Saving face

From ActuallyAutistic Wiki

In addition to being a lesbian romance film by Alice Wu, saving face means to avoid embarrassing someone.

Autistic people tend to speak efficiently, as per Grice's Maxims:[1]

  • Quality: speak the truth
  • Quantity: don't say less or more than is required
  • Relevance: be relevant
  • Manner: be clear; avoid ambiguity and obscurity

According to Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson, in their rather ironically titled book Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage, when allistic (they assume all) people speak, they usually sacrifice this clarity, instead optimising to *save face*. To paraphrase slightly, "Unless the speaker's desire to perform a face-threatening act of speech is greater than their desire to preserve the listener's (or their own) face to any degree, then the speaker will want to minimise that face threat."[2]

This is all news to me. I believe autistic people generally have no impulse to save face, either the listener's or their own. For example, someone shared an anecdote about being asked by a mock job interviewer "Another candidate is also being interviewed in another room. Who do you think we should pick?" to which they replied "I believe I am qualified, but if the other interviewee is better than me, you should hire them."[3]

This makes intuitive sense to me, but apparently is not an expected answer, leading to both people being blindsided by the sudden turn the interview's taken: the interviewer being surprised by the applicant's honesty, and the applicant being surprised by the interviewer's incredulous reaction to a perfectly rational response.

This particular example is especially interesting, as what was apparently expected of the interviewee wasn't even politeness as dictated above, but the opposite, due to the context. This person was reprimanded for not being rude enough. I believe this demonstrates that the fundamental issue isn't just an apparent rudeness on our part, which is merely one side effect of people of different neurotypes talking at crossed purposes. This seems to suggest that "saving face" is merely a subset of a larger ruleset that can override Grice's Maxims, that allistic people can intuitively pick up on and learn to reciprocate.

Someone suggested a response that would satisfy everyone: "You should hire whichever of us is more qualified. If that's the candidate in the other room, then by all means hire them. Based on how unusually qualified I am for this position, however, I am confident that you would choose me."[4] Good luck working that out on-the-fly.

You can try to save face when it's expected of you, but it's difficult, as you have to consciously try to work out whether what you want to say is likely to cause offence or embarrassment, then consciously try to work out how to mitigate that. There's no guarantee you'll be successful with either step.

Another strategy is to apply your autistic traits strategically. For example, if you are asked in an interview who should be picked, you can say, “I do not think I could answer that because I do not know the other candidate, but I do know what I have to offer from my end.” Even though you are overqualified, there’s still a nonzero chance that the other person is even more overly qualified than you. Technically this response is both brutally autistic and effective.