10 ways of saving face with cultural intelligence

Published on April 9th, 2021

The idea of saving face with cultural intelligence governs social interaction in many high-context cultures, from Latin to Arab, but no more so than in Asia, particularly in China, Korea and Japan.

This notion that any kind of social embarrassment should be avoided stems from the need to maintain social harmony. Saving face with cultural intelligence is more than the Western concept of simply protecting one’s personal integrity; it’s more about preserving the honor of the group, whether that be a family, a clan, a company or even the country. Failure to understand this can cause a permanent rift in a relationship. Of course, individuals within a group may have different outlooks, but here are ten survival tips for doing business in a high-context culture.

1. Remember that face can be given as well as taken away

Devote time to relationship-building. Formal expressions of appreciation of the relationship (banquets, speeches, sending senior representatives to the negotiating table) are all part of face-building for both parties.

2. Read between the lines

A lot of cultures find it very difficult to say a straight ‘no’ as this could cause a loss of face. So in negotiations, listen carefully; ‘maybe’, or ‘we will get back to you’ or ‘we will do our best’ are all euphemisms for ‘no’. You can apply the same technique, even for something as simple as replying to a social invitation. Don’t just decline – use any of the above excuses to save the host’s face.

3. Don’t nit-pick

Try to see the bigger picture when reading a report or written document that’s been presented to you by a team member. Instead of attacking it with a red pen, metaphorical or otherwise, and pointing out every tiny error, praise the work first and then discreetly suggest ways it might be modified. This will allow them to save face.

4. Never lose your cool

Shouting at someone for being too slow, or too bureaucratic, or making a mistake, will cause them to lose face, and you as well. If they are providing you with a service, you may find your task relegated to the bottom of the pile. Be polite and calm instead. Instead, say, ‘It appears there might be a problem.’

5. Do not interrupt

In Asia, there is a strict hierarchy in meetings of who speaks when and each side usually has one spokesperson, the most senior member of the group. While in the US, it would be normal to jump in and contradict a speaker, in China or Japan, this would cause them massive loss of face, as well as embarrassment for everybody else present. The relationship would be severely damaged.

6. Be gracious at meals

If you push food away without trying it, your host will lose face (in their mind) for failing to cater for the needs of a guest. Lavishing hospitality on a visitor is a way of ‘giving face’ for all concerned, so show your appreciation and sample everything if you can.

7. Criticize with care

If you must deliver criticism to an individual, do it in private and dress it up with positive points at the same time. ‘You’re doing a great job, so how can we work together to solve this?’.

8. Downplay your superior knowledge

Don’t cause a colleague to lose face by letting them know you are far better versed in a subject than they are. Let them have their say and if you really are an expert in the subject, be discreet in the way you reveal this fact.

9. Make concessions in negotiations

Refusing to budge on a point will cause the other party to lose face, whether they are an individual or a group. Always be prepared to make a little concession (and expect the other side to do the same) so that everybody can save face with their superiors by conducting what’s perceived as a successful negotiation.

10. Allow a white lie

In a culture like China, having to admit you don’t know something will cause you to lose face. Instead, people may disguise this by simply giving any answer to a question, even if it’s wrong. If you observe simple body language and tone, it is usually possible to tell when someone is not being entirely accurate. Don’t challenge them on the point; simply move on.


Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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