What Makes a ‘Face’: Losing Face, East vs. West

When you hear the term “losing face,” more often than not, you associate it with Eastern cultures. But people of every culture have “face” that they can either lose or save.

Basically, “face” is pride, esteem, and reputation, which is interpreted and determined in different ways, depending on the culture in which you live. Face is, in short, the idea that you must behave or achieve in a certain manner to preserve your image. What makes up your “face” and how to “save” it depends on what your culture values.

Face: East

Tradition is greatly emphasized in Eastern cultures, and face can be had by birth (i.e. if you were born into a family of status or wealth).

Last week, we talked about how collectivist societies tend to value group harmony over individualism. Personal ambition or success is much less important than improving the whole.

This prevents individualist characteristics from being fostered from youth. For instance, I’ve been told by Chinese students that they receive lower marks or fails on essays or exams if they contradict the teacher’s opinion or the culturally accepted opinion, no matter how well argued. For this reason and for similar standards set during primary socialization, you find fewer who will “rock the boat,” so to speak, in collectivist countries than you might in capitalist countries.

Individualism is considered much more radical in places like China. It is not embraced, and those who are unconventional and break the mold are thought to be aggressive. Due to the fact that harmony is of the utmost importance to collectivist cultures, anyone considered disharmonious would lose face under this set of cultural values.

Face: West

Western cultural values lie in individualism and independence. They’re also geared toward innovation and so embrace change more readily over tradition.

And in the West, you must earn your face. It isn’t given to you. Even if you’re born into a wealthy family or a family of status, more often than not, you must prove yourself to establish a face.

To make your face, you must make yourself. And to do so in an individualist culture, you must stand out from the crowd. You can do this through professional/personal success or achievement, status, wealth, etc. And once you obtain a certain level of recognition, whether in your town or nationwide, whether in your company or your industry, you must reassert your voice regularly to maintain face.

What can make a Western person of stature lose face?

Disgrace can. Disgrace paramount to much of what is going on in America right now, with sexual assault and harassment scandals knocking down titans of entertainment, politics, and industry. This is just one of the things that can make a Westerner lose face.

Can Face Be Restored?

Face can be restored only through drastic measures in collectivist cultures. In the East, once one’s reputation has been damaged, it’s nearly impossible to recover. As put by sociologist Marcel Mauss, in such cultures, “to lose one’s face is to lose one’s spirit.” It’s better to avoid such face-destroying conflict, altogether.

In Western cultures, if face is lost, it can be more readily restored. In fact, many cheer comebacks, and the restoration of a good reputation might even be considered inspirational by some.

Whether face is restored or not, the loss of face cuts deep in any culture.

Next week, we’ll continue contrasting Eastern and the Western values by discussing the differences in social power structures and business culture. Stay tuned.

How Cultural Values Inform Communication

You are an individualist. Your goal in life is to succeed on your own. To seek out your fortune, using your own talents, your own mind. Individual achievement is paramount to your self-actualization and identity. You believe you have your own voice. You use it. You speak out, directly and without hesitation.

You are a collectivist. Your goal in life is to succeed as a group. To seek out the fair share for all, utilizing everyone’s talents, with a group mindset. Collective achievement is paramount to the group’s well-being. You believe in group think. You speak when expected to, indirectly and with caution.

There are outliers in any culture but, in general, these are the differences between Eastern and Western communication. And it all comes back to the values that inform our behaviors.

What Drives Western Cultures?

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” – George Washington

Capitalism and freedom are often the driving factors behind Western cultures. Democracy, free speech, individualism – these values inform the West’s cultural behaviors.

Communication in the West, for instance, is direct, clear, and concrete. There’s nothing ambiguous about it; no beating around the bush or mincing of words. The meaning of speech isn’t often lost in a sea of vague undertones or unspoken “understandings.” Nothing is implied or inferred when it comes to business communication. Both parties are taken at their word.

To put it simply, the cards are on the table.

What Drives Eastern Cultures?

“If what one has to say is not better than silence, then one should keep silent.” – Confucius

Collectivism (and in some cases, communism) and harmony are often the driving factors behind Eastern cultures. These values inform the East’s cultural behaviors.

There’s a don’t-rock-the-boat mentality in some Eastern cultures. So, when it comes to communication, they find the straight-shooting form of communication of Western cultures ill-mannered.

Nonverbal and indirect communication is favored by many Eastern societies. This is because the group’s entire harmony, as opposed to individualism, is valued.

But this harmony may only play out in words, not necessarily in actions.

For instance, in Chinese culture, a colleague may tell you he’ll have his work in by a certain deadline, but then fail to do so. He may not even have intended to meet this deadline when he claimed he would.

While this might seem to Westerners a form of deceit, it’s more often done to maintain a surface level of harmony than to lie. Others in the culture would understand that their colleagues’ actions wouldn’t necessarily align with their words. This is accepted.

The fact is, the culture knows itself. A direct “no, I can’t get you that by deadline” upsets the balance – an unharmonious response that would make one “lose face.” And so, whether the colleague will keep his word isn’t the issue; the surface harmony is. Therefore, inconsistency is anticipated and accepted by all, so that the relationship is preserved.

East vs. West Communication

If communication was a body of water, then the Eastern sea would be a glassy surface with plenty of disturbances below, whereas thousands, millions of raindrops would make their mark on the surface of the Western sea, with some waves, and even maybe a hurricane or two.

Either way, when the two styles mix, both sides can be frustrated with the differences in communication styles. Some may even “lose face,” which we’ll talk about next week.

Values: What Are They & How Do They Shape Culture?

You often hear various groups and cultures talk about their “values.”

But what are values, really?

Are they only ideals? How are they put into practice?

Values are practiced ideals; they’re principles or standards to live by. In a culture, they distinguish between what is important or unimportant. What is worth fighting for and what is not. What is good and what is evil and, correspondingly, who is good and who is evil.

Values are a culture’s unwritten rule of law. In fact, sometimes, a culture’s values influence the nation’s written laws.

Swiss Values

Let’s take a look at Swiss values, for example.

According to ediplomat, “The Swiss value cleanliness, honesty, (and) hard work…They value sobriety, thrift, tolerance, punctuality and a sense of responsibility.”

Swiss values also include environmentalism, freedom, orderliness, neutrality, and world peace. We’re also savers and are proud of the material wealth that accompanies economic responsibility.

You can see these values come to life in our culture. In the way we dress, the way we behave, the way we live.

Walk down any street in Geneva, and you’ll notice several things: gorgeous greenery, an absence of litter, Swiss people dressed clean and neat and, yes, plenty of wealth.

You can also see these values in our policies and politics.

The Swiss unadjusted unemployment rate rarely exceeds 4% and dropped to 3% in June of 2017, which is less than the average 4-12% unemployment in other developed countries. This may be partially attributed to our values of hard work and our sense of responsibility.

Being a neutral nation, we’re also not a member state of NATO. We are, however, members of the Partnership for Peace, which cooperates with NATO on crisis-management training and operations, as well as humanitarian missions.

This is how cultural values are made manifest: putting into practice the ideals that are most important to you and your broader culture.

Swiss Values-turned-Laws

You can see Swiss values represented in written law, as well.

Take jaywalking, for example.

In many countries around the world, a slap on the wrist is the most you’ll get for jaywalking. In fact, in most places, you won’t even get that – it’s acceptable to cross the street wherever and whenever you choose.

But, in Switzerland, our values of orderliness, sobriety and our sense of responsibility come into play yet again. Jaywalkers are disturbing the order of things and aren’t taking the risk of potential pedestrian fatality seriously. Therefore, jaywalkers are fined on the spot by police if caught in the act.

This is just one of many written laws and unwritten norms that exemplify our values in Switzerland. Next week, we’ll talk about the difference between individualist and collectivist cultures and where their values diverge.

The Cult of Company Culture

Last week, we talked about how national cultures can be divided into regional cultures and subcultures. This goes a step further.

Companies have their own culture, as well.

That’s because whenever people are grouped together, they build a culture. And the way that companies build is often with this cultish veneration of shared ideals – ideals they wish each and every one of their employees to hold true.

Company culture has become a selling point for employment. When Starbucks or Tesla is hoping to hire the best, they must promise a thriving ecosystem to work within…an ecosystem with plenty of incentives and inclusivity.

Here’s a look at how some companies got it right, and where others have got it wrong.

Popular Company Cultures

Google famously treats its employees to an “adult playground,” with perks like gyms, swimming pools, video games, nap pods, free haircuts, on-site physicians. You name it.

This has driven Google’s success, encouraging employees to be more creative, productive and to think outside the box.

Netflix, as well, is famous for its company culture manifesto. They’re known for inclusivity and are averse to the so-called “brilliant jerk” that you might identify with Silicon Valley.

In fact, they only retain those who pass a “keeper test” – that is, managers choose whether or not they’d fight to keep their respective employees, and if they wouldn’t, they’re let go. This way, their culture is cultivating only the best of the best.

Netflix’s primary aim is to motivate its workers, as is shown in its most recent culture doc, which closes with this stanza by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

If you want to build a ship,

don’t drum up the people

to gather wood, divide the

work, and give orders.


Instead, teach them to yearn

for the vast and endless sea.

Pretty inspiring stuff, right?

Unpopular Company Cultures

Like Google or Netflix, you can build up your employees through incentives, inspiration, and inclusivity…or, like Uber, you can build a toxic company culture through ineffective human resources, vague company values, and company crisis after company crisis.

Uber’s company culture has been described as “aggressive” and “unrestrained.” In this past year, sexual discrimination and harassment led to an internal crisis that has played out in the media.

However, with new leadership on board, the company’s values are changing, as is Uber’s ability to surface problems more quickly. The company can still evolve its culture, turn it around, and build something that its employees are proud to build with them.

Company Culture -> National Culture

As with company cultures, values can either be promoted or condemned by national culture. Management is the driving force in actively shaping their company culture’s values, and a nation’s leaders – politicians, scientists, writers, artists, actors, business leaders, or other influential peoples – shape ours.

Next week, we’ll talk about these values, how they are formed, and what they mean to you.

Cultures & Subcultures: Where Do You Belong?

What is culture?

We’ve discussed the definition of culture in previous posts, and the history of this definition.

To sum up: Culture is the shared values and norms of a group of people which result in characteristic behaviors.

But, wait…

If culture involves characteristic behaviors of a group of people, must the word encompass an entire nation? Must all of Mexico, all of Brazil, all of Russia, all of Australia be colored with the same shade of culture?

No. Absolutely not.

Although we implicitly assume that culture involves national identity, this is an oversimplification. Every country in the world is divided into dozens of subcultures and regional cultures.


According to Kimberly Moffitt, a teacher of Sociology and Criminal Justice, “Subcultures are those groups that have values and norms that are distinct from those held by the majority.”


Punks. Hipsters. The Beats. Cosplayers. Hippies. Goths. Nerds. Emos. Gamers. Hackers. Jocks. Even Third Culture Kids, like me.

The examples are endless. And each group shares its own set of values and norms, resulting in extreme diversity across a single nation.

Regional Cultures

Moreover, visit any country in the world, and you’re sure to find regional cultures, as well.

Take America, for example.

“Biscuits and grits, y’all.”

Southern culture is unique. Southerners in America eat differently, speak differently, and dress differently than those on the East or West Coast or even the Midwest.

“The way I talk is, like, way important.”

Head to California, and you might find this so-called “Valleyspeak.” But you’re unlikely to find it anywhere else in America, because upspeak is not unilaterally culturally ingrained.

Regional cultures only narrow further. Put the Big Apple under a microscope, and you’ll find a different culture in the Bronx than you’ll find in Manhattan, a different culture in Soho than you’ll find in Harlem or Brooklyn.

Regional cultures are prevalent all over your nation, all over my nation, all over the world. It’s no wonder national politics can be so discordant: diversity explodes within the 304.6 mi² of New York City, so imagine how varied shared values must be across the national scale of 3.797 million mi².

Grouping = Culture

Whenever people are grouped together, they build a culture, in one way or another. Whether a national culture, a regional culture, a subculture based on specific likes/dislikes, or a company culture, which we’ll talk about next week, each grouping shares a set of values and norms specific to itself.

Whatever the case, being part of a culture makes you feel as though you belong to something bigger than yourself.

A Personality that Thrives in Any Culture

Would stereotypical Japanese politeness go over well in Spain?

Would a boisterous Brit prosper in the Middle East?

Would a Chinese tourist breaking the queue find his place in Germany?

To all of the above: probably not.

Last week, we talked about how culture connects the dots between human kind and individual personality. This week, we’ll talk about how certain personalities thrive better in certain cultures than others.

The German African

According to Sarah Mae Sincero of Explorable, “People who are born and bred in the same culture share common personality traits.”

While this is true, much like anything, it’s not black-and-white.

One German friend of mine lived in Accra, Ghana for a while. He joked that he’d found someone more German than himself in Africa. His African maid always arrived punctually, polished the house until it shined, and arranged his pots and pans so orderly that “they stood aligned like a Prussian army division.”

While this particular woman stood out in her own culture as somewhat odd, she would have fit perfectly into German society.


The point is, culture does not determine personality completely, but it does impact the personalities and character traits generally found in a culture. Unlike our genes, our culturally-learned behaviors can change, be rejected, forgotten, or un-learned. So, while someone with brown eyes will always have brown eyes, individual personality can vary and adapt.

That doesn’t mean odd personalities and behaviors are acceptable to all cultural groups. They must generally fit within the confines of what is culturally acceptable. But it does mean that you might get the odd duck amongst all the gaggling geese.


We each choose whether or not to fit into our own culture. This means we can choose whether or not to fit into another’s.

As individuals, we decide for ourselves which behaviors to adopt and which to reject. We decide what is important to us.

Many Germans choose to be orderly; some don’t. Many Swiss choose to be punctual; others don’t. Many Americans choose to be outgoing; a handful aren’t.

No culture is one shade of grey.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t cultural norms and that some personalities don’t thrive better in certain cultures than others.

So which personality thrives best?


As you’ve probably guessed, the preferred personality and character traits differ across cultures.

Take Switzerland, for example.

It is true that Swiss culture promotes punctuality. In fact, one survey showed that it was ranked the most important value to Swiss people. Trains run on time in Switzerland, and it’s disrespectful to be late to a meeting. Someone who is constantly running late is considered unreliable. Switzerland is known for dominating watchmaking, and so it only makes sense that punctuality and time are respected in this small country. Most Swiss people accept the norm and adapt to it.

So, if your personality is punctual, as well, you would thrive better in Switzerland than someone who is constantly late.

What we are able to say about the Swiss then is that they are “generally punctual.” But we can’t say, “This man is Swiss, so he must be punctual.” A culture is not assessed in totality, because individual personalities make up the culture, so it is important not to judge an individual based on their culture or a culture based on the individual.

In the end, you may luck out in that your personality is gels with the culture into which you plan to integrate. However, if it doesn’t, the most important personality trait to adopt would be adaptability, as those who thrive best in ANY culture are adaptable and not cemented in one’s own cultural tradition.

Human Nature -> Culture -> Personality: Connecting the Dots

It’s fair to say that every living being reading this post and thinking about it has one thing in common: our shared genetic heritage. We are all human.

Human Nature

What makes us human?

When we get down to the nitty gritty, our species survival needs are the same in every corner of the world: food, water, shelter, and nurturing.

Nurturing is, on a very human level, the need to grieve loss, to love and be loved. These things are human nature. This is our common genetic heritage.


What makes us, us?

Our shared needs make us part of the human species, but what makes us our individual selves?

Out of 8 billion + people on this Earth in this moment, we are all unique, and this is due to our personalities and character traits. Personalities and character traits are partly genetic, party acquired.

And what are they acquired from?

Say it with me now: culture.

Of course, culture shouldn’t be given all the credit for our individual uniqueness, but it should most certainly be given some. What we grow up around and surround ourselves with can’t help but influence our frames of interpretation, our characters, and our outlooks on life.


What makes our culture?

This is a bit of a “what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg” scenario: Do we create our culture or does our culture create us?

As with most things, it’s a little bit of both.

Our cultures create us, and we create our culture. We propagate our traditions, our customs, our norms, and we also evolve them, sprouting new branches off our cultural tree.

Unlike our personalities and human nature, however, culture is purely acquired. It is learned; it’s not genetic.

Culture, therefore, serves as the layer between the individual and humanity. It’s the acquired human element, without any genetic input, that groups of individuals are bound by.

Learned behaviors, learned frameworks of interpretation, learned means of communication – these are the things that make social life possible. A common culture makes communication and understanding easier, not only through a shared language, but through the understanding of one’s shared culture.

Family structures, morals, values, fashion, language, behaviors: these are all learned. They are all cultural elements. And they’re what connect the dots between human nature and individual personality.

Next week, we’ll talk about how certain personalities thrive better in different cultures.


History Talks “Culture”

We’ve talked a lot about how culture shapes our world. Our identities. Our beliefs. Our frames of interpretation.

But what, exactly, is “culture”?

The word originates from the Latin, “colere,” meaning “to cultivate.”

When the word, “colere,” was first used, it was reserved for crop-growing and farming. I’m sure you can already see a correlation between cultivating crops and cultivating people.

We cultivate our crops, nurture them, and help them develop. We cultivate our in-group, nurture them, and help them develop too.

With time, this is what culture came to mean.

Cultura Animi

Knowing the word, “colere,” and its meaning in the crop-growing sense, Cicero, the Roman orator, used the term for the first time in another context: “cultura animi” – “the cultivation of the soul.”

This metaphorical use of the word referred to philosophy. In using the term in this fashion, little did Cicero know, he would be evolving the word’s definition to its modern day meaning.


In the 17th century, the term, “cultured,” came into vogue again, but this time, it was used by European savants to describe refinement and education.

“Boy, they read nothing but classics…aren’t they cultured?”

Again, Cicero drew a metaphorical line from agricultural cultivation to individual cultivation, while this new definition drew a line to societal cultivation.

Way of Life

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the word took on its present-day meaning: the shared commonalities of a group. Most often, in the early usage, national ideals and aspirations were in mind, while, later, anthropology focused the definition as a group’s distinctive way of life.

Edward Tylor, famed 19th century anthropologist, described it in his work, “Primitive Culture”: “Culture or Civilization…is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

This stands as culture’s first formal definition, and you’ll notice Tylor mentioned that culture is “acquired.” It is not inherited; it is learned through socialization.

Shared Patterns

CARLA (the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition) defines culture further as “the shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs, and affective understanding that are learned through a process of socialization. These shared patterns identify the members of a culture group while also distinguishing those of another group.”

This is probably the most refined definition of culture, and it is the one we will refer to in our discussion next week on human nature.

How Cultural Frameworks Impact Negotiations

“It is very obvious that we are not influenced by facts, but by our interpretation of the facts,” Alfred Adler, the famous psychologist and founder of the School of Individual Psychology, once said.

What builds the framework for this interpretation of facts?

Our culture.

Although differing frameworks of interpretation can sometimes result in humor – like when you’re traveling in a foreign country, and you make an innocent flub – they can also cause serious interpersonal and financial consequences in business.

Take, for instance, the negotiations between two managers: one Russian, one Swiss.

Swiss Framework

Two managers – one Swiss, one Russian – are discussing the plans for a collaborative project. And things aren’t going so well.

The Swiss value the long-term relationship. They like calm problem-solving, nonconfrontational discourse; they appreciate compromise in negotiations. This is seen in every level of Swiss society, from business to politics. Switzerland has one of the only governments who employs ministers from all major parties.

This is why the Swiss preference in negotiations is the win-win strategy. They believe in compromise and goodwill in business. If they demonstrate to their partners that they are willing to compromise in the beginning, they are projecting a promising future cooperation and long-term success in the partnership.

Thus, the Swiss manager offers the Russian concessions in the early stages of their negotiations.

Russian Framework

Russians oppose the win-win strategy. In some ways, they see both sides winning as a loss, because they always want to come out on top. Confrontation shows strength and power, in their minds.

Therefore, confrontational and uncompromising discourse is what drives Russian conflict resolution – and the resolution is that the winner takes all. If their opponent concedes at all, this is seen as a sign of weakness, not one of goodwill.

Hint: if you concede early on with the idea that your Russian counterpart will work with you, you shouldn’t expect your concessions to be reciprocated.

Swiss vs. Russian Framework

Watch as the Swiss manager, in alignment with his cultural norm, offers a concession at the beginning of the negotiation, expecting the Russian manager to understand the gesture as one of goodwill.

What do you think the Russian response will be?

The Russian will take this concession and give nothing back. He will probably believe his Swiss partner is in a weak negotiating position or is just plain weak, altogether.

Instead of crediting the Swiss manager for the offer of goodwill, he credits himself for his tough negotiating strategy. He believes he “won.”

Without any concessions being returned to him, the Swiss manager is now in a weakened position. He might reconsider the project and the partnership. And, thus, the business partnership falls apart.

This is what bad cross-cultural management looks like. Next week, we’ll talk the alternative.

Data vs. Information


When you see this number, what do you think of?

If you’re an American citizen, you might think of the emergency contact number. Or, you might think of 9/11, the date of the World Trade Center attacks in 2001.

If you’re a Porsche fan, you might think of the famous 911 sports car.

And if you’re an IT-specialist, without context, the number 911 is just that – a number: data.

These various correlations are all due to the frame of interpretation through which we view data. And this is one reason why, in a multi-cultural environment, you should never assume that facts will be unanimously interpreted.

Data vs. Information

IT-specialists differentiate between data and information. Numbers, without context, are data. Apart from numerical value, they are insignificant.

Without context, 911 is just a number. To turn it into information, you must provide the context. Otherwise, our varied cultural frames of interpretation can cause crossed wires in communication, misunderstandings, or simply no understanding at all.

“911 is the emergency contact number in the US.”

This provides the data context, making it information – and important information, at that, for anyone in need of assistance while living or traveling in America.

But without the transition to information via context, the same data can become information of various other types (an emergency number, a Porsche, the anniversary of a terrorist attack), based entirely upon the context of our life experience.

A Framework

Shake your head left to right in Sri Lanka, and you are in agreement. This is often called “the waggle.” In the West, the same gesture means you’re disagreeing.

Give a thumbs up in the West, and you are showing approval. In Bangladesh, the same gesture is an insult.

The V sign – otherwise known as the “peace” sign – was adopted by American activists during the Vietnam War to promote peace. But if you go to South Africa, Australia, or the UK, flash the “peace sign” with the back of your hand toward someone, and this, too, is an insult.

This is what culture provides us: a framework to interpret daily facts, turning data – and all else, even our gestures and body language – into information. These different frameworks are why our interpretations and world views vary so greatly across cultures.

Depending upon your cultural framework, you may understand the same data, or even the same gesture, differently than your cross-cultural counterpart.

A Framework Exercise

An exercise that I’ve developed for my students highlights how we can interpret one piece of data differently.

I provide a piece of paper to half the class with the numbers 12, 13, and 14.

I provide the other half of the class a piece of paper with the letters A, B, and C.


When the class is asked what the middle figure is, half of them see a B, while the other half sees the number 13.

This, of course, is because our frame of reference determines how we interpret the data around us – the frames, in this case, being B & C versus 12 & 14. This demonstrates how a single piece of data can churn out multiple interpretations, depending on the frame from which it is viewed.