In this block of philosophy sessions at www.p4he.org, we’re on a “World Philosophy Tour”, and this week we’ve been looking at “face,” a concept connected to reputation and community that is associated particularly with Chinese philosophy and culture but applies everywhere. Here are three story stimuli by Marley Davies with which you can explore face.

If you have bright youngsters in your class (or home!) who might enjoy our philosophy, debate, improv, Writers’ Room, Shakespeare or Dungeons and Dragons sessions online, they can use the code TRYSOMETHINGNEW to get a half-price taster ticket up to the end of May. We have after-school class times from 6-8s up, and for teens they’re all things that could also count as a skill for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. 

Story 1: Grandma Doesn’t Know Best

You’re at a big family gathering, all happily stuffing yourselves with cake. Your grandma, who used to be a teacher, asks what you’ve been studying at school, and your cousin says he’s “doing the Romans”. Your grandma chuckles and exclaims “if we were Romans, we might head off to the vomitorium in a minute after all this cake!”. 

Your cousin looks perplexed and asks what she means. Grandma carefully explains that the Romans had a special room next to their banquet halls, called a vomitorium, where they could vomit up their food after indulgently bingeing, making room in their stomachs to eat more. Your cousin laughs, clasping his hands over his face, clearly both disgusted and amused by this idea. Everyone smiles and takes a bite of cake. [You could pause here to see if anyone notices the factual mistake and tries to correct you.]

However, you know that what your grandma said is a popular myth that gets passed around because it sounds convincing – but isn’t true. Vomitoriums were simply the entrances/exits in stadiums or theatres, called that because of the way they’d spew crowds out into the streets. 

Your grandma was a schoolteacher before she retired and takes pride in her intelligence and the position of authority she has in the family. In addition, your uncle’s wife recently joined the family and you know that your grandma would like to make a good impression. Yet, you know that she’s wrong about vomitoriums and you’re not sure if anyone else realises.

Would you point out her mistake?

After you’ve heard the whys and why nots, you can explain the concept of face: it’s connected to respect, honour, reputation, status and the place you have in a group of people. You might “lose face” if you are shown up in front of others, or try to “save someone’s face” by suggesting something that might be embarrassing is no big deal. It can get very complicated: if you correct grandma, she might lose face and you would gain face by showing how knowledgeable you were, but you might lose face for being the sort of person who doesn’t save someone else’s face!

Have you ever done anything to avoid losing face, or to save someone else’s face?

It might be helpful to give an example of your own. Here’s another story:

Story 2: Tense Pin Bowling

Your friend Sam invites a group of you to go bowling. He loves bowling and is excited to show his skills. You’ve never bowled before, but once you start playing, it’s quickly clear that you are a natural, soon doing much better than Sam. Everyone else is doing pretty well as well and surprised that Sam is not beating you all. Sam acts as if he’s enjoying himself but he looks a little embarrassed and is perhaps regretting being so confident earlier.

Would you deliberately play less well to save Sam’s face? 
Would it make a difference if Sam was older or younger than you? 
Or if he was a very close friend or just a friend of a friend?

Story 3: Paper Trail

You are in a cafe when you notice someone coming out of the toilet with a train of tissue paper stuck to their shoe. You think “that’s a bit embarrassing” but assume that they will notice and deal with it. However, they don’t notice and their date either hasn’t noticed or doesn’t’ want to point it out. Half an hour later, you notice the person getting up to leave but, still, they have a train of toilet paper attached to their shoe and they are about to step out onto a busy street. 

Would you tell them? Should you tell them?
If they never notice it, but other people do, have they lost face?
Is it more important to save face in front of a few people you know, or lots of people you don’t know?

Lastly, some bigger questions about face.

What would someone be like if they had no sense of face at all, and didn’t care what their reputation was with other people?

What does face matter more and when does it matter less?
Can you have too much of a sense of face? What happens if you do?
Which is more important – 1) how you see yourself, or how others see you?
What are the risks and advantages of each of these ways of thinking?

There’s a Chinese saying that translates as, ““Men can’t live without face, trees can’t live without bark.” Do you agree?

Best wishes,

Jason

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