Face and Figura by Joe Alvaro
Another interesting contribution by Joseph James Alvaro: “While reading The Italians (Hooper 2016), I came across some interesting comparisons between the Italian concept of bella figura, and the Chinese notion of face. For most people, in fact, the face/figura phenomenon is the subliminal driving force that accounts for much of what we do and say, and is intimately linked to our self-perception, which in turn, influences person-to-person relationships and social status.
Lin Yutang, Chinese literary critic, told us that the metaphorical face of the Chinese cannot be “washed or shaved”, but at the same time, it “can be ‘granted’ and ‘lost’ and ‘fought for’ and ‘presented as a gift’… Abstract and intangible, it is yet the most delicate standard by which Chinese social intercourse is regulated.” One Hong Kong researcher (Bond 1991) sees manifestations of face as “…name dropping, the use of external status symbols, sensitivity to insult, lavish gift-giving, the use of titles, the sedulous avoidance of criticism…”.
For Italians, writes Nardini, “fare figura is a central metaphor – if not THE central metaphor – to Italian life…it refers to face, looking good, putting on the dog, style, appearance, flair, showing off, ornamentation, etiquette, etc.… figura è sempre legata all’apparenza.” In her Che Bella Figura (1999), she gives us an anthropological view of bella figura as concern with the maintenance of a “good face”…“the concept is a measure of personal integrity, but it has little to do with one’s essence, character, intention, or inner condition; rather it centers on public appearances. To acquire and preserve bella figura requires being impeccable before the eyes of others.”
It seems that these definitions are not that far apart. It is not only Matteo Ricci, Marco Polo, and vermicelli that Italians and Chinese have in common. A defining feature of face and bella figura, and what makes them remarkable, is that they cannot be conjured up at will – both constructs involve “claims on the evaluation of others” (Spencer-Oatey 2007). The more one strives to attain face/figura, the more elusive it can become. It somehow seems to deteriorate in the act of grasping it. To those who particularly desire it, it appears to escape their clutches at the last moment, like the adulteress Jezebel – traitorous and fickle.
Trying a little too hard or giving the impression that you will do anything to get it, makes achieving it less likely. But why is that? It is because face/bella figura cannot be declared unilaterally. And in this lies what Scollon and Scollon (1995) call the “paradox of face”: others must be lured into agreement. They must nod their approval, as tacit as that may be, “yes, so-and-so has made bella figura.” They must agree that you deserve it. And it is this, in essence, that makes it different from other psychological constructs such as self-confidence, self-esteem, ego, hubris, machismo, etc., because each of these can be claimed without the cooperation of others. They are solo acts. In fact, they may exist only in the mind of the possessor without regard for or dependence on the opinions of friends, neighbours, co-workers, colleagues or the multitude of passers-by. The acquisition of face/bella figura is what scholars call a ‘dyadic phenomenon’; it remains abstract and unrealized unless there are two or more parties: one to admire and one to be admired. It is, at its core, a social construct and can only live in the ocean of social relations, much like a fish can only live in the sea. We are powerless to commandeer face no matter how highly we think of ourselves. If we perceive of ourselves in superlative terms (and this becomes obvious to others), we are far more likely to lose, rather than gain, whatever face we are trying to get. Face/bella figura must be consolidated in others – but of their own free will – which is what makes it indefinable, greatly prized, and as elusive as a truffle. It is a great irony that the repository of our self-worth lies in the bosoms of others!
In an ethnographic article about identity, Pipyrou (2014) tells of the crisis felt by many southern Italians (Calabrians to be exact) because of shrinking finances. The problem was not about the incapacity to buy food or pay bills, but about how to keep up bella figura without being able to buy fashionable clothes. They were deeply embarrassed about the introduction of second-hand clothing in their local marketplaces, which, though affordable, caused “anxieties about the smothering social pressures to display a certain appearance and status in public.” She describes “troublesome encounters with second-hand clothes donated from Northern Europe” causing Calabrians to adopt “an ironic outlook” – anxiety over brutta figura – the shameful opposite of the bella.
Sensing our collective weakness, advertisers sell ‘solutions’ to our defects. But we all realize sooner or later that smelling better, having whiter teeth, shinier hair, or a closer shave are shortcuts to disappointment. We carry a low regard for ourselves, but at the same time, nurture high expectations. It is indeed an Apostle Paul or an ascetic Desert Mother(*), who is not affected by the face/figura phenomenon. Italian or Chinese, face or bella figura, it is innately human to hope we will be loved for who we are; but, I am reminded, it is a better thing, a divine thing, to love others for who they are.”
Bond, Michael H. (1991) Beyond the Chinese Face: Insights from Psychology. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.
Hooper, John (2016) The Italians. New York: Penguin Books.
Lin, Yutang (1935) My Country and My People. New York: Renyal & Hitchcock.
Nardini, Gloria (1999) Che Bella Figura. New York: SUNY Press.
Pipyrou, Stavroula (2014) Cutting bella figura: Irony, crisis, and second-hand clothes in Southern Italy. Journal of American Ethnological Society 41: 3.
Scollon, Ron and Scollon, Suzanne Wong (1995) Intercultural Communication: A Discourse Approach. Oxford: Blackwell.
Spencer-Oatey, Helen (2007) Theories of identity and the analysis of face. Journal of Pragmatics 39: 639–656.
(*) Cameron, A.; Puttick, E.; Clarke, B. (1993) Desert Mothers: Women Ascetics in Early Christian Egypt, Edwin Mellen Press.
Joseph James Alvaro, MSc., PhD – 26 April 2016
City University of Hong Kong, Department of English, Visiting Fellow
“As an experienced educator, my goal is to help students meet the linguistic challenges posed by education in the medium of English. My current interest is on the pedagogical role of Critical Literacy in English for Academic Purposes (EAP). I have been working in EAP in various educational institutions in the greater China area for 18 years, the last 7 of which have been with the City University of Hong Kong. The title of my thesis is ‘The Language of Ideology in China’s English Press: Representations of Dissent’, which is essentially a critical analysis of mediatized political discourses through a close study of the relationship between language, ideology and power.”