal (like that there might be a risk of production delay). It is not that a lie is sanctioned in Asia. But it is of less importance. There is a nice book about it, dealing mainly with Chinese culture, written by Susan D. Blum: "Lies That Bind: Chinese Truth, Other Truths". 

Blum points to a propensity for deception in Chinese public interactions in situations where people in the United States would expect truthfulness, yet argues that lying is evaluated within Chinese society by moral standards different from those of Americans. Chinese, for example, might emphasize the consequences of speech, Americans the absolute truthfulness. 

You will experience saving face and lies everyday. From "We do not have" in a shop, what also means "I have no idea what you were asking for" to "I cannot come to work I am sick" what means "I went out with friends last night" (sounds familiar) to "We  know who the bomber is" what means, when said by Thai police means, "we have absolutely no clue."

Lies and saving face are big obstacles for Asian societies in a global context. In Thailand for example, it frequently leads to scapegoats presented as criminals, to save the face of the - in fact often very incompetent and amateurish - Thai police. In Cambodia, the prime minister has no problem to reverse decisions he made a day or even hours before, just to avoid more public (or internal pressure). In Vietnam, Facebook was kind of blocked, mainly because the communist government was scared about the truth and the ability to connect people and their stories.

On a political level, lies and saving face are always a tool to keep a certain narrative. It is very often used to shield incompetence of officials. Ministers and governors are rarely put in this position because of their skills, they got the job as a favor. So when it comes to any problem, they may try to show leadership by just saying something that comes into their mind. They often actually think its a brilliant idea, like the tracking devices for tourist in Thailand, suggested by the Tourism Minister. 

The problem is that – with Hun-Sen and his quick decisions maybe an exception sometimes – most cannot admit a mistake or failure. This would mean losing face, so they have to stick to it, even knowing it was wrong. 

As a Westerner, we would usually just jump onto this vulnerability, taking advantage of our weak opponent. But that won't work in Asia. It will actually cause the opponent to not move a nanometer from his or her position. The only thing to do is walk away from the confrontation or even the conversation, let it rest for a while and then come back, maybe on a lower level, to start the communication again. And the best way would be to pretend nothing ever has happened before. 

In Thailand, you can experience this in politics on a daily basis. And even it Cambodia it happens. Like the recent decision to make all markets public until 2020. That's a loooong time. Nobody will announce the decision was reversed. We will just not hear about it anymore. 

I am a dog lover, and we can learn a lot from the behavior of animals (what we basically still are). If you see two dogs in a stand off, you will rarely see that they will actually start a real fight. Most of it is just showing teeth and strength, and trying to outperform the other dog. And after a while, both get less tense and walk away. It is not about a winner, nobody gets the food or the female. They will still be dogs in the same alley, and will play with each other later. (I am aware that it could be offending to compare dogs to humans in some cultures, but this blog is my cultural space)

So what I learned is sometimes it's good to walk away, not being defended, just taking a break and giving the other person space and rest. Time is not money in Asia, it is a dimension in which we flow around. It may have not been the right day for this deal, but there will be one. Just be patient and see the goal as important, not your way to go there. 

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