Who among us does not try to maintain some degree of respectability in our daily lives? We all long to be acceptable in other people's eyes for who we are and for what we do. Although most of us don't expect to receive special attention or recognition from people, based on the way we conduct ourselves every day, we do care about the way we look to others. We want other people to know that we are smart, competent, and tasteful.
The people who know us best – our families – don't need to be convinced of our qualities. They know our good and not-so-good traits, and they love us anyway. We don't have to prove that we are worthy of our friends' love, either. (At least, we shouldn't have to; if we find ourselves constantly trying to impress our friends, it's time to find true friends who value us for more than our name-brand clothing, status, popularity, good looks, or the size of our bank account.)
There is a sense of safety and acceptance that we experience when we are with our family and friends. We can let our guard down and relax. We can enjoy the company of other people without feeling the need to impress them or prove our worth. In spending time with family or friends, we feel a level of security that can't quite be reached when we are out in public, among strangers.
We all know how quickly we ourselves form opinions of others, upon meeting them for the first time. We also know that strangers can easily form opinions of us, simply based on our appearance or behavior. So we are careful to make a good impression and show ourselves to be likable and smart people. And, sometimes, we protect our own image at other people's expense.
A few days ago, I witnessed a rather heartbreaking incident. A mother and her adult daughter were traveling together, and became separated in surroundings that were unfamiliar to them. The mother asked me for help in finding her daughter. Several minutes later, I noticed that the two were walking together, so I said to the mother, “I'm glad you found each other!” The mother smiled, but the daughter had a different response; she shook her head, giving me a half-embarrassed, half-exasperated look, then began to scold her mother for being unable to follow instructions. Apparently, the daughter's instructions hadn't been clear enough for the confused mother, who offered a feeble defense until her daughter told her to stop arguing. All I could do was look on, saddened by the whole scene.
There are many ways that we protect our own image at other people's expense. And we have all done this before, in some form or another. I know I have. But the next time I feel the need to save face, I hope I will take a moment to remember that other people's reputations are just as valuable as my own. And I will remember a mother who asked for help... and her daughter who succeeded in making an impression on a stranger – not for her competence as a traveler, but for her lack of empathy toward her mother. Sometimes when we try to make ourselves look good in one area, we show ourselves to be lacking in other areas... and hurt others in the process. Is saving face worth so much?