Saving Face and a Country in Chaos

Like most of you, I have watched with confusion and sadness as one of the great civilizations of the world seems to be collapsing into chaos.  While I am no Egyptologist or an expert on Middle Eastern relations, I did listen intently to an interesting interview of an Egyptian who lives in Cairo.  This university educated man chose to participate in the initial stages of the protest.  However, after the announcement by the government that President Mubarak would not run for re-election, he chose to stop protesting.  The American reporter asked why he chose not to pressure the President to step down immediately.  His response was fascinating.

We must allow the man some dignity.  He was a war hero and even though I do not support his governance, he must not be humiliated.

The American reporter seemed stunned.  She pressed the man stating that the President was not respected and the people wanted him to leave now.  The American went further speculating that his announcement may have been a ploy to remain in power long enough to set up a transition that benefited the ruling party.  The Egyptian agreed that these were all possibilities.  But, the man replied:

We MUST allow him to save face.  We have no right to embarrass him.

To the American reporter (and to many Westerners), this argument seems trivial.  American politicians routinely embarrass people as a matter of course.  We can’t imagine “letting someone off the hook”  just so they wouldn’t be public shamed.  But, the reporter missed a strong cultural cue.  In many societies, Eastern and Middle Eastern in particular, allowing someone personal dignity is a key component in relationship and conflict.  In these cultures, if even if you get your way, you lose if you humiliate your opponent.

There is much we have to learn.  Even though Westerners don’t value this worldview as a culture, we value it individually.  No one wants to be humiliated.  No one needs to be shamed in a loss.  Even when we are put in competitive environments, it is incumbent on us to treat others respectfully.  We allow people to save face, even if they don’t deserve it.

Perhaps, it is best if President Mubarak steps down immediately, but whatever happens, I have learned much from this man.  If an Egyptian who is watching his beloved country crumble around him can provide that grace to a 30-year leader of a regime, can I not treat my boss, co-workers, employees, service workers, and family with the same kindness?

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