Can you talk more about how 'saving face' comes into play in a professional setting? With people other than Head Teacher, obviously. How are you expected to admit your mistakes and move on? How are you expected to handle other people’s mistakes and shortc

This is a really good question, and I've gotten a couple of others about saving face that I haven't gotten around to yet, simply because I still don't really feel like I have a terribly strong grasp on the subject, and I hate to run my mouth about things I don't really understand.

What I will do is talk about the conversations I've had with Busan about it, and how I've seen it at play with my coworkers. I feel comfortable enough with that.

I will preface this by saying that Busan, strangely enough, is not always the best source to go to for an understanding of Korean culture. But he is a perfect example of how cultural behaviors are by no means universal, and how there is a lot of deviation within any singular culture. We have to talk about these things generally, because there are always plenty of examples of people who fall outside the lines of cultural norms. And where I feel like a lot of foreigners get into trouble in Korea (and where I did and still do myself) is when they try to always play by the same basic set of cultural rules, even though they are dealing with individuals. It's good to understand that you're facing a different culture, but it's troublesome when you don't realize that people are still, at the end of the day, themselves. And everyone ultimately has their own way of dealing with things.

Busan, for example, has an infamous lack of 눈치. And 눈치, from how I understand it, ties in very closely with saving face. Noonchi is, very basically, the ability to notice, in social situations. In order to participate in saving face, you have to be able to notice how other people are feeling, or will feel. I blame noonchi, for example, for the fact that even when I put on my very best cheerful face to go into class when I'm having an off day, my students (who are teenage boys, and thereby not the most attentive of human beings) immediately answer my, "Good morning! How are you?" with, "Teacher, what's wrong?"

Busan's take on saving face is that he's crap at it, but he really, really likes it, when it's applied to him. Typical, no? What he means by that is that he's kind of a verbal bulldozer when it comes to other people's feelings, and tends to blurt out whatever he's thinking without taking the time to consider how that might make the other person feel. But. He's really sensitive himself, and tends to make some pretty bad mistakes from time to time. Such as blurting out whatever he's thinking. What he means when he says he needs people to be good at face-saving with him, is that he needs people to approach him gently when pointing out his mistakes, and not make him feel too badly about it.

Busan and I have also discussed how, from an American perspective, honesty and directness is somewhat of an indication of closeness. I've explained to him how saving face is not that difficult for me in a work setting, because I have a polite distance from my coworkers. Where I used to really get tripped up by saving face was in my close personal relationships. When I would realize that someone wasn't telling me what they really thought, I would get my feelings hurt. Why? Because I thought we were closer than that. In my American mind, you would speak honestly with someone you considered close. You would speak less honestly and directly with someone who you held at a bit of a distance. Therefore, when a close friend would save face with me, I suddenly felt distant from them.

Now. Here is where I don't really trust Busan's opinion -- I'll be honest. He told me that to him, at least, saving face is not something you need to be careful of with people you are close to in Korea. I don't know that I would really trust that across the board. I think that's probably just him. And even he doesn't really mean it, because he is actually quite sensitive to saving face. But that is what he said.

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. There would be things that I would only realize ages later that she was saving my face about, and when I did realize it, I didn't feel duped, or distant from her. I didn't feel embarrassed that I hadn't noticed it. What I felt was like she really cared about me, and didn't want to hurt my feelings, and went about saying whatever she needed to say in such a gentle way, that somehow she was managing to correct me without me even noticing that she was correcting me. And I felt grateful to her for that.

How did she do that? I really couldn't tell you. She is, in general, a masterful socializer and someone who always manages to put everyone at ease. She also has the ability to control the students with nothing more than a slight look of disappointment. Because people want to please her, and people want her to like them. Even teenage boys. Basically, she takes the time to get to know everyone as an individual, she always speaks with great thought and consideration, and she can read people's feelings really well. She has awesome noonchi.

One good specific example was the first time I taught an after school class, and it was basically turning into a complete disaster. She started out by telling me that my problem was not specific to the foreign teacher (read my insecurity correctly and debunked it), that many Korean teachers, especially new teachers would be having the same problem (reassured me that I was not alone), told me that the students sometimes just behave in difficult ways (shifted some of the blame), and then, and only then, did she say, would you like for me to give you some suggestions? You know I am always here for you and even though I'm not perfect, maybe there are some things that I can help you with (phrased her correction as sympathy and coming from a place of caring).

Good, right?

Now. Recently, Head Teacher has sailed into our office and started making some waves. As a result, I've had the chance to watch my other old co teacher, who shares our office with us, apply face saving with her on almost a daily basis. Head Teacher is older and also the head teacher, so my old co teacher has to deal with her a little carefully. My noonchi has improved a lot since I moved to Korea, and I'm now able to pick up on the palpable tension that starts to fill the room when someone is going to have to be contradicted. 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.

Now. Where I'm shit at (or don't give a shit about) saving face is that I know it bothers Head Teacher when I ask my old co teachers about something before I will ask her, but I do it anyway. Partially to annoy her, but mostly because I don't really trust her answers, and it's happened enough times where she will jump in and give an answer, only to put my old co in the difficult position of having to either let me take a wrong answer as truth, or contradict Head Teacher in front of me (a subordinate). I would rather not put my old co in that position, to be honest, most of the time, but this was a timely issue, and it was nearing the end of the day. 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.

It's probably not the best example. I would say the example with me and my other old co teacher is a better one. But that's what I have for you now. I guess I'll try to keep making posts about saving face whenever I encounter it. It's definitely one of those things I come to appreciate more, the more I understand it. But I'm not fully there yet. And the truth is, truly excellent face saving is very difficult to comment on. Because, ideally, you shouldn't even notice it. I'm getting a little better at it every day, though. I hope.

Ask me anything


The Korean said...

Excellent post, this one. I will link to it if you don't mind.

Anonymous said...

I would definitely love to hear more examples of this! Your old co is awesome ^_^

I'm no Picasso said...

Don't mind at all TK. And as someone who is pretty nervous in general about my understanding of saving face, I'll take that as a huge compliment.

Saharial.... I'll try. And yes she really is. Both of them are.

Jeffrey said...

I learned from a couple of my students that they play a 눈치 game, during their breaks between classes. A student calls out "1!" and only one student can stand up. If two or more stand up then they are out. The game continues until all the students are either in or out. The game hones your 눈치 by forcing you to perceive others' actions/thoughts beforehand. They suggested that I try it with my foreign friends. I suspect that it will make a fantastic drinking game.