The Art of Being Socially Awkward: Let’s save some face.

My sister has been struggling with mono lately, which has hindered her ability to go to class, eat, drink, and generally functions like a normal human being.  As such, we’ve spent a lot of time talking on Skype about a variety of topics: anime, drawing, writing, and developing careers, to name a few.  One particular conversation addressed something that had been bothering her recently.  She is a frequent poster at a site where people just talk about their daily lives, ask questions, and share media with the community.  Well, it seems there is a person who regularly posted about how much she loved this guy, and how amazing and perfect he was.  Then suddenly, she stopped talking to him.  Said school took up too much time.  Said whatever, she was just ending it.  My sister’s problem with this arose because the poster claimed she didn’t want to confront the poor guy and tell him why she wasn’t responding to his calls or emails.  Basically, her view was, “Why won’t he stop pestering me? I’m not responding, so obviously it’s over… why doesn’t he get it?”

My sister’s been through quite a bit in terms of rough break-ups; naturally, she felt for the guy in this situation.  She asked me what I thought of it.  Granted, I don’t know either of the people in real life and I can only glean details from the posts on the site, but I said I would attempt to articulate my thoughts on it.  It’s actually a pretty common phenomenon in any culture.

I’d say what is going on fits perfectly into the act of “saving face.”  From the sociolinguistic standpoint, saving face pretty much means to “avoid being disgraced or humiliated.”  As a person, your face represents your persona, your honor, and dignity.  If you fail to maintain face, you then lose it, which results in humiliation and extreme emotional discomfort.  So, to apply this to our situation, we can ask, “Why would someone not want to tell their partner that their relationship was over?” Perhaps your partner would lash out and insult you when you tried to end things; perhaps you know of your guilt in this situation — you know you really should give a proper goodbye — and don’t want to be called on it.  Maybe in the past, you went through a really rough time when someone else dumped you and you think you’re saving them from feeling the same pain.  There could be a number of reasons as to why someone would just stop talking to their significant other, but they all come back to one idea: You want to preserve your integrity and self-worth, while still desiring to be unimpeded by their actions.

Saving face fits into a larger sociological concept, referred to as “Politeness theory.”  The face is further expanded into positive face and negative face.  Much like in psychology, the terms positive and negative don’t share a traditional definition with the more casual usage of the words.  Instead, here positive face refers to your desire to have your interactant approve of the face you’re displaying, and you strive to present a consistent self-image or personality.  Negative face then represents your desire to your personal territory and preferences, and your right to have freedom of choice in your actions without imposition.  In many conversations, someone will threaten your positive or negative face, and consequently there are politeness mechanisms that can be invoked to mitigate the damage to either face.

Now, our subject is avoiding confrontation altogether.  She’s not even engaging in a conversation, so she won’t have to defend herself, or so she won’t have to deal with any fallout from her actions.  Instead, she’s completely ignoring that this conversation should take place, and she’s failing to understand why someone who isn’t even included in her thoughts on the matter is not “getting” why she’s doing this.  One could argue that this is still saving face (most likely negative face) but she’s losing positive face.  She’s definitely not presenting herself in a positive light, and her interactant (or lack thereof) is receiving a very confusing unspoken message that is not consistent with the messages he’s received previously.  So while he’s trying to defend his own ego by eliciting the expected response, which is an official break-up, she’s justifying to herself why she is “allowed” to do things her way: She’s too busy for this crap, she doesn’t have to explain herself, and things will blow over.

“But why does this constitute as being socially awkward, Helly?” You are probably asking (if you’ve even made it this far).

Well, because for every situation that involves the maintaining, loss, or saving of face, there is a required social interaction.  This interaction varies from culture to culture, but there is a socially expected way that people “should” behave when face is challenged.  If someone challenges your face, you defend yourself.  You normally don’t fly off the handle and challenge their face, unless you’re 5 years old:

A: “You’re a stinky doo-doo head!”

B: “Well, YOU’RE a smelly poo-poo butt!”

No, that doesn’t really work for adults.  Instead, you usually try to defend yourself, maybe take a jab at the person if you feel you are being slighted, but you don’t straight up reach for wild accusations of poop and how strongly your interactant smells of it. Instead, the ideal interaction would be to both be mature adults who have a mutual parting and no drama, and perhaps a rebuttal:

A: “I don’t think we should date anymore.  I’m too busy with school and I simply don’t have the time to devote to a relationship. I’m very sorry.”

B: “But I thought what we had was great. Can’t we find some way to work it out? I feel like this is unfair to me.”

A: “No, I’m sorry. I’d rather concentrate on my career right now, and I really don’t think I’d be able to give you the attention you deserve.”

B: “I see. Well, I wish you luck. Goodbye.”

Or something like that. You know, it could be more drawn out and tears would probably be involved.

Here is what has happened to many adults, but is considered socially awkward and generally unacceptable:

A: “I don’t think we should date anymore.  I’m too busy with school and I simply don’t have the time to devote to a relationship. I’m very sorry.”

B: “Seriously, fuck you. You’re the worst thing that ever happened to me and I’m glad this is over.  This was a complete waste of my time and money.  Have a nice life.”

I hope you can easily see the difference. When one person is presenting positive face and trying to amicably end a relationship, they hope that their partner will still see them in a positive light, despite the fact that this situation must be very painful for them.  They hope that their consideration will save them from having to defend themselves and being viewed negatively.  The other party should ideally have a reaction commensurate with the level of politeness and respect they’ve just been shown.  They shouldn’t lash out and overreact and say things they don’t mean; that’s just perceived as terrible and no one really wants to be seen as terrible.

Now what if you eliminate this interaction all together?  And, more importantly, what if you don’t see anything wrong with eliminating this interaction?

That, my friends, is still saving face.  It is not in the socially acceptable spectrum of ways to save face, though, and as a result, most people will not view this as the proper way to react.  To most people, it comes off as immature, harsh, and unnecessary.  Outsiders reading about this want to know that her ex did something to deserve such treatment.  Something commensurate with the punitive way he’s been tossed aside.  But, inferring from her posts, he did absolutely nothing wrong, and was completely blindsided by her actions.  So it strikes a dissonant chord in many readers, particularly if they have experienced something similar.    It smacks of arrogance, immaturity, and lacking in mastery of social skills.  The desire to save face is so strong that we want to right what we perceive as wrong.  And I’m sure that’s why people like my sister wrinkle their noses at this story.


Btw, if you would like to read more about the face and politeness theories, check out authors Erving Goffman and Penelope Brown/Stephen C. Levinson/John Gumperz:

Erving Goffman: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Penelope Brown, Stephen C Levinson, John J Gumperz: Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage


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