The Concept of Saving Face in a Malaysian Cultural Context

As with many Asian countries, Malaysia is known to be a face saving culture. Although the term is not commonly used in everyday conversations among Malaysians, the concept is deeply ingrained in our cultural makeup and affects everything that we do. To save face means to preserve one’s reputation, credibility or dignity and this is often achieved by avoiding actions or situations that may result in shame or embarrassment. While this allows us to maintain harmonious relationships most of the time, it also lends to the internal struggles Malaysians may often experience in what would otherwise be an insignificant situation to those who come from more direct countries.

Face Saving

The desire to save face is so strong that Malaysians are often hesitant to speak up in front of those deemed to be superior or with higher authority, even when it’s in their interest to do so. Every few months or so, my big boss from Singapore would visit our Malaysian office and schedule an informal catch up session with our team. This was the perfect avenue to voice any grievances or suggestions. However, without fail, each session would begin with awkward silence as everyone looks to the most senior in the team to start the ball rolling. We may desperately want to say that we’re overworked and understaffed but the fear of being perceived as a complainer or being ungrateful trumps any attempt to give an honest feedback.

At other times, this can escalate into situations that breed dishonesty. So focused are we on projecting a competent and respectable image of ourselves at work that when these values are threatened, we automatically shift into face-saving mode even if it involves some deception. I once had a colleague who would confidently agree whenever I asked if she understood what had just been taught to her, but later produce results that showed the exact opposite. It is also not uncommon for one to tell a white lie to cover up for a colleague’s absence or sloppy work so as to preserve that friend’s reputation at work.

Additionally, our face saving culture is also the reason why Malaysians may be reluctant to ask for help. Requesting for assistance may be perceived as a sign of weakness/incompetency on our part or can cause inconvenience to others as it takes up their time and resources. This often results in Malaysians asking for help at the last possible minute after exhausting all options on their own and the request would usually be made in an apologetic and meek manner (e.g. “Very sorry boss, but can you kindly help me with this?”)

As shown from the examples above, our strong internal need to save face often means that our actions do not always represent how we truly feel at heart. Such disparities can intensify when we’re among people who come from culturally diverse backgrounds such as at the workplace. Our cross-cultural training programs and bi-monthly blogs provide various examples of such scenarios, addressing the root causes of Malaysian behaviour and communication styles as well as best practices to overcome potential communication barriers.

By:  Boleh Blogger