the face

Working in Vietnam 101, a crash course for foreigners, Part 6

Today, we are going to discuss the #1 mysterious subject there is to any Confucian society: the Face.

If you are like me, you may have seen countless kung fu and ninja movies in your pre-teens. And you may have been more interested in practicing your sword and flying kicks abilities rather than your social moves, and didn’t spend too much time exploring the deep and complex social interactions of Hong Kong movies of the 70’s. Yet, today is the time to catch up and to explore this one killing concept of the face.

Well, to start up with, everybody has a face. Everywhere. I mean, this is not only about confucian societies. It is about all of us. Yet, in a cultural system where the key social control is operated through shame, and not guilt as in the West, the notion of someone’s face is way more important, and is over-invested by people. There, your face is your single most important social capital. If you lose it, you’re pretty much dead.

Yet, your face is not exactly a single stable entity, it is dynamic. You cannot really lose it entirely at once, unless you do something weird on TV. Actually, it is like a social attribute that you have with any of your friend, colleague, family members, etc. One face for one person, or one group. I know, it sounds a bit strange, but it’s a bit like being known as the perfect well-educated and well-manered boy by your father-in-law, and as a dubious linebacker by your beer pals.

Your face is something you may lose with someone, or a group of persons. Once lost, there’s no way getting it back. A bit like virginity. But, it would be lost only with this specific person or group. A bit like being a virgin again every time you have a new partner. And you want to stay virgin. You do.

The rules regulating your face are complex and dependent on the person(s) you are dealing with at a certain point. Context matters, age as well, and titles. And those rules will change for every new social interaction. Dodgy, uh?

Not so much. What you need is to consider the following situation:

  • A is a 58 year old holding public office
  • B is a 30 expat full of technical expertise working for a company
  • C is the 27 year old assistant of A

A, B and C are having a meeting to review the progress of a project. B fought quite hard to set it up and is now happy sipping heart-attack-inducing vietnamese tea in A’s office. A didn’t deliver what’s expected in term of administrative support, and B was late in producing a critical report. And C is just C, poor little one.

How to manage this tricky situation without compromising your future work relationship? Put the blame on C. This is why he/she is there. A will do the same, no fear. This is why young assistants are being recruited by the dozens in Vietnam, they have a short lifespan. Sounds familiar? Indeed. But beneath is lying a set of rules that needs to be understood:

  • A, as the oldest person in the room, is entitled to yelling at B and C
  • B is entitled to yelling at C
  • C is entitled to being silent
  • B is a foreigner and a technical expert, so A will think twice before yelling at B as usually Vietnamese people give extra credit to foreigners for being willing to deal with crazy local social rules that they themselves took so much time to master.
  • in the current situation A and B didn’t get drunk together yet, certainly a mistake
  • A knows that he/she missed a point on the contract
  • B knows pretty much the same, but might feel that as a technical supervisor, he/she is entitled to open it up wide, too wide.
  • C is entitled as being silent

Now, imagine that B feels like bringing up A’s mistake too openly. Imagine that B is stupid or ignorant. B is fried. Why? because there’s a witness in the room, C, making A ashamed. It is already extremely dodgy for B to openly criticize A in a very discreet face-to-face meeting (especially as long as they didn’t get drunk together). But there is absolutely no way that A will accept being attacked while C is sitting in the room. In that case, A will lose face, and B is dead, and his/her project if A is critical in it.

Now, if you are in a situation that makes you a C, then get ready at being yelled at, or heavily criticized. Don’t feel bad about it. Nobody in the room will hold it against you. This is your job. You’re the youngest in the place, so your job is to act as a decoy so more senior persons wouldn’t get at each other’s throat. You will see how magic it is. You could be virtually killed during the meeting, and everything would be forgotten right after. This is theater, as any social interaction, and this is a damned well orchestrated theater.

Now you may understand an extra reason why people would rather say yes than no, and why people would rather lie than admitting a mistake in public. It is not about a matter of virtue, it is about a matter of social integrity. You don’t want to lose your face, neither do you want to have someone losing it because of you. So don’t mess up with it, this is the one thing that could really blows back at you. And in the event you would feel clueless about a situation, just shut up. Shutting up is usually a worldwide respected attitude.