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Business Across Cultures: From Face to Shame

Management books for expatriates doing business in Asia talk about the importance of understanding the differences between Western and Asian business cultures. Obviously Indonesia with its mixture of cultures, religions, and languages, overlaid with the enigmatic influence of Java, ranks right at the top of the list of countries with differences.

Perhaps one of the most talked about, but least understood, aspects of doing business in Indonesia is the cultural concept of Loss of Face and the effect that it has on office relationships.

It is one of the most talked about aspects because almost any Western manager working anywhere in Indonesia has at least heard the adage “Beware of causing a loss of face”. Those same managers may not be aware of the equally important Indonesian cultural concepts of Bapakisme and Selamat.

These are two of the least understood aspects because it entails multiple definitions and consequences beyond just embarrassing an employee.

Because the foreign manager needs to understand this concept to consider the consequences of his or her actions, I will look at one loss-of-face critical incident and examine how the parties may perceive and interpret the event.

Jack LeGrand is the V.P.-Operations for a Canadian multi-national in Surabaya. Angered by the actions of one of his senior Indonesian managers, Jack loudly confronts him in the cubicle-filled, common work area of the office.

“Hell, you did it again! You know you have to follow the set company procedures when appointing suppliers. We have talked about this time after time. What is your problem?” He said slapping a folder down on a desk. “If you won't follow the rules, I don't need you here.” This was met by silence on the part of the manager and his office co-workers. The Indonesian manager even seemed to be smugly smiling which made Mr. LeGrand even more frustrated. “This isn't funny. Maybe you should consider how much you like working here.” he said as he left the room in the direction of the President Director's office. The Indonesian manager resigned the next day.

Loss of face is more than simple embarrassment. The concept in Indonesian business culture is called malu. While malu is literally translated as embarrassment or shyness, in the business context it also means loss of face or social shame.

The idea of loss of face is external; it is how one believes others perceive him or her. It is the fear or anxiety that others may think badly of you, do not respect you as much as they did before, and laugh and whisper about you behind your back.

The idea of social shame is internal; it is how one perceives himself or herself. It is the inner feeling that one is ashamed of one's actions and that one really did do something wrong to let the group down.

These two concepts are connected but one does not have to be ashamed to have lost face or visa versa.

In the above situation the Indonesian manager did lose face. He was criticized in front of his fellow workers and may have to endure their ridicule, however short-term, if he continued to work in the office. He may also be ashamed that he actually did make a mistake and let the office down. The combination of loss of face and social shame may have become too much for him to bear and he resigned his position, current economic conditions and short-term job prospects not being overriding considerations.

However, while the loss of face was there for all to see, we do not really know if the Indonesian manager experienced social shame. If he felt that Jack was impolite, rude, or otherwise out of line; if he felt that the problem was outside of his control, he may well not accept personal responsibility. In such a case, while suffering a loss of face, he would not feel he had done anything wrong, and, therefore, experience no social shame.

Also, smiling is a defense mechanism. As discussed in my previous columns, Batin dan Lahir requires presenting an outward sense of calm to others in your group. Being placed in uncomfortable situations often results in a laugh or smile with Indonesians at all levels of society.

Jack LeGrand, though he may not know it, also lost face. He became emotional in front of his subordinates and did not maintain the harmony of the office. He lost respect in the eyes of his co-workers and they will certainly discuss the incident at least in private. However, Jack did not experience social shame. The influence of face and shame being much weaker in the West than in Asia, he doesn't have the cultural references to be ashamed by his actions. The thought would, most probably, never occur to Jack or most other Western managers in Indonesia and it might not be of great concern if it did.

Because international companies operating in Indonesia seldom tolerate non-compliance with their internal guidelines, the question now becomes how problems like the critical incident above should be handled. Western managers need to understand their subordinates on a personal level and adjust responses to the individual involved. However, in general, in Indonesia, a Western manager wants to avoid causing a loss of face while exploiting social shame.

One avoids a loss of face by keeping disciplinary acts behind closed doors-in a private office or in a conference room-not where others can overhear the discussion. This can be difficult in offices that use a common cubical set-up. Bringing an employee to your office or conference room is still obvious; however, the other employees can, by using yet another Indonesian cultural concept, maintain the appearance of office harmony.

In private, speaking in a quite and calm voice meant to be solemn and serious, the Western manager should lay out what was done wrong, how it affected the other people in the office, and what should be done differently in the future. The emphasis being on how it was the employee's fault and how the employee “let down the team”. Causing such a sense of inner guilt may sound harsh, but it seems to be the most effective way to modify behavior among culturally entrenched employees.

Indonesian employees should know that Western managers do not normally enjoy causing anyone pain or embarrassment. If they do, it may simply be the fact that they do not understand the significance of their actions in the Indonesian cultural context.

Western managers need to allow Indonesian employees to keep face. Even in the West we will often allow someone “a way out”- a way to keep his or her self-respect and pride. In Indonesia it is more important because causing a major loss of face can result in consequences ranging from a simple dislike of the expatriate by the work force, to one or more employees resigning, to accusations made to corporate or governmental authorities, to actual violence against the expatriate.

This article was generously contributed by George B. Whitfield, III when he was a Technical Advisor with Executive Orientation Services.