|  September 27, 2011

“Make sure you hold that thing still!” yelled Mrs. D, straining to be heard above the sound of the rain pounding on the car roof. “I don’t want my face to run.”

I repositioned the umbrella over the half open door and watched as she tried to get out of the seventeen year old Hyundai as elegantly as possible whilst wearing a short, black dress and remain under the cylinder of dryness I had created. It was going well until several drops of rain ran down my now exposed neck and made me shiver. The involuntary spasm was amplified up the shaft of the brolly and for a brief but sufficiently catastrophic few seconds, she was exposed to the full fury of the downpour.

It didn’t help when I looked at her sodden hair and panda eyes as her mascara started to run down her cheeks and laughed, which made the umbrella shake more and once again exposed her visage to the elements. A loud peal of thunder made the air vibrate and as she looked in the door mirror that was held on by several metres of duct tape, her expression changed to match the weather.

“You’ve made me lose my face!” she hissed and glared at me in case I wasn’t sure that she was cross.

“No you haven’t, its still there” I said helpfully but couldn’t stop giggling like a schoolgirl at the sight of my beloved looking like a drowned rat which was not helping her mood. I was left to show my face at the party whilst Mrs. D drove the car home and insisted I find a way to save face over her non-appearance.

This was not a problem. A large part of my career had involved understanding the importance of ‘face’ in Asia. I used to pride myself on knowing how to say sorry and the appropriate gestures everywhere we shipped our products. China, Korea, Japan, Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia: when the parts didn’t arrive or didn’t work when they did, there was nobody who could fall on their sword like Daring and allow the customer to always be right and save face. Even if they weren’t. I put it down to a complete lack of ego. And sensitivity says Mrs. D.

I have seen colleagues from western countries come to this region for business and be just as arrogant, aggressive or condescending as they are at home. They are about as effective as someone trying to catch a fart with a butterfly net and simply take to berating everyone and everything rather than trying to understand how to actually work here and get good results.

But the concept of ‘face’ can also be quite limiting. If I am working with a team of people and I say something stupid, I want them to tell me. However, as I am now invariably the senior member in a team (at least in terms of age) then I am shown a deference that is sometimes overwhelmingly frustrating. And I am not talking about avoiding confrontation here either. That is a different topic.

‘Face’ is so ingrained into many regional cultures that bad decisions or stupidity are not challenged because they don’t want someone to lose face. This prevents an inquisitive mind from challenging what is said by someone they are supposed to show respect to and this is a bad thing. It drives structures based on hierarchy and expectation rather than talent. I see this as a major inhibitor in the continued economic development and expansion of the region and there will be a clash between tradition and the need for change and getting the best people in the right positions. On the flip side, as soon as it does, many of the cultural aspects that make the region special will also start to disappear too.

But what do I know? “Nothing,” according to D2, and even less than that according to Mrs. D.

“What did you tell them?” she asked when I got home.

“Oh, I said you were off-your-face on gin and had done a face-plant into a bush of plumeria and were too far gone to put on a brave face,” I replied, perhaps one or two gins putting my in-brain-caution-alarm on mute.

Like a serpent striking its prey, she uncoiled from the sofa and within seconds, she was in my face. I knew that I was about to face the music but there would be no dancing. For a few moments, we stood there, face-to-face, as she evaluated whether I was telling the truth. Who would win the face-off? There was a tension in the air which was only released when I belched. Loudly.

“I’m going to bed,” she said and then after she looked at me asked, “Why the long face?”

“I was hoping we could have a bit of horseplay?” I said optimistically.

“Phil, face the facts. There’s been too much face-time tonight already,” she said.


“And there’s no chance of that either.”