“Saving face”


“Saving face” is the concept of avoiding facing the consequences of having been shamed, sometimes by sacrificing something you value. A perfect example is what I almost did yesterday when my irresponsibility for posting a certain article was called out elsewhere. I almost took down this blog!

Throughout my life, “saving face,” has been my usual reaction to being held accountable for choosing wrong actions. It’s never made me happier, and more often than not, I wind up regretting it later. I later wonder why I didn’t just own up to it and take responsibility. But the fear of being shamed is great enough to make you do crazy things just to avoid it. In my case that usually meant some sort of disappearing act–you know, acting on that urge to “sink through the floor in shame.” But the thing is, all it does is make you look like a coward and that in itself makes you look worse than the thing that caused it all! Please note I am not talking about situations in which you are being unfairly treated or bullied. That does happen, and it happens to the sensitive the most of all. In those cases removing yourself might be the best and smartest course of action. No, I’m talking about situations in which you know you’ve acted badly and are called to the carpet about it.

“Saving face” is a staple of some cultures. In Japan, ancient samurais adhered to the tradition of seppoku, which meant stabbing oneself through the heart with a dagger when one had been shamed.* The intent was to avoid shame, even if your life was the price. Related to this (but different) is the practice of “honor killings” some fundamentalist Muslim countries still adhere to. This means killing a family member (usually a woman) when they are believed to have brought shame to the family. In these cases, love is weaker than narcissistic pride. How else could one voluntarily kill their own wife or daughter who they claim to love?

It’s interesting to me that even the term, “saving face,” is a reference to the False Self, a mask shown to the world. Saving face isn’t about honesty or authenticity; it’s about maintaining the mask, even if all it involves is escaping consequences.

Some people see “saving face” as somehow noble. But it isn’t–it’s cowardly and narcissistic. Unfortunately it’s human nature, especially for those of us who grew up in situations where we were constantly shamed just for being ourselves and developed low self esteem. We may not be suicidal, but we’ll sacrifice things we love if the consequences of behaving badly are too embarrassing.

But why should it be that way? People are still going to talk even if you remove yourself from the situation or disappear, the way I’ve always tended to do. Wouldn’t it be better to face the consequences? Even if people aren’t forgiving, ironically your humility shows them you have self respect and the courage to own up to your mistakes. What’s so shameful about a simple “I was wrong” or “I’m sorry.”

* I understand that non western cultures differ and to call traditional practices narcissistic or selfish is probably not accurate.