Saving Face

Stories from Honduras Continue...

I think you will all agree that what you see is not always the way things are. In our personal lives, we smile and laugh even when we are sad and rotten inside. We say “yes” sometimes when we mean “no.” We avoid embarrassment and protect our own. So why would we think this doesn’t happen in other countries and other cultures? The truth is that it does, and oftentimes much more profoundly.

“Saving face” is a large part of Latin culture. Most Hondurans would rather bend the truth than tell an embarrassing truth about a family member or friend. One would rather lie than say how they really feel if it would oppose, or worse, disappoint or disrespect someone else in a face-to-face conversation. This leads to incredibly-dedicated, loyal friendships and family groups and alarmingly-polite interpersonal reactions with a new person. However, a sad part of this cultural phenomenon is that if we asked anyone in our community to lie for us, I know they would. Without a second thought. In general, politeness and peaceful appearances are valued over truthful and frank interactions. However, these nobly-told untruths that start with the intention to protect or avoid embarrassment can and do lead to a lifetime of hiding secrets. People go to the grave with things that they could have let go. Each culture has its priorities and its corresponding inherent weaknesses. Our US culture's predilection for direct, honest conversation means that we often disrespect, offend, or fail to share truth in love to those around us. A highly-communal culture such as that of Honduras tends to value loyalty, politeness, and respect in interpersonal relationships. This creates powerful family and friendship bonds but weakens respect for truth and transparency.

Image adapted from When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert..

Each culture creates its own issues and environments where deep-seated bondage can take a chair. So what happens in a face-saving culture like this when someone comes in who knows how to exploit that cultural characteristic? 

Oppression. Lies, secrets, and confusion abound. 

These dynamics tend to become exaggerated depending on the perceived power dynamic. A humble, rural community will respond with respect towards any unknown person, but with even greater politeness towards a visiting national politician, perceived leader, or someone with a higher level of power or education, and a foreign visitor. Should any of these people desire to take advantage of a people's politeness, humility, or ignorance, the fruit is ripe for the plucking. When a government takes advantage of this phenomenon, an entire country falls prey to itself as the talons of corruption and social dissonance sink in. When a well-meaning international visitor arrives, a different dynamic occurs.

North American group visits. Smiles, laughs, language misunderstandings, inside jokes, short stories or testimonies are shared, heart-strings are pulled, and long-distant, short-term, non-verbal relationships are formed. The local pastor enthusiastically and charismatically preaches, songs are sung, prayers prayed, and a large offering given. North American group leaves.

That same night, some of the people that were lifting their hands, closing their eyes, and “worshiping” are selling alcohol illegally out of their home, enabling the drunken, violent issues of the village. Screams of vulgarities at young children are echo from the homes of some church attendees. The offering that was given is never seen again, no account ever given for its use from the pastor. The only “leadership” in the church are a few young girls with whom the pastor is having inappropriate relationships with.

We have lived this sad reality.

As we have touched on in previous posts, these cross-cultural interactions are often not everything they seem to be. Many times North Americans confide the answers provided by members of face-saving cultures as the explicit truth. However, the explicit truth may be that yes means yes, yes means maybe, or even that yes means no. When cultural priority is placed on respect and politeness in conversation, the "facts" become the variables, not the tone of conversation. On the flip side, for most of us Westerners, the "facts" are the only constant in the equation with acceptable variations of respect and politeness.

It is critical for us to understand this dynamic in order to have meaningful interactions with our brothers and sisters from more collectivist cultures. Our temptation and tendency in this cross-cultural interactions is either to believe everything that is being said or to become very frustrated with answers that are clearly untrue. However, there is a middle ground. We as North Americans must learn to create polite, respectful conversations and environments where truth-sharing can happen - even if it is uncomfortable. Our Honduran brothers and sisters may need some encouragement, but it is important that they to feel the opportunity to share their truth without feeling like they are disappointing or disrespecting us, just as it is important for us to avoid inadvertently offending them with our frankness.  This can not happen in a week or even in a year.  This takes time, relationship development, building trust, and patience on both sides. 

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