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Business Across Cultures: Loss of Face

Management books on doing business in Asia often talk about the loss of face and the effect that it has on business and personal relationships. It is true that preserving and losing face are serious concerns for Indonesian employees. The foreign manager needs to understand this and consider the consequences of his actions. Lets look at a loss of face situation in the office and examine how the parties perceive the event.

Jean LeGrand is the production supervisor for a French multinational in Jakarta. Angered by the actions of one of his senior managers, Jean confronts him in front of the other office workers. “You have to understand and follow the procedure that I have laid out. If you can't follow the rules, I'll find someone who can,” he said. This was meet by silence on the part of the manager and his office workers. There were even some smiles and giggles 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. The manager resigned the next day.

The concept of face is external. It is how you believe others perceive you. It is the fear that others will think badly of you, will not respect you, will laugh and whisper about you behind your back. If someone loses face in the office, he may also become malu. Malu means social shame, the inner feeling that one is ashamed of their actions, that they did something wrong. These may be connected, but one does not have to be ashamed to have lost face.

In the above situation the manager did lose face. He was criticized in front of his fellow workers and may have to endure their ridicule if he continues to work in this office. He may also be malu; that is 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.

Jean LeGrand, though he may not know it, also lost face. He showed anger in front of his subordinates. He did not maintain the harmony of the office and became emotional. He lost some respect in the eyes of his coworkers and they will certainly discuss the incident in private.

However, Jean did not experience social shame. The ideas of face and malu being much stronger in Asia than in the West, he doesn't have the cultural reference to be ashamed by his actions. The thought would, most probably, never occur to Jean and if it did, it might not be of great concern.

It is important to allow employees to keep face. Even in the West we will allow a guy a way out or a way to keep his self-respect and pride. Here it is more important because loss of face can occur in situations where the foreign manager would never imagine. This is an important point for Indonesian employees to remember: western managers normally do not enjoy causing someone pain or loss of face. It is simply that they do not understand the significance of their actions in the Indonesian cultural context.

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