Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Excellent Examples of "Saving Face"

I'm No Picasso has an excellent post about the concept of "saving face" in Korea, supplemented with great, specific examples. A sample:
The biggest catalyst to my beginning to understand, come to terms with, and even sort of like face saving was meeting my old main co teacher. Why? Because she was fucking excellent at it. ... A good example of this was when a friend of mine sent me a message on Monday telling me that her coworker's father had passed away, and she knew she was supposed to give money, but she didn't know how much was appropriate to give, and would I please ask my coworkers. ... I asked my old co. Head Teacher jumped in before she could answer and said that 30,000 won was enough.

I saw it all over my old co's face -- that wasn't the right answer, in her opinion. I could see her struggling with how to handle the situation. She glanced up at me over the cubicle and made a slight face. Then she turned to Head Teacher and, in Korean, explained that even though 30,000 won was probably enough for us public school teachers, because there are a lot of us, don't you think private school teachers should give a bit more? Since there are not as many of them in an office. Old co knew that I would understand this in Korean. Head Teacher probably assumed that I wouldn't.

Head Teacher shot her down. No. Thirty thousand won is plenty. My old co glanced at me again to make sure that I was listening and understanding, and then she said, in Korean, I think more like fifty thousand or even more might be better in that situation, but I don't really know.... I'm just guessing.

Head Teacher stood by her answer. My old co shot me one last look. And then she dropped it. For all that Head Teacher knew, I hadn't caught any of this. But my old co had successfully corrected the situation for me, without calling Head Teacher out directly.
The Korean will be addressing this concept sooner or later also, but this is a terrific explanation. Please go read the whole thing.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. I would say the co-teacher in the example saved the senior person's face with sensitivity and tact. There seems to me nothing particularly Korean about showing sensitivity and tact. In fact - and rather to the contrary - the example illustrates more the dynamics of Korean society: those in a senior or more authoritative position may show an utter lack of sensitivity and tact - but those subordinate to them must show a correspondingly greater amount of sensitivity in *covering for their (the seniors') deficiencies*. Face matters very much and must be saved *if* it's the face of those of high status. The oft unspoken counterpart to the rule is that those in authority are in a position to disregard others' face with impunity.

  2. Not that the senior in the example was being crass - he was simply mistaken as to the facts - but the fact remains that the delicacy required to 'save face' is required of the junior to the senior, or often, of the woman toward the man.

  3. Very valid points, Matt. But for the record, both Head Teacher and co-teacher in the story are women.

  4. I liked I'm No Picasso's other example better because it has less of that senior/junior dynamic mixed in. But I thought the larger point of these examples was that one has to develop this kind of sensitivity in order to function well in Korean society (or any society that puts great stock in face).

    When is one regarded as having face to save? Does one gradually acquire face through adolescence?

  5. Oh yeah I really liked this example. The other one just sounded like saying something gently or sensitively.

  6. Hasani -- Maybe I'm not understanding correctly, but I've come to understand saving face as not just showing proper respect for seniors by not openly contradicting them, but handling all situations with all people a little more gently and tactfully than, say, the average American might. So, yes, the co-teacher was just being gentle, but to me, that's part of what saving face is.

    Which is where I don't really understand Matt's complaint. I gave a clear example using my direct senior. She wasn't obligated to speak gently to me based on the heirarchy, but she did it anyway. So it does apply in the reverse situation. And I do believe that is just as much a part of face-saving culture as the other.

    The Head Teacher is also not acting the way she does just because she is the superior -- she's also acting that way because she has crap 눈치 and generally makes everyone, junior or senior to her, feel uncomfortable in a lot of situations. Koreans can be bad at saving face, too.

  7. Matt's point could be read as a bit of an overstatement, but the Korean thinks the point is valid, as long as it is read with proper perspective. Older people do have relatively less pressure to save face, particularly in relation to younger people. Ideally, everyone would be saving fact to everyone -- but older people have a larger margin of error, so to speak.

    bjr -- usually adulthood is the point at which one begins having a face to save and be saved.

  8. I guess that comment struck me as odd because I was raised with an even more severe version of that same concept ("not talking back"), it doesn't seem that foreign or difficult or "wrong" to me.... for me, it's second-nature not to directly contradict or correct and elder or superior at all, and I don't connect it as much with saving face. What I do connect with saving face is a greater sense of tact when you do contradict someone in general, so I have kind of the opposite view.

  9. Oh okay I think I understand a little more now, INP.

    I mean of course I have zero experience with saving face in action so I'll take both your and The Korean's word for it.


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