Pride and Face


Pride is one of those words in our linguistic interpretation of the world that has so many nuanced meanings as to be unable to fully convey a thought without a clear accompanying context. Strictly, what it really means is the derivation of pleasure or satisfaction from an achievement, but we have sort of twisted it into two more polarizing definitions. A person characterized as prideful…

  1. (Negative) – Exhibits hubris. Conveys a mood of being too satisfied with oneself. One who is boastful and arrogant. Often includes a lack of empathy or sensitivity towards others (indifference). It can sometimes manifest in condescending ways that may feel pretty insulting. To some it is considered one of the most negative human traits that surfaces.
  2. (Positive) – Someone who takes care with himself. “He takes a lot of pride in his appearance.” Or, “…in a job well done.” When we say these things, we don’t just mean that the person derives satisfaction from something accomplished. What we’re really inferring is that he does a good job. “He takes pride in his lawn,” connotes that his lawn looks good to us (our own assessment) and secondarily that he gets satisfaction from it, which helps explain to us why he takes the time.

To further illustrate the lack of clarity, consider the antonym for pride. Is it, gloom, melancholy, woe, disgrace, humility, modesty, shyness, low self-esteem? These and more are listed as antonyms. For beings so utterly dependent on our linguistic interpretations, we sure lack precision with them a lot of times.

The range of meanings likely stems from the need to characterize the degree of pride one exhibits, the context for it, how it manifests, whether we value the issue ourselves, and how steadfastly one holds on to a particular point of view. Wow, that’s a lot of stuff to consider!

“He has too much pride to see the world as it is and change,” or “he can’t back down from being wrong” means something very different from, “he is too self aggrandizing,” which is different from, “he takes a lot of pride in how well his daughter handles herself.”

We view it morally, even though in one instance it can be a good moral characteristic, and the next a bad one.

When someone’s actions are significantly driven by a desire to look favorable to others or to please people, this is also a version of pride. It is our attempt to look good to and feel good about ourselves, as we perceive we might be or are being viewed through the eyes of others. Whether it’s the good kind or bad kind of pride is pretty subjective and contextual. Are we dressing nicely, or keeping up appearances?

This moves us into the area of losing or saving face, which is intertwined with pride in the way we use and think about it linguistically. Again, we are not precise in how we understand it. The phrase is used like a verb (losing face or saving it), but connotes a characteristic. To lose face indicates we have done something wrong, been bad, been shown up, or have been humiliated, therefore we’re often perceived as being bad, wrong, weak, etc. It’s not simply an alternative for humiliation. It’s a special type of humiliation. Losing face connotes more self-imposed guilt or moral wrongness than mere humiliation. Like we were trying to look good (saving face) in spite of being wrong, but it went awry and now we have lost face instead.

Pride makes us want to save face, or avoid circumstances in which we risk losing face. Most of us put a terrific effort into maintaining our image, in spite of what may be percolating underneath. We will consciously do things that are not in our best interest or that of others for the sake of saving face, so long as it doesn’t appear we are doing it simply to try to save face.

Unlike pride, we don’t see a morally good version of face – saving or losing. “Face” refers to one’s own sense of dignity or prestige, but is all about an interpretation of how we feel we are being viewed by others. However there is a little nuance in it that leaves room for another interpretation.

  1. Trying to save face, while never positive, is sometimes understood as being a normal behavior and accepted. Recognizing that someone is trying to save face somehow seems a little more forgivable than someone who is too prideful. The former is an action, limited to a specific context, whereas the latter is more of a general characterization.
  2. Losing face is seen as morally bad because the assumption is face was trying to be saved in spite of mounting evidence that the person or entity in question was wrong. But recognizing that someone is willing to lose face is very different. That can be viewed as humility, or even character.

Let’s play it out and see where this goes. There are some useful examples listed in a post from a few years ago called When Character Battles Reputation. Check it out. The concepts of character and reputation have interesting parallels to face and pride. Now we have four terms in the mix that all have pretty strong moral baggage attached to them along with intricate nuances in how they are used and what they mean contextually.

Let’s look at the example of quitting. Depending on the context, one can quit due to either version of pride, or suffer either version of face.

A person considers leaving a marriage. She resists in part because it’s perceived as a face loosing thing to do. Pride (we might say the good kind) is at the root of that. However, if we believe this woman has what are to us valid reasons for doing so, then the tables turn, and the losing of face is considered brave and strong; something she could be proud of, in spite of the failure not being something to be proud of.

Check this out: sometimes losing face is the best way to save face!!

Staying the course and making the best of it are considered morally good in one context, but in a different one would be viewed as stubborn or prideful. Or possibly weak and lacking self respect — no pride in oneself.

Do you see how the nuances of all of these concepts that appear to us as having reasonably objective definitions can so easily move around? This is because it’s all perception, including morality. Some of you will stand back and declare that we know right from wrong, and the rest is simply semantics or excuses. This black and white viewpoint neglects the fact that OUR INTERPRETATION OF REALITY IS FOCUSED THROUGH LANGUAGE. The fact that our language is imprecise merely is a reflection of the fact that while we may believe we have an objective view of the world, and that black is black and white is white, we really do not. It is subjective. Contextual. Perception. All of it. It comes to us from our culture, or surroundings, and things that turn into our beliefs – our morality, which seems unchangeable. But that doesn’t inherently make it right, and that certainly doesn’t make it what’s best for us. As a society we by definition tend to agree on a lot of the interpretations we use, and are therefore sometimes confused or even offended when others don’t see it the same way.

To give those interpretations too much weight is to cage oneself in worry about what others will think to the point that we betray our true Selves.

So lose face. Bask in the fear of it, because it’s just an emotion – your lizard brain trying to keep you safe. Others are going to judge or hate. That’s their cross to bear. They don’t serve you. They only serve themselves and do not want to have their way of life or beliefs perturbed, or to have to think through them beyond the boundaries they have been given and accepted. By all means take a reasonable amount of pride in who you are and what you do (i.e. try to be good and do good), but the pride of face saving is a tranquilizer that interferes with you being your authentic Self, which is a vital skill to master on the road to happiness.

Just remember, it is not some objective reality out there. It’s in you and your interpretation. You can’t ignore that the interpreted, subjective reality is where everyone lives. That would be too arrogant and prideful, and ultimately not productive, but you can’t allow yourself to be ruled by all of that either. That’s just a different kind of pride that’s no better.

Lose some face. It’s not so bad.



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