What is ‘face’?

I have been part of a research group looking into Chinese migration for about 5 years now (see rumici.anu.edu.au/), and the main cultural difference one has to get used to as a Westerner in interactions with the East is the notion of ‘face’. This Asian cultural trait has been written about for centuries, but I haven’t found a definition that makes sense to an economist used to the language of game theory and utility functions. So let’s look at ‘face’ from an economic perspective, allowing me to make statements on where it comes from and what will happen to it.

To set the scene, consider some examples of the way in which ‘face’ pervades everyday life in China, Japan, and much of South-East Asia. For one, the boss never gets contradicted directly and no-one tells a boss that he is wrong, even if behind his back things are done completely differently and everyone believes him to be wrong. It would thus be quite common for people to congratulate a boss about a decision he did not in fact take. Connected to this, decisions and opinions are obscured in secret codes. By this I mean that it is never said that ‘we dont care about this so we are not going to do it’ but rather the whole topic is avoided or some technical difficulty is fabricated to avoid a negative decision on something. You will thus be hard pressed to hear ‘no, we will not allow you to do X’ but instead will be told ‘we are still working on how to measure X’.

And loss of face is serious business for as soon as you are publicly contradicted and told you are useless, it means that no-one will protect you, help you, or trade with you. Losing face is thus being shut out from a community, which of course explains why keeping up face is a life-and-death thing for many people in Asian societies, even today.

Face thus means people are not directly contradicted; opinions and preferences are hardly ever asked for directly, but instead are inferred; and there is a whole language known to insiders via which to convey actual opinions and coordinate responses.

If you think about this from a game-theoretical perspective you might first naively think that ‘face’ is about people’s beliefs as to how good (or useful or important, etc.) that you are. To have face would then mean people believe you to be virtuous, valuable, important, etc.

This clearly does not fit most examples of face though: it is perfectly possible that someone has face and yet nothing he or she says gets done. What people hence actually think about you does not prevent you from having a ‘face’. As long as efforts are made to hide the truth from you, one still has ‘face’. Hence face is not just about beliefs.

Face is more about the willingness of others to go along with pretending you are good, important, useful, etc. It is only when that pretense becomes unsustainable that one has lost face.

Yet this as a definition is not useful enough because it begs the question why it would matter what others are willing to pretend about you. With well-defined property rights, it matters not what other people think about you since that in no way influences the trades and decisions you can make.

I would therefore venture that the rub behind the whole concept of face is imperfect property rights. With imperfect property rights, it becomes a matter of fluid group opinion as to what you actually own and what you dont. ‘Face’ is then connected to those implicit property rights. The willingness of others to go along with your ‘face’ then signals the degree to which they still respect your property rights and the moment you lose face is the moment all others can rob you of whatever you possess with social impunity.

Translated to a game-theoretical context, this means one should think of ‘face’ as the degree to which others see you as partaking of the social norm upholding a particular allocation of property rights. Their willingness to go along with your face is then nothing less but a social vote as to whether you are still in the club or not. This in turn relies upon a social game in which the accepted rule is that if any two (or more) people deny each other their face then social voting continues until either face is restored or face is lost completely, leading to a re-allocation of the property rights of the loser. Note that what is actually believed about anyone does not matter.

This kind of conception of face has many important implications. For one, it is clear that something like this is more likely to arise in economic systems where most property rights are ill-defined, such as in large bureaucracies where nominally all is owned by the collective (or the emperor who leads the collective) but where limitations of span of control imply that cliques can actually appropriate things for themselves though only to the degree they cover each other’s backs. This of course explains the importance of face for a country like China that has so long had a bureaucracy. It also fits the ‘all who remain in the clique have to stick up for each other’ aspect of face and why someone who has lost face must be killed or in some other way neutralised since there is an outside world who can be alerted to the degree to which these implicit property rights violate the official ones.

Yet, also in more primitive cultures that lack well-established property rights (understood here as allocations that can only be undone by voluntary trades), the same general idea would hold to some extent though one then more normally would call it ‘honour’, and indeed there is an anthropological literature saying that pastoralists (who dont have official lists of who owns what) are big on honour.

The second and perhaps more important implication is that ‘face’ should lose its meaning and value when an economy becomes more monetised and based on formal property rights. Hence the industrial revolution taking place in China right now should be strongly eroding the whole notion of face, at least within the business community. And indeed, if you meet an outspoken Chinese person who says what he wants and tells you what he thinks, it is most likely someone from the business community.

The third, and most worrying implication is that something like face should inevitably start to arise in any major organisation that survives for a long time, since it is in large organisations that property rights become less perfect. Hence the Western world, which has seen greatly expanding government bureaucracies in the last few centuries and where there are relatively large long-lived private enterprises with major span-of-control problems over what all the managers do should see an increase in the importance of face. Whilst ‘face’ thus becomes less important in the East, it is probably on the rise here……

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Dennis Argall
9 years ago

I don’t know if the economic approach has merit, reducing values to economic measurement has never seemed to me a best way to understand social processes.

The current level of ruthlessness not least in the finance sector is a relatively short historical phase and perhaps short-lived. If there is now an increase in ‘face’ as something at work in our part of the world then surely this is a return to past circumstances rather than something new. When the then foreign minister said to departmental officials in the last days of the McMahon Government “Show me how to do so and remain consistent with what we have done for 20 years and I will shift our China recognition from Taipei to Beijing forthwith” this is soaked in face. When Tony Blair sinks deeper into the miasma of personal virtue while his foreign military adventures go more and more poisonous, is there no face involved? When we cannot see our way through the strategic folly of war in Afghanistan because it would cause dishonour, are we not trapped in ‘face’. Face is at the core of the follies discussed in Barbara Tuchman’s March of Folly, on why states act contrary to national interest. When such a huge proportion of the US population can’t consider a future other than a re-dreamed past magnificence, is this not a face-like issue.

I might be dismissed as having spent more working years in bureaucracy and thence on the argument above be more acquainted with face, but my observations from that perspective tended to be that senior business people were more inclined to face behaviour at highest levels. Is not Rupert Murdoch still bent on restoring family face lost when his dad’s Melbourne and Brisbane papers were sold off by executors before boy Rupert got back from London to find there was only the Adelaide ‘News’ left.

In the media play in contemporary Australian politics, do I not discern efforts to destroy the face of leaders, more than their policies?

It is important to distinguish between general human traits manifest fairly ubiquitously and their place in the fabric of individual societies. What perhaps we lack is a general perspective of respect for each other, a lack of appreciation that a resort to general destructiveness leads on to general destruction. Shared concepts of face, by whatever name, hold societies together, though they may be antithetical to simplistic competition thinking. There is, in the specific matter of Australian’s doing business with China, too often (in government as well as business, a lack of understanding and regard for the Chinese (as with others in our neighbourhood) desire to know the partner well, to put the relationship on a basis of deep understanding of respective interests… I suggest failing to work on that on the Australian side exposes projects to what our side may often see as betrayal by the Chinese side, but which may come about because the Australian side has not done enough to command respect and understanding.

Regarding

if you meet an outspoken Chinese person who says what he wants and tells you what he thinks, it is most likely someone from the business community

I am not sure about the generality of that. Whoever is saying what to whom relates to what they want, with more calculation that perhaps we with our generally more brash ways may appreciate. There have been great changes in China and I do find some Chinese businessmen who seem to be driven a bit by the need to use new freedom of expression. But whether what they say about China is more reliable than what their Australian counterparts may say about Australia is another matter.

MikeM
MikeM
9 years ago

Sir Humphrey: If you want to be really sure that the Minister doesn’t accept it, you must say the decision is “courageous”.
Bernard: And that’s worse than “controversial”?
Sir Humphrey: Oh, yes! “Controversial” only means “this will lose you votes”. “Courageous” means “this will lose you the election”!

http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Yes,_Minister

john r walker
9 years ago
Reply to  Paul Frijters

Paul this is very interesting stuff!

Dennis Argall
9 years ago
Reply to  Paul Frijters

I should have said before how interesting your survey looks, Paul.

I see from it that you are deep in the woods indeed in the places you are surveying. My experiences in the past dealing with China not so close to the ground perhaps.

Your

In China, to ask what someone wants is loaded, just as it is loaded to directly state what you want. Both actions are seen as highly uncivilised and coarse

reminds me of an experience long ago when I accompanied the Great Media Mogul to call on a Chinese Vice Premier on his first ever visit to that country. I gave him the usual briefing on how such meetings with potentates proceeded, beginning with courteous pleasantries, with the slowing of which the visitor should take the initiative to state with no more than say three points what his interests were, setting out the lot at one time, ten minutes max, after which the host would reply to it all, after which there might be some conclusion. We went in. The Vice Premier was, unusually, caught up with another and with papers – not in his usual manner of having no care or task in the world other than to be the perfect host. After shaking hands and pointing to chairs, he said, very simply: “Well, you’re a businessman Mr …, what do you want?” They had studied his manners.

I have spent a lot of time in the past decade or so in rural Australia, where there is, among ordinary folk, quite a lot of the sort of thing of which you speak, in its own code. The response to an outsider, like myself, even when you know people well, you think, is one of self-protection, to avoid inquiry or curiosity, to speak only of matters within your own frame of reference. Common purpose to be sidled up to, perhaps with risk. Nicknames protect from intimacy and engagement. Do not threaten values or hierarchies and ways of speech. Much more opaque often than conversations with indigenous Australians. I have no doubt the suburbs are the same. My car, my lawn, my face. The problems of governing with increasingly complex (on our scale, not China’s) issues is to be found in our local ‘face’ and its protection. Our tangled sense of denigrating self-protection, mixed up with our ancient habits of tugging forelocks, our inability to escape from convicted colonial or master-servant mindsets at very primitive levels, our readiness to point and laugh (much as some visitors experience in China) do not make for progress. So I think that here in Australia self esteem does tangle a lot with small stuff and as you know there is a tendency to reduce big people or big ideas to small stuff the better to piss on them, else fear.

thanks

Dennis

murph the surf.
murph the surf.
9 years ago

Face is also a recognition of the power pathways through a part of a society.
Face , gifts , plan changes , trips to Macau it’s all relative.
Business relationships try to build face into their existence and it smooths the way for obtaining licences, completing annual returns etc etc.
Should it be done without such pleasant social lubricants?
Speaking of which the salaryman/woman drinking sessions need urgent examination as to why they have ceased to deliver the goods! Regularly eating out with the team , drinking till late , giving many many years of your life to a company all in some part are driven by a desire to have face too.

john r walker
9 years ago

The government art sector is obsessed with “recognition” -as having a special status in a area that largely self describes as both special and a victim at the same time, is this a variation of ‘face’.

Mr T
Mr T
9 years ago

I remember seeing an Air Crash Investigation Doco on a crash involving a Korean aircraft that crashed into a mountain (not sure of the details). They played the recording of the co pilot trying to hint to the pilot that maybe he should look at the mountain detector to no avail. At no point was he willing to shout “watch out for the mountain” and they all died.

The response was to retrain the entire pilot group about face, and it’s role in the cockpit. This was apparently very confronting to the group, and could only be achieved when all agreed that this behaviour was only appropriate in the cockpit

Jim Rose
Jim Rose
9 years ago
Reply to  Mr T

I saw that show too. Crew resource management was as much a problem in US airlines up to the 1970s. They did not blame it on culture. They called it hierarchy.

The same crew resource management issues apply to emergency and other medicine about when to argue while standing over a bleeding patient and when to have a sole decision maker when time is critical.

The TV show also noted that Korean airlines quickly overcame 100s of years of confusion culture with training in crew resource management.

Jim Rose
Jim Rose
9 years ago

Richard Posner wrote about the touchiness of people to slights and insults in his excellent essay on the law and economics of primitive societies.

Being sensitive to any slight is a way of promising retaliation against any transgressions of your rights and property.

In societies with weak legal systems, private alternatives development. Clans and other networks promise mutual support and vengeance that acts to deter transgressions in the first place.

An example was in Lawrence of Arabia, which was on late night TV the other night.

Peter O’Toole asked Anthony Quinn’s character why he could ride alone into a camp of 100 men and order them away from his tribe’s water well. The answer was if they killed him, there would be a blood feud, so he was safe.

p.s. do not over-rate face and inflexibility in Japan. I lived there.

The Japanese can be tremendously flexible, but I never quite worked out when this was going to happen. Koreans and Japanese did not increase their per capita incomes several fold in one lifetime by being inflexible.

p.p.s. when the first class-a war criminal got back as Prime Minister in the late 1950s, he was asked why he was so pro-American. He looked with astonishment at his questioner and said ‘because they won!”

Richard Tsukamasa Green

I’m very interested in your second implication (or prediction). Several years ago I wrote (but never published) a post speculating on the effects of markets and money on social interactions in a country like China – especially because I had noticed a marked contrast between mainland Chinese whom had recently come to Australia and those who had been here some time (i.e 3 or more years) in terms of how “strategic” basic interaction was, and stories from older Chinese friends about social interactions following the cultural revolution. The fact that the change could happen in a relatively short time suggested it was situation contingent rather than a deep cultural trait, which suggested a game based logic.

My basic speculation was a more market, or monetised society has a greater capacity to segregate “quid quo pro” interactions to money exchange, so they don’t pollute other interactions. I guess the same logic could apply to status (or face). So I came to a similar prediction. The obvious companion prediction is that this “Oriental” trait should be more apparent in the West in the past, when markets were less prevalent. Superficially the decline of dueling supports this hypothesis.

Which leads to a tangent about sex selective abortion, which is often associated with patriarchal traits (such as Confucianism). It didn’t seem apparent in Japan which was wealthy before it was possible, and it has declined in Korea as it has become richer, so I wonder if the abominable practice is merely income tied. Were ultrasound and abortion available in Europe in the 19th century or early twentieth, I suspect it is more likely than not that it would have occured there as well.

Simon Musgrave
Simon Musgrave
9 years ago

‘Face’ is a well-analysed concept within the pragmatics, a sub-discipline of linguistics. The consensus is that all interactions depend on the recognition of the face needs of the parties, both positive (building esteem) and negative (not circumscribing action). The extent to which these needs are respected and the ways that they are satisfied vary from one (communicative) culture to another. The more-or-less standard reference is:
Title: Politeness : some universals in language usage
Author: Penelope Brown
Stephen C Levinson
Subjects: Sociolinguistics ; Etiquette ; Conversation ; Pragmatics ; Speech acts (Linguistics) ; Social interaction
Related Titles: Series: Studies in interactional sociolinguistics ; 4
Series link: Studies in interactional sociolinguistics
Publisher: Cambridge Cambridgeshire ; New York : Cambridge University Press
Date: 1987

murph the surf.
murph the surf.
9 years ago
Reply to  Simon Musgrave

Paul or Simon,
Do you think that face has to used in conjunction with other culture specific behaviours?
Face has some of the strictures you mention like the loss of status if public contradiction occurs but it is moderated through other forces within the language too .
Honne/tatemae to my understanding allows a more subtle response and expresses the conflicts that face may create.

Simon Musgrave
Simon Musgrave
9 years ago

‘within pragmatics’…….doh! (I think I just lost some face!)

MikeM
MikeM
9 years ago

I remember seeing an Air Crash Investigation Doco on a crash involving a Korean aircraft that crashed into a mountain (not sure of the details). They played the recording of the co pilot trying to hint to the pilot that maybe he should look at the mountain detector to no avail.

This issue is called in the global aviation industry “authority gradient”. When very steep, as when a senior captain is flying with a newly minted co-pilot (especially in Asian societies but it is also true in the West), the junior team member may feel intimidated and unable to forcefully point out that they are trying to take off from a taxiway or even shaping up to land at the wrong airport.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
9 years ago

Mr T,
Very nice example!

Jim,
Yes, a ‘dont mess with me attitude also has its uses, but that is clearly not what is going on here, where the question of power is settled.
I agree though that these cultures indeed seem to be able to work around the worst inefficiencies of this trait in ways that are mysterious to me too.

Simon,
Yes, these are the kinds of definitions that serve different purposes to those of economists, much more descriptive but lacking any predictive purpose. Horses for courses I guess!

Richard,
I don’t quite get your reasoning on markets. Care to elaborate? As to sex selection and boy preference I have my own theory but it is very different to yours. Best left to a future post!

Richard Tsukamasa Green

Paul – It also rests on some behavioural economics, but my inability to clearly describe (at least to people who weren’t in China in the early 1980s)) it is a big reason why I haven’t published it. If I can’t express it clearly, it may well make no sense. That said, I do think there’s similar reasoning in your post, so if I get it together I’ll put it up for you to tear apart (constructively of course).

Richard Tsukamasa Green

On a related note, consider the stereotypes of three Japanese cities, Kyoto, Tokyo and Osaka. The former two were the seat of religious and political power respectively (as the seats of Emperor and Shogun), and the latter was held to be a city of merchants. The popular stereotype has Osakans as far brasher, direct and louder than the other two, which were presumably shaped by the hierarchies they held. Stereotypes are poor data, but this is at least one datapoint in favour of the hypothesis.

Dennis Argall
9 years ago

Another dimension in looking at Chinese responses to the survey may be to compare/contrast experiences of those who had the scorching experiences of losing all face in the Cultural Revolution, those who engaged in de-facing people in the Cultural Revolution and those in later generations. The Chinese language (on the mainland) lost a lot of its manners as people also spurned gracious behaviour in that period, and the downstream consequences are sustained no doubt by expatriate manners and tourist trade, with such a lot of aggro spirit evident in discussion on the web on English language travel sites of how to chip down Chinese on fares and other charges. We will pay for our gross manners when they come back upon us.

Useful to look in longer term perspective. Sun Tzu wrote, perhaps 2500 years ago, that: [link accessed 5 Sept 2012]

All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

Translated into interpersonal power dealings it speaks of indirectness and stillness. And it’s not only there in Sun Tzu, Clausewitz arguing that:[lin accessed 5 Sept 2012]

War is … an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.

which includes the loss of face and confidence by the enemy.

…which brings us through to the greatest British strategic thinker of the last century Basil Liddell Hart [link accessed 5 Sept 2012]

In strategy the longest way round is often the shortest way there; a direct approach to the object exhausts the attacker and hardens the resistance by compression, whereas an indirect approach loosens the defender’s hold by upsetting his balance.
….
The profoundest truth of war is that the issue of battle is usually decided in the minds of the opposing commanders, not in the bodies of their men.

– i.e. knock his face off

As regards a point in Paul’s opening essay, about which Chinese were most open in discussion, I wonder whether it is a matter of how one proceeds (as well as the locus standi – in broad not legal sense – of the interlocutor). Certainly it always seems to me the best way to get more (here as well as there) from a discussion to proceed in ways which boost the other side by flattering awareness of that side’s interests, asking with a little bit of awe and self-deprecation. Which is pure SuTzu-Clausewitz-LiddellHart, if you like, building one’s face while boosting that of the other, hopefully to a non-war outcome.

A Chinese businessman, with deep political roots in the PRC and ROC argued to me recently that China will never go to war, with the US, Japan or anyone else, because it is too closely tied financially now. But we have in the offshore island and sea bed disputes situations where face could produce hard-to-manage situations, not least given the lack of respect and communication infrastructures between the parties. Watch the face game here too.

On resources conflict issues, by the way, Geoff Hiscock’s new book is very valuable.

fxh
fxh
9 years ago

I don’t know about Asian culture in general, or even if there is such a thing. My main experience is with Taiwan people and with mainlanders as well. I don’t find the concept of face all that difficult in the everyday, and I’ll acknowledge that I’m perhaps not deeply embedded – a lot is just basic politeness, deference to older and more experienced etc. ( As an aside I find my irish catholic sensibilities – they things I see as obvious to conduct good relations are often a mystery to others outside the culture – the use of language as a social glue and a perceived reluctance to come to the point, value of relationships in business – irish guanxi if you like.)

Anyway – my biggest shock and teh hardest thing to explain to others in chinese culture is the directness and “rudeness” – there is no such thing as queuing – just an unruly mob at the counter – all ages elbow in if you drop your attention for a second or two – sure there is a public recognition of older people but if you can “pretend” you didn’t see the old lady then elbowing her aside is ok. Then when ordering, just point and say “I want that”, no how are you today, no please, no thanks – often its only me the Big Nose who mumbles “szhe szhe”.

No one in the shop will say “excuse me” as they push in front, no one says “Sorry” when they step on your toe.

People ask directly – Are you married, how old are you, how many kids, what do you earn, why aren’t you married, what is your blood group and so on.

I’m often told “Westerners beat around the bush too much” – say “I want that” – “I dont want that”, “NO”, “Too dear” etc.

With an emphasis on a mysterious “face” it seems to me westerners miss the often blunt directness in chinese culture and interactions.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
9 years ago

fxh,

yes, that is true as well. Certainly accords with my experiences there also. With anonymous business-like interactions basic politeness is indeed hard to find in China. But I have not seen this outside of that kind of context, i.e. not at university, inside businesses, with students, with friends, with colleagues, and with government officials. Perhaps I just got a particular sample of experiences.

fxh
fxh
9 years ago

Paul, I’m not disagreeing with you at all, just expanding. I don’t really have the language so I mostly deal with those who have english. Although some of them are fairly high level thinkers (conceptually PoMo etc I mean) , post grad, in both, and other, languages.

My sense is that it isn’t any more complex than say irish or australian aboriginal feedback systems/ obligations. (excuse me but looking back I sound more certain and argumentative than I am – its an Internet thing)

I’ve seen it as, and native speakers have agreed with me, a bit like an automatic pilot system. Once a “chinese” person locks on to goal they stick with it. No problem with circuitous routes or obstacles. It works a bit like the Internet, they will re route and send different packets of info out and seem to be off target but eventually the messages or goal come together at the end. Like the Internet its often encrypted as well. You see it in the traffic patterns. Want to cross the 8 lanes of trucks, buses, scooters, carts in peak hour on the Minzhu Raod. Just put your head down, be resolute in your goal and pushing your grocery trolley just wander out – don’t look sideways, or back, don’t stop and the traffic will magically flow around you.

People do this in all sorts of literal and metaphorical ways, with authority, parents etc.

Sticking to the original goal seems to be highly regarded – so much so that people are unaware thats what it is. It isn’t inflexibility, well it is but not totally, people are perfectly happy to change and adapt, it seems to me and the society shows evidence of that.

The trick is to find out the original goal.

I’ve just been involved in a project which had about 30 Taiwanese come out here for 2 weeks. It involved making a lot of implicit assumptions explicit for it to work – and a bit of sensitivity on both sides.I have a fair bit of guanxi so it wasn’t too difficult.

I think on a simplistic level I learnt to act a bit “chinese” – have a goal – stick to it – defer but insist at the same time, pull rank occasionally, be polite – be blunt – make big show of meals drink etc or be humble as appropriate, find the group influencer, – but then I do a version of that wherever I am.

fxh
fxh
9 years ago

I think I’ve wandered away from your article – but perhaps its all relevant to the last paragraph on the rise of face in western large organisations.

Taiwan is interesting because it has been outward looking for some time but in many ways, lack of Mao and especially the cultural revolution, is in someways more chinese than the mainland big cities.

One thing amongst many, that is typically Taiwanese, they were the first (perhaps only) asian country to have same Sex Marriage legislation about 6 years ago. It sits there. On the table. It hasn’t been passed into legislation yet. But, most importantly, it also hasn’t been rejected. Possibly it will still beat us to it. It hasn’t been used to polarise.

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
9 years ago

Well what a fascinating post and discussion. I love this kind of thing. I love the way in which one can’t say the Chinese are just more indirect – because it’s much more subtle than that. (As an aside – can we somehow stop the latest fad which is to use ‘nuance’ every couple of sentences?).

Like Dennis I’m not particularly taken with Paul’s focus on ‘property’. Seems Procrustean to me – but then you are an economist Paul so I guess that’s kind of de rigeur ;).

Anyway the thing that jumps out at me is this sentence.

Losing face is thus being shut out from a community, which of course explains why keeping up face is a life-and-death thing for many people in Asian societies, even today.

Now this is not at all ‘Eastern’. We are all familiar with this. We learn it at school. It’s why everyone wants to be one of the cool kids. Jews learnt it (again) in Nazi Germany. And pretty much every society operates as a system – more or less complex – of insiders and outsiders. When someone from Russia asked how George Orwell could understand so well the dynamics of a place he’d never been, someone pointed out that Orwell had boarded at Eton.

So while the phenomenon of ‘face’ is unique in some specifics – and they’re very interesting specifics, I’m not seeking to detract from them – the larger picture you paint Paul is something more widely shared.

One thing about the West is that we have a counter-narrative to the expulsion from the garden of the cool kids. Perhaps Christianity is its source, though perhaps, before that Jewish surliness about what a bastard God can be is a source of that source. In any event, in modern times this transmutes into the idea of basic rights of minorities (however uncool they are!). We have bills of rights (OK not in Oz, but elsewhere) and a range of procedural protections (like whistelblower protection) and a sensibility in which one has some cultural resources to challenge the idiocy of the mob – a respect for individualism and indeed anti-groupishness. This is important to me, not because I don’t have a great respect for the wisdom of the crowd, but because I also have a great fear of its foolishness, closed and small mindedness as I tried to argue here. But you don’t want to try this on when there’s a war on or for any other reason people’s blood is up and they’re not going to be listening to any whistleblowers.

Richard Tsukamasa Green

fxh – I’ve noticed a contrast between my experience of Taiwanese and Hong Kongese on one hand and Mainlanders on the other (more so with HKers since my experience with Taiwanese is thinner). Several mainlanders also related a stereotype of HKers as gauchely direct. I had also attributed this to a market -> directness, hierarchy -> indirectness [fn1] dynamic that would fade as the open era on the mainland advanced.

If you divide your experience thus, do you notice a similar contrast?
The other question is what you’d speculate was the result (if any) of the 60 odd years of Japanese occupation. I notice it in many features of Taiwan, especially food, but is there anything in social interactions you’d notice. I was once at the hospital listening to a mother and daughter converse in Mandarin, but they were bowing in their dealings with staff in the way I was familiar with from Japan. I started speculating they were Taiwanese before turning away so I was no longer creepily staring at a schoolgirl.

[fn1] Allowing for the stranger hierarchies that occured in the Cultural Revolution

Nicholas Gruen
Admin
9 years ago

Richard,

A stereotype of Jews is that they’re more direct than others. Certainly that seems true to me of a certain type of Jew. And famously the history of Jews in Europe in the last few centuries has been of a people living by their wits in the marketplace, unable to access many hierarchies of preferment on an equal footing with others.

fxh
fxh
9 years ago

richard – my long reply to you got lost – I’ve no F******* idea what happened – I’m too tired now to redo it

Richard Tsukamasa Green

fxh – The blogging gods are cruel indeed. I hope you muster the energy again.

Nicholas – A few months ago I was <a href="http://http://www.gladwell.com/2005/2005_10_10_a_admissions.html&quot; with a co-worker and opined that Jewish students were once a problem for elite universities because their financial commitment was restricted to the exchange of fees for education and didn’t include the larger social web of elite backscratching that would secure donations later. I then had to explain (at length) that I wasn’t being antisemitic. I thus became a little wary of discussing (perceived) Jewish cultural traits.

But yes, the ugly twin stereotypes antisemite’s money grubbing pawnbrowker/financier and the philosemite’s good businessman did occur to me as well. They do make sense in terms of the hypothesis. But it was safer to stay with more benign stereotypes from East Asia.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
9 years ago

Nick, Dennis, Richard, fxh, and others,

I find myself agreeing with most of you observe and yet will try to divvy up the observation space in things we can spin a theoretical story for and things yet to find a story for (such is the nature of economics!).

Nick’s point that social exclusion involves the basic strategy of declaring others outside of the morality of the cool group and that this is quite face-like is of course entirely true and as much a dynamic in the West as elsewhere. I am not so sure about Nick’s sources of sources though: the whole narrative of Christian-Judean roots of anything always seemed to me one of those inclusion tricks that societies with mixed populations come up with to help people get along, much like the term Anglo-Saxon is useful to pacify the UK and the US. A useful gimmick.
Since Richard’s basic observations on traders and different Japanese cities fits in perfectly with my original story I will chalk him up as agreeing with me.
Fxh’s observations on the cultural revolution, etc., indeed ring very true as they basically complexify the picture of China as being a place of changing habits. I would thus amend my original observation space as being about situations people find themselves in in the world of work and friends, not anonymous relations. I agree that the cultural-revolution Chinese can be very blunt and judgmental, but they seem to be rare. Perhaps the old habits are re-establishing themselves inside formal China?

If we turn the tables, the question to you is what underlying mechanisms could have lead to the kind of ‘face’ habits you saw in that Korean air crash? Or the ‘beating about the bush’ habits I talked about above? It is not good enough to just chalk it up to ‘linguistic conventions’ or ‘religious roots’ for that is the type of explanation that is wholly useless: it doesnt tell us how it changes, why it changes, whether it is something problematic, etc. Its a form of ‘cute label’ explanation that works as a description but not as a theory.

Jim Rose
Jim Rose
9 years ago

face was so important in western countries in days gone by the people would face off at ten paces with revolvers to obtain satisfaction.

See The duel of honor: Screening for unobservable social capital by Douglas W Allen, Clyde G Reed 2006, American Law and Economics Review at http://www.yale.edu/law/leo/052005/papers/allen.pdf

The duel of honour was a highly ritualized activity practiced mostly by
aristocrats from 1500 to 1900. Duelists were seldom brought to court.

The duel of honour often resulted from trivial incidents and functioned as a screen for unobservable investments in social capital.

Duels were fought over any slight against ones’ character, family, or reputation. Impoliteness, cursing or attribution of shameful qualities, or touching another’s person were grounds.

As a screen, duels filtered out marginal aristocrats who had not invested in unobservable social capital — an investment which constituted a bond to assure performance in the administration of government.

The purpose of duelling was to screen for individuals who would behave properly in their post and not threaten the position of their patron.

Social capital was used during this period to police political transactions in an age when high civil service appointments were made through patronage. At a time when monitoring inputs and outputs was difficult, trust and honesty were highly valued traits — seemingly even more valuable than skill and ability.

The disloyal were punished in an aristocratic society by being cut-off from social, business, and governmental affairs of the ruling class.

Social capital is costly to acquire, and comes from attending the same schools, social events, clubs, and churches. Social capital is also acquired through education, marriage, business connections, and family history.

Those who refused a duel did not have enough social capital to risk death. They then could not be trusted because social ostracism was not a large penalty to these marginal aristocrats

The screening hypothesis explains the puzzling features of the duel of honour, its rise and fall over time and locations, and the differences between European and American duels. Duels were fought according to strict codes, their lethalness fell over time, and royals and other senior members of society were not allowed to duel because there status was unquestionable

Richard Tsukamasa Green

I’d prefer to say that a hypothesis I think is likely agrees with you – I’m trying to divorce myself from hypotheses I proffer or defend, so emotional investment doesn’t get in the way of intellectual honesty.

Further on the cultural revolution generation, we have to be careful about aging effects along with the cohort effects. This suggests that old people seem more racist because the brain stops expending energy on costly functions like maintaining social norms of non-racism. Obviously the same would hold for norms around face and directness. I know in Japan old people are stereotyped as rude (well, blunt) or lewd – probably because there’s less opportunities to be awkwardly racist.

The Korean air episode is also discussed in Gladwell’s Outliers, and later discusseds theories on “cultural” traits like “Southern Honour Culture” or Asia aptitude in maths. It is a very very infuriating book (like Gladwell generally) since he’ll start with a few anecdotes and one study, then conclude. So many avenues untread, or hypothesis inadequately tested or reasoning poorly considered, especially with the Asian maths thing. But it is a good way to see the difficulties of thinking about these things, and what can happen when you’re a little lazy.

But then again, we could have learned about that difficulty from Weber’s long bow between predestination and industrialisation.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
9 years ago

Richard,

yes, the issue of laziness and honesty is very relevant with this kind of thing. I certainly am time-constrained and hence ‘lazy’ which is the whole reason I like these kind of theories. The simpler to understand and the less it is wrong, the better.

Take the theory in the post: it is marvelously predictive. It tells you what people would be more sensitive about and less, allowing you to avoid pitfalls and yet not be shy about everything. When implicit property rights are at stake, you would suspect that ‘face’ would be involved in things like work competency, adhering to the values of the enterprise, honesty in work interactions, and being mindful of doing ones’ job. It should not be involved in things not connected to their implicit property rights, hence there should be less sensitivity as to whether someone is a good husband, has odd eating tastes or reads dirty comics. Similarly, the theory tells you in which kind of company the sensitivities are greater: they should be greater the higher up in a bureaucratic hierarchy you go, and less the more anonymous an monetised, all very handy things to know in daily life.

It is true that looking for a simple theory is a short-cut and that one would ideally want to spend years studying every aspect and getting to know every instance. But I dont have that time or interest, nor should I. It is also not the purpose of economic teaching; we are paid to come up with and teach these simple rules of thumb to others to help them in unfamiliar situations. If it really matters them for many years, then of course they should attain deeper knowledge.

Having said all this, I am not particularly happy with my own theory in the blog. It doesnt quite fit the difference between Japan and China and Korea. It doesnt quite fit the rudeness of some cohorts. Etc. Also, the description of social voting is a bit too ad-hoc and lacks a deeper reason, etc. Too many face-like events fall outside of it. So I am definitely in the market for a better theory!

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
9 years ago

Jim,

duelling was only ever an upper-crust thing, and even then restricted in time and space. It is interesting to muse about what kind of theory fits duelling.

I dont think the implicit property rights within-bureaucracies story of my original post makes sense to explain duelling. The ‘honour’ story fits much better, which is connected to imperfect enforcement of property rights and thus, if you like, imperfect property rights due to the absence of a bureaucracy. The difference is that ‘face’ is inside the large hierachies and ‘honour’ works for smaller hierarchies outside a bureaucracy.