The delicate, and important, art of saving face

As a child, I was in the public library every Saturday. And every week, I checked out the same book, year after year. Up I would walk, put that dog-eared book in the return slot, and stand very still until Ruth Setzer, one of the librarians, checked it in. Without a word, she would extend her long arm to me, with my treasure at the end of it. I would run back to the children's section until Mama was ready to go. Then I would check it out again and take it back home, where it obviously belonged.

One Saturday, Mrs. Barnett, the head librarian, summoned me to the circulation desk, a formidable walnut fortress. The other librarians gathered around as she handed me a package. "Now," she said sweetly, handing me my own copy of the book, "we hope you might leave the library's 'Adventures of Pippi Longstocking' here so other children might read it."

When I turned 15, Mrs. Barnett offered me a job working at the circulation desk, that great ship I had hovered in front of every Saturday for years. Ecstatic to be among all those books, I can still hear the sound of the book-cart wheels as I rolled through the stacks, lost in that magical world.

One morning that quiet magic was shattered when an irate woman slammed shut a card catalog drawer and stomped to the desk. This was highly unusual in the Morganton-Burke Public Library, since there didn't seem too much to get angry about.

"I cannot believe," she fairly hissed, "that this library doesn't have any books about psychology! It's an outrage! How dare you call yourselves a library," her voice rang out. Being the only one at the helm at that moment, it was up me to respond.

Timidly, I did. "I know I've shelved psychology books before," I began.

"Really?" she interrupted, "there's none in the card catalog. Zero! Ridiculous! Aren't there any grown-ups who work here?"

"They're in a meeting right now," I whispered, scared. "But I'll help if I can."

At that, she stomped back to the card catalog, with me trailing meekly behind as Pippi never would have. "Where were you looking?" I asked.

"Well, young lady, where on earth do you think I was looking?" she answered as she flung open a card drawer.

The drawer she had opened was the "S" drawer.

"Well," I answered quietly, "perhaps we should try the alternate spelling." And I gently moved her to the P drawer.

It was a moment of real clarity for me: Helping her save face and retain her dignity as a human being was important, even though (and perhaps especially because) she had been berating me.

Decades later, I was in line at Giant Foods watching a woman buy eight items, including a package of the cheapest, fattiest meat imaginable. As the cashier rang up her items, the woman asked repeatedly for the subtotal, digging into her change purse and realizing as the meat made its journey up the conveyer belt that she could never afford it. She lacked $1.07, and with the saddest eyes I had ever seen, told the cashier to put it back.

I couldn't bear it. "Excuse me, ma'am," I said as I bent down between my cart and the chewing gum display. "You must have dropped this." As I handed her a $5 bill from my own pocket, pretending I had found it on the floor, she refused it at first.

"Oh, no," she said quietly, "it can't be mine."

"Well, it's not mine either, so it's your lucky day!" I replied, extending my hand.

In that moment, I realized that my learning about saving face had started years before in that library. Rather than enforce their rule about how many consecutive weeks a book could be checked out, the librarians had helped me save face by giving me my own copy of "Pippi Longstocking." And while standing in that grocery store line, I recognized that saving face is an important concept.

Helping someone save face involves giving them a way to exit the situation with their dignity intact. It involves creativity, patience, and sometimes looking the other way. And it puts the impulse on giving, where it should be.

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