If you're new to Asian cultures, you might not be familiar with the concept of "saving face". While nobody in the west likes to be embarrassed or "put down", this takes a whole new meaning in Asia. Losing face can signal the end of a relationship between people and in a lot of cases is irreversible.
With young students this is usually less severe, but as a teacher you should be aware that what you might have experienced in western classrooms may not be appropriate in Asia.
What Is "Saving Face"?
Essentially saving face is about preserving your reputation or "honor", but in more practical terms it means avoiding embarrassment in front of others. An example would be if you shouted at a co-worker in front of your other co-workers or students. The person you shouted at would have lost some major face.
There are more subtle examples though. Perhaps you have prepared a lesson activity, you've got your students excited about it, then your boss comes into the classroom and tells you not to do it for one reason or another. This could be something simple like playing dodge-ball or another activity that you were unaware wasn't allowed in class.
In this situation, you would have lost face. Not in a major way, but it is still something that the students would pick up on.
With students, you can make them lose face by disciplining them in front of other students, or pointing out something embarrassing they did.
Even revealing a particularly low test score can cause students to lose face.
There's no specific rule and some students may be more sensitive than others; it's best to just err on the side of caution.
What Happens When A Student Or Co-Worker Loses Face?
This depends on the particular situation, but it could range from a slight embarrassment for the person affected, to never seeing them again! In severe cases, your relationship with that person would be almost irreparable. Make sure you consider the concept of "face" before you act.
The good news is that it's not a particularly hard thing to avoid. In the rest of this article, we'll cover some basic steps you can take to make sure you do just that!
How To Avoid Making Someone Lose Face
Always consider that in most cases it's not making someone lose face to YOU that's the problem, but making them lose face in front of others. If you need to discipline a student, or tell a teaching assistant that they've made a mistake, do it outside of the classroom in a one-on-one situation.
Make sure that you do it calmly and patiently. Where a student has been naughty, you might want to refer them to your school head or explain why they've broken the rules. As long as you deal with it sensibly and in accordance to school procedure, you'll be fine.
You can also check with your school head or other co-workers what the general rule of thumb is for such situations.
Additionally, when delivering test scores, avoid announcing them to the whole class and if some students have low scores, you may wish to show students their scores individually.
Slowly allow time for rapport to build up. Generally the better you get along with a class and co-workers, the more comfortable everyone will be and the more you can make jokes and poke fun. This also means that you need to pay attention to the class dynamic of each individual class. You might be able to joke with some students and not others.
You can also follow some other tips about classroom management in order to avoid things like this happening.
By asking a co-worker or friend about these concepts, you should be able to get some more examples and some recommendations as well. In some parts of Asia this will be a more strong aspect of the culture than others.
Generally China, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea have a more entrenched concept of "face", but this is not always the rule, so ask your local managers and anyone else you know.
'Face' isn't a minefield that you'll need to navigate with extreme caution, but it IS something you should be aware of and pay attention to. It can be a hard concept to get a firm grasp on at first, but that's because it's not something that is 100% tangible.
If you read through this article again and consider the examples, you should develop a good enough grasp on the concepts at hand to never have to worry about it anyway.