The Face in Vietnamese Culture

We Vietnamese have a weird relationship with our face.

It is all about presentation, to project ourselves to anyone with whom we encounter and interact. However, it is not only about ourselves, it is also about the other persons. So, to some extent, we nurture and protect their ‘self’.

I find this concept very interesting because in the context of interdependent culture, that means what is personal is very broad in order to encompass different kinds of relationship. We can find a contradiction here: it also means that we must diminish the self. The face is not only to represent one’s self but also the communities that one comes from. For instance, in terms of parenting, in ‘saving face’ cultures like Vietnamese, parents would care too much for or even discipline their child in front of others.

On one hand, while living in the United States, I rarely saw parents, particularly mothers, running after their child just too feed him or her in the public. They don’t have to ensure their child actually eat all of the foods they have prepared previously, neither. However, in Vietnam, a kid who does not eat is because of the parents. The thought that he or she does not want to eat is not even present.

On the other hands, as far as I see, Vietnamese and other East Asian parents would not hesitate to scold their child anytime and at any place (perhaps not to that extreme but pretty close). So, to scold serves two main purposes:

1. to show the child is still young to know, and

2. to show the parents are disciplinary.

Mất mặt – losing face – is what everyone wants to avoid. Giữ thể diện – keeping face – is what everyone wants to do. One of my Google Search of the word shows any woman must know how to keep face for her husband to maintain their marriage. Yet I haven’t encountered the otherwise yet.

In a 2007 study, Pham Thi Hong Nhung finds out although the Face in Vietnamese culture corresponds with the universal Face-centered mode of politeness introduced previously, Vietnamese perceive their individual face not merely in relation to but also in possession of the societal face. Nhung also spells out a string of expressions associated with ‘mặt’ that imply certain characteristics about the person mentioned. For instance, prideful in đáng mặt, nở mặt; embarrassing in muối mặt, rát mặt; and deceitful giở mặt, lật mặt etc.

In addition, in contrast to common belief, the face is not necessarily always vulnerable. Despite that it’s true we need to carefully act in accordance with social expectations, our face can also challenge and manipulate those expectations (of which one may argue that that doesn’t necessarily negate vulnerability since power itself is vulnerable; but it is too philosophical and if following this rationality, I presume everything is just everything else). Further, there is a concept called mặt dày, or thick face, which is equivalent to ‘thick-skinned’ in English. People who have ‘thick face’ have no shame. And shame is what Vietnamese culture always emphasizes. Moreover, these thick-faced people are very ruthless that they only follow their personal interests and disregard of others’.

So, the malleability of mặt allows one to be a subject of a community and subtly direct their influence on that community.


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