To lose face means to become embarrassed or to feel that your standing has been diminished. Unfortunately, if we are not sensitive enough in our interactions with other people, we can easily unintentionally make them lose face – for example, by implying a criticism of them. In some cases this can lead you an aggressive reaction. This is because, if people are faced with a choice between losing face and reacting strongly, many will choose the latter. Indeed, feeling diminished or humiliated is a common cause of aggressive or even violent reactions. We therefore need to make sure that we are skilful enough to avoid contributing to situations where people lose face. Saving face means, on the one hand, not embarrassing ourselves, but also making sure we don’t unwittingly embarrass anyone else. This is partly basic good manners, but it is also about being able to tune in to the situation we find ourselves in and being alert to any potential sources of losing face. For example, in circumstances where someone is, or has been, upset or angry, they are more likely to regard an ill-chosen comment as a slight. This does not mean that we should be ‘walking on eggshells’, but it does mean that we may create problems if we just press on without considering the dangers of causing someone to lose face.
Some people seem to think that an apology is an admission of guilt or even of negligence and are therefore very careful not to utter the word ‘sorry’. This is very unfortunate, as saying sorry can defuse a tense situation, while not saying sorry when an apology could have helped a great deal can inflame a situation quite significantly. But often it isn’t a deliberate strategy to withhold an apology; it’s simply a matter of allowing work pressures to distract us to the extent that we lose sight of basic manners. Our own pressures stop us from seeing the situation from the other person’s point of view and thereby prevent us from taking their feelings into account. A classic example of this is when a complaint is made about something of low to medium importance, evokes an unapologetic response which is interpreted as being ‘fobbed off’, which then leads to a much stronger complaint being made – a deeper hole has been dug, and totally unnecessarily.