Saving face is a uniquely Asian concept. It’s also an incredibly expensive one, especially in Singapore. Why are we willing to pay so much to “save face”?
A close friend of mine is getting married next year. It’s an event I’m genuinely looking forward to and I’m ecstatic for him and his fiancée.
A few months ago, over dinner, I casually asked about the progress of their wedding preparations and the costs they’ve incurred. The latter was an issue of keen importance to me because my friend was in between jobs and wasn’t doing particularly well financially at that time. He said that they had booked 29 tables, each costing S$1,300.
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I was a bit taken aback due to the sheer number of tables as well as the money they would be spending, an amount I knew would make quite a significant dent in their bank accounts. When I asked him about this, he said that he had to because he wanted to save his family’s “face”.
A Brief History of Saving Face
The cultural concept of saving face has been around for a long time and is predominant in Chinese-dominated countries. The Chinese has, for more than 4,000 years, downplayed individualism and promoted the concept of family and group-based thinking. Consequently, the culture of collectivism meant that bringing honour to your clan or group was more important than your own personal well-being. It was all about avoiding shame and ensuring that your family’s name wouldn’t be smeared in mud.
The Western face, broadly speaking, is more self-oriented while the Chinese face is directed outwards. The West celebrates individualism and achievement while the East endorses humility and groupthink.
Saving Face is Expensive, and Stupid
In today’s era, how we are perceived or seen by others, especially among your gossiping relatives and friends, plays a significant influence on our behaviour and the decisions we make. Sometimes, it even takes precedence over our own happiness and we are willing to spend quite a bit just to ensure that we don’t look bad to other people.
We lament to the people around us whenever we receive the “red bomb”, or a Chinese wedding invitation, but we still choose to go because the thought of losing our face is more sacrilegious to us than the body blow to our finances. (You’ll still hear us complaining about the red packet we have to give though.)
We plan a grand wedding and fill our invite list with reluctant people who would rather be at home watching a rerun of Mata Mata than watch the union of two lovebirds they barely care about. We hold the grand wedding and invite them anyway because the very same reluctant guests would talk behind our backs if we decide to cut corners or if we cut them from the list. The thought of losing our face is more sacrilegious to us than the uppercut we would suffer to our finances. We justify the debt we get into by saying that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event. Is it worth the lifetime debt though?
We buy a car in Singapore because we kid ourselves that we need it for convenience when it’s really about the prestige and status attached to owning those four wheels. Then, we hunt for free parking spaces, surreptitiously reuse our parking coupons, and wake up at 6 am and leave the office at 9 pm to save a couple of dollars on ERP charges. Convenience has become a demanding mistress. Meanwhile, the group president of our sovereign wealth fund GIC Lim Siong Guan takes the train.
Our face saving ventures aren’t just limited to big-ticket purchases or huge social events. Consider the everyday decisions such as deciding on an eating place for lunch with your colleagues. The restaurant that everyone wants to venture into might be a bit out of your budget but you follow along anyway because of social pressure and face preservation.
The Financial Consequences of Saving Face
The fact that there is even a website dedicated to wedding ang bao rates demonstrates the amount of effort we put in to save our face and preserve our honour. Assuming we go to four weddings a year and stuff an average of S$150 into our red packets, that’s S$600 annually.
The average cost of a typical face-saving banquet wedding in Singapore would probably be around S$1,500 per table including extraneous costs. Since you need to invite all your relatives, you’ll need 30 tables. That would add up to S$45,000. If you managed to recoup half of your costs (and this is a big if), you’re still spending more than S$22,000 on something that could have been better spent on an appreciating asset such as your house.
Over a lifetime, the financial implications of saving face would probably be in high regions of five digits and perhaps reaching even the low six digits. That’s a lot of money taken out of your retirement plans for the idea of satisfying a few people, who may or may not even care about you.
The next time you’re grappling with a decision that involves saving face or saving money, always ask yourself this: will the face I’ve saved throughout my life help me out when the banks or creditors come knocking?
Ironically, when these financial folks come to your door, all the face you’ve saved will come to naught.
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