What is ‘face’?

by

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……

%d bloggers like this:
PageLines