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Lose the lying face
Ray  Updated: 2005-12-09 08:25

The concept of keeping and not losing one's face (reputation and so on) prevails throughout the world. However, for cultural reasons (such as the legacy of group-orientated societies) it is extremely strong -- in fact, too strong -- in most of Asia including China. While the desire to keep one's face is honorable and even virtuous, when overemphasized to the point of lying, showboating, and provoking, it is both self-defeating and destructive.

First and foremost, saving face often entails lying. This includes the seemingly harmless white lies. Whether such lying is understandable or not, it is still dishonest, immoral, and as such should be shunned as much as possible.

While I grant that in China, people may often lie to save both their face and the face of the person being lied to, many others frequently lie just to save their own butts, with a devil-may-care attitude to the other person. This can be something as simple as lying about an incident at work in a way that protects your own skin, but tars and feather the other person. There is nothing face-saving about such an action and is akin to a starving person practicing cannibalism for survival. Personally, I would whether die of starvation a.k.a. lose my job than "eat" another person.

If you think about it, lying to maintain so-called face is impractical. Most people, including Chinese, equate an honest person with having true face. This makes sense. No one likes being lied to. Do you? It is both insulting and disrespectful, and usually causes more problems than benefits.

You know, if every time people lied, their noses grew like a fibbing Pinocchio, they would quickly see how meaningless and cumbersome lying for face is.

A good example of the futility of lying to maintain one's face involves the recent water contamination in Northeast China, in which various environmental and oil administrative initially lied to the public about the severity of the accident. In being caught with their paws in the fishing bowl, the administration and officials brought upon themselves the very thing they dreaded most: a loss of face.

Even lying to protect the face of another party may backfire or in the very least prove meaningless. I am not sure about the situation now, but in the past, some Chinese businesspeople had a knack for not wanting the other side to lose face during negotiations. However, this seemingly admirable trait often led to misunderstandings, a loss of time and money, and general headaches. Even good intentions, when spiced with deceit, can go awry.

Lying for the sake of your face also can be just plain dangerous for other people. During the 2003 SARS epidemic, the health minister wasn't forthcoming about the situation. This only worsened the situation, putting more lives and livelihoods at risk. Fortunately the Central Government administrations ultimately gave the minister the boot, which marked the beginning of China's victory over SARS.

Aside from the lying aspect, many times the question of face is more imaginary than real. The clamoring of one's face can be the product of an inflated sense of self. Case in point: If you are arguing with another person, onlookers are not thinking, "This person has face and that person doesn't." Instead, chances are they are wondering why the two of you are yapping like Donald Duck.

In addition, "keeping" your face at all costs is not very harmonious. You may do something rash, which in turn may provoke the other person to retaliate.

For example, suppose the said person you are arguing with decides to walk away in a bid to end the spat. The worse thing for you to do at this time would be to yell at the person as he or she leaves, showboating or showing off to the crowd of onlookers. Otherwise the person might angrily turn back around for further confrontation, which could very well end in police intervention, or worse yet, a very face-losing black eye or busted lip on your part.

In conclusion I want to say that while I have focused on China (due to presently living in the country), what I have mentioned can apply to most of Asia as well. While some face is definitely needed, extreme face -- with its lying, showboating, and provoking -- has no place in an increasingly global and multi-polar world, but rather should be relegated to the fate of the dodo (bird): extinction.

Write to Raymond McFarland at:

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