Face Management Theory: Modern Conceptualizations and Future Directions

By Alexander E. Hopkins
2015, Vol. 7 No. 04 | pg. 2/6 |

Cross & Stone's Research on Embarrassment and Identity

1964 proved to be a pivotal year for the advancement of face theory with the publication of Cross & Stone's "Embarrassment and the Analysis of Role Requirements." In their research, Cross & Stone (1964) examined the concept of Goffman's theory of drama in face theory, noting that the probability of avoiding embarrassment is a function of preventing secondary identities from making an appearance (p. 6) Cross & Stone identified three types of secondary identities. Adjunct roles in themselves are secondary roles that make an appearance part of the time. For example, a professor may have a part-time evening position tutoring at-risk populations. Reserve identities are identities that come into play during a specific situation, especially when the person has received specialized training for that particular identity. For example, a judge may employ their lifesaving training and thus assume the role of lifeguard when they see someone drowning. Finally, relict identities are past identities. For example, a pilot may be a former criminal.

Cross & Stone also looked at several elements of self and situation with reference to which loss of control can give rise to considerable embarrassment. The first element is the spaces must be arranged and maintained so that they are role-enabling (Cross & Stone, 1964, pp. 6-7). Going back to Goffman's view that face is very similar to a theatrical performance, Cross & Stone believed that a space was a fixed location that has boundaries. With this in mind, people would lose poise if they discovered that they were in places forbidden to them. Second, props are used and are only moved in emergencies, when facilitating movement, when protecting props from damage and sometimes between scenes (Cross & Stone, 1964, p. 8). Third, equipment can range from physical objects to words. Unlike props, equipment is typically touched, handled and moved about (Cross & Stone, 1964, p. 9).

Fourth, clothing is maintained, controlled and arranged because, if this is not the case, this will cause embarrassment (Cross & Stone, 1964, p. 10). Fifth, the body is always in a state of readiness to act. Once again, if this is not the case, embarrassment may result (Cross & Stone, 1964, pp. 10-11). In addition to the five elements of self and situation, Cross & Stone also expanded upon Goffman's drama theory by examining what they call identity documents, which are " a set of apparent symbols which he carries about as he moves from transaction to transaction" (Cross & Stone, 1964, p. 4). As the definition suggests, the purpose of an identity document is to validate documents. Examples of possible identity documents include clothes, business cards, shape of the hair and so on.

Since identities are unique, it is not surprising that the complexity of identity is the result of people bringing more identities than necessary for their role performance (Cross & Stone, 1964, p. 4). With unique identity, embarrassment can still occur when the identities are not met, such as when they are invalid or incomplete. Identities can be lost by the person or by the transgression of another person or group. An example of this would include damaging someone else's reputation. Much like the inverse of Goffman's expressive order, the transgressor will feel embarrassment in addition to the victim (Cross & Stone, 1964, pp. 4-5).

Brown & Levinson's Politeness Theory

Between 1978-1987 Brown & Levinson conducted research advancing face theory. Their theory, called politeness theory, drew upon Goffman's concepts of face and facework. Like Goffman, Brown & Levinson believed face to be universal and facework was assumed to be the set of strategies to ensure that face was protected (Holtgarves, 1992, p. 143). Brown & Levinson advanced Goffman's research by arguing that politeness was a form of facework, in addition to identifying the fundamental dimensions of and distance (Holtgarves, 1992, pp. 143-144). As a precursor to face-negotiation theory, Brown & Levinson detailed specific verbal strategies to attain positive and negative face, in addition to showing the parallels between these strategies across three unique languages (Holtgarves, 1992, pp. 143).

Brown & Levinson's research examined the variables that prior researchers felt were important to examine before, during and after a face-threatening act. There were different opinions on how people would use excuses to mitigate the results of a face-threatening act. Schlenker (1980) hypothesized that, as the severity of the face-threatening act increases, the offender would be more likely to create an elaborate account and spin it in their favor (p. 147). Schonbach (1985) agreed, but added that offenders would use an aggravating form of an account when they were severely reproached for their behavior. McLaughlin, Cody, and O'Hair (1983) took the opposite approach, hypothesizing and finding that offenders would be more likely to employ mitigating accounts and avoid aggravating ones (p. 223). Predictably, Brown & Levinson utilized McLaughin, Cody & O'Hair's approach when formulating politeness theory, which theorized that severe face-threatening acts would have more polite offenders

Unlike Goffman, Brown & Levinson defined negative face as the desire to have autonomy of action and positive face as the desire to be approved by others (Holtgarves, 1992, p. 143; Oetzel et al., 2001, p. 237). However, Brown & Levinson redefined some of Goffman's by defining two broad politeness strategies: (1) negative politeness, which corresponds to Goffman's avoidance rituals and (2) positive politeness, which is equivalent to Goffman's openness towards presenting in front of an audience (Dainton, 2010, pp. 58-59, Holtgarves, 1992, p. 143). Foreshadowing Ting-Toomey's Face Negotiation Theory, Brown & Levinson viewed negative face's freedom of action and positive face's positive regard for audience as components of identities in all cultures. However, despite their different names, positive and negative face are both always subject to threat during a social interaction. Holtgarves (1992) used the example of another person addressing a remark to another person because negative face corresponds to the imposition of that person by requiring a response, while positive face corresponds to whether this other person is "friendly" or not (p. 143).

Brown & Levinson believed that the strategies for performing face-threatening acts are organized in terms of five super-strategies: non-performance of act, off-record act, negative politeness, positive politeness and bald on-record act. The non-performance of the act is considered the least-threatening because it avoids any confrontation at all (Brown & Levinson, 1987, p. 77). This corresponds roughly to Goffman's avoidance process (Holtgarves, 1992, p. 144). An off-record act performs the act off the record, yet gives a hint. The off-record act is similar to Goffman's protective measures (Holtgarves, 1992, p. 144). For example, someone performing the act could say "It seems cold in here," an implicit suggestion to adjust the thermostat (Holtgarves, 1992, p. 144). Like Goffman's protective measures, the off-record act has the feature of deniability because the speaker can deny any single interpretation in favor of another, thus decreasing the imposition on the recipient (Brown & Levinson, 1987, p. 134; Holtgarves, 1992, p. 144).

At the middle of the spectrum is negative politeness, which is slightly more direct than an off-record act, as the speaker makes an effort to recognize the other's negative face needs, such as the lack of restraint and need for freedom (Dainton, 2010, pp. 60-61). Negative politeness corresponds to Goffman's avoidance rituals, as they try to avoid , yet must openly address the face-threatening act (Holtgarves, 1992, p. 144). Dainton (2010) uses the example of an employee asking their coworker to cover their work shift, first apologizing for the last-minute imposition, but then requesting the recipient to take over their work shift (pp. 60-61). In doing so, the person making the appeal consciously knows they are committing a face-threatening act. However, the appealer is going one step further by appealing to the receiver's face needs through apologies and self-effacement to make the speaker vulnerable to the receiver.

Positive politeness is the opposite of negative politeness in that the speaker emphasizes the receiver's need to be liked. In other words, the speaker showers the receiver with flattery and compliments in hopes that they can successfully camouflage their face-threatening behavior (Dainton, 2010, pp. 60-61). Positive politeness corresponds to Goffman's presentational rituals (Holtgarves, 1992, p. 144). One example of this would include asking a favor on behalf of a large group, such as "Would you mind adjusting the thermostat for us?" By showing the receiver that the needs of the group are more important than the individual, the receiver will be more likely to comply with the request. Positive politeness is considered less polite than negative politeness because it contains a presumption of closeness, which may or may not exist from the receiver's perspective (Holtgarves, 1992, p. 144).

Finally, a bald on-record request is the most threatening strategy because it pays no attention to the receiver's face (Oetzel et al, 2001, pp. 236-237). In most ways, it is the most simple strategy. This strategy is direct with the receiver and makes no attempt to include any assumptions. One example of this would be for the speaker to simply request to the receiver, "Lower the thermostat." Like positive politeness, there is a presumption of closeness, which proves to be the most threatening aspect of the bald on-record request. In the worst case scenario, a person could ruin a potential social relationship by demanding an order to the recipient. With the absence of flattery inherent in positive politeness, the chances of compliance are decreased, making a bald on-record request a risky strategy indeed.

Brown & Levinson identified four unique types of face threat: (1) threatening one's own positive face (e.g. an admission of guilt), (2) threatening one's own negative face (e.g. making a promise), (3) threatening another's positive face (e.g. an insult) and (4) threatening another's negative face (e.g. asking a favor) (Bylund, Peterson & Cameron, 2012, p. 264). Some strategies for remedying these face-threatening acts are better than others. Brown & Levinson argued that the weight of a face-threatening act may depend on the situation as a whole, as opposed to the face-threatening act itself (Holtgarves, 1992, p. 143). This depends on three factors: the social distance between interactants, the power relationship between them and the degree to which a potential face-threatening act is an imposition on a given (Gonzales, Pederson, Manning & Wetter, 1990, p. 612).

Social distance can be defined as the social distance between the people that are interacting. For example, an interactant would communicate much differently with a stranger than they would with a close friend (Gonzales, Pederson, Manning & Wetter, 1990, p. 612). Power relationships describes the social hierarchy within an organization or in society as a whole. For example, an employee would interactant differently with their boss than they would their company's CEO (Gonzales et al, 1990, p. 612). Conversely, a boss would interactant differently with the President of the U.S. than with their CEO.

Finally, imposing on a different culture can be defined as breaking the long-held cultural views that make up a given society. However, "imposition" is sometimes referred to simply as "risk" (Dainton, 2010, p. 62). By labeling this phenomenon differently, the connotation can change because "risk" may lack the cultural element. For example, in most cultures, there is a high chance of hurting someone if you are going to fire an employee or confront a spouse that is cheating (Dainton, 2010, p. 62). With this in mind, the speaker is more likely to be polite if they are going to hurt someone and may be less polite if they are not going to hurt someone (Dainton, 2010, p. 62). Another example would include the fact that the concept of time appears to be a more valuable commodity in the U.S. than it is in (Gonzales, Pederson, Manning & Wetter, 1990, p. 612).

Brown & Levinson expanded heavily on Goffman's remedial work by identifying six speech acts that cause threats to face: apologies, confessions, promises, criticisms, recommendations, and requests. Hodgins, Liebeskind & Schwartz (1996) were quick to point out that people were quite creative in their use of responding to the six different speech acts that cause threats to face (p. 300). While most of the speech acts are fairly self-explanatory, there are a few caveats. A promise, in this case, is a broken promise to address a problem that occurred in the past (Brown & Levinson, 1987, p. 125). A recommendation is an alternative way of performing an action that the receiver does not agree with (Oetzel et al, 2001, p. 237). A request, on the other hand, is an invitation to perform (or not perform) an action that the receiver does not agree with (Brown & Levinson, 1987, p. 268).

Brown & Levinson (1987) also expanded upon Goffman's remedial work by separately defining an account as an explanation for social life "at such very different levels" (p. 232). Goffman began positing the theory of accounts in 1967 based upon his interest in the management of interactions, especially with the remedial interchange, a type of facework (Manusov et al, 2004, p. 516). A year later, Scott & Lyman (1968) performed extensive research on how people use talk to explain their behavior, defining an account as "linguistic device(s) employed whenever an action is subjected to valuative inquiry" (p. 46). Goffman (1971) believed that accounts were used to change the meaning (particularly the worst-possible reading) that others might label an action (p. 100). The pioneering research of Goffman proved influential in the creation of the Attribution/Accounts theory, which is defined as the "Cognitive and linguistic perspectives dealing with the way people assign meaning to both their own behavior and the behavior of others" (Stamp, 2004, p. 8).

Holtgarves (1992) believes that actions (or lack thereof) play a large role in accounts because they can be:

interpreted explicitly in terms of the negative and the positive face-threat for both the speaker (offender) and the recipient (offended person). The occurrence of a breach threatens the offended person's positive face (e.g., an insult) and/or negative face (e.g., spilling a drink on the host's carpet), as well as the offender's positive face (a desire to look good) and/or negative face (remedial work now must be done). If an account is not forthcoming, attempts to challenge or reproach the offender will draw attention to the failure event and the lack of remedial activity (thereby increasing both the positive and the negative face-threat for the offender) and will introduce an element of risk for the challenger (positive and negative face will be lost if the challenge should fail) (p. 146).

Holtgarves thus believed that accounts not only offended both the person's positive and/or negative faces, but time was a critical element to prevent an escalation of conflict. However, Holtgarves' research does not take into account the different cultural views of time. Likewise, and perhaps more interestingly, no researcher has advanced the pioneering work of Schlenker (1980), McLaughlin, Cody, and O'Hair (1983) and Schonbach (1985) in their arguments about whether a time-sensitive escalated conflict increased the use of elaborative accounts or avoidance.

Of course, accounts is an umbrella term because there are many different types of accounts. The three types of accounts, according to Brown & Levinson are: concessions (accepting full responsibility without offering extenuating circumstances), excuses (mitigating the recipient's face threat by acknowledging harm, but are less threatening to the speaker's own face than concessions because they offer qualifying factors that reduce responsibility), and justifications (accept full responsibility, yet attempt to legitimize the behavior) (Cupach, Metts & Hazleton, 1986, p. 182; Hodgins, Liebsekind & Schwartz, 1996, p. 300, Schonbach, 1980, p. 195).

Excuses, according to Brown & Levinson, are more likely to be used by an embarrassed actor in a mistake situation, but less likely to be used in recipient situations (Metts & Cupach, 1989, pp. 159-160). When comparing justifications with excuses, justifications gives less positive and negative face support for the recipient because they attempt to minimize the offensive nature of the act. However, justifications admit the mistake and are thus more supportive of the recipient than refusals (Holtgarves, 1992, pp. 146-147). Excuses appear to be the less-logical choice in recipient situations because the offender's lack of responsibility would likely be apparent to bystanders (Metts & Cupach, 1989, pp. 159-160). Holtgarves (1992) found that females were more likely to provide politer accounts than did males (p. 147).

The three accounts mentioned can usually be integrated with humor. Since the person's face has already been diminished, joking about the event does not "compound an affront or offense, as it might in situations of mistakes or faux pas" (Metts & Cupach, 1989, pp. 159-160). However, humor has to be used with great care. Fink & Walker (1977) believe that relative status and anticipated future interaction must be considered prior to employing humor (pp. 476-477). When examining relative status, recall the social distance (distance between people who are interacting) and the power relationships (social hierarchies) that was identified by Gonzales et al in 1990. Holtgarves (1992) found that a breach committed by a lower-status interactant was more face-threatening than the same breach committed by a higher-status interactant (p. 147)

If co-workers were using humor, for example, this would be called an symmetrical relationship because the social distance between the two is low (Fink & Walker, 1977, p. 476-477). Therefore, in an interaction, it is more likely that humor would be used by people of roughly-equal social status (Fink & Walker, 1977, p. 475). Conversely, if one stranger was using humor against another stranger, the relationship would still be symmetrical because two strangers are roughly on the same social plane. However, because neither stranger knows one another nor each one's sense of humor, the social distance between them is high. Therefore, humor would be a risky tactic to employ. However, if a boss was using humor on a subordinate (such as an employee), this would be called an asymmetrical relationship because the hierarchical social distance between the two is high. Humor would be a risky move for either the boss or subordinate to use, unless each is highly familiar with the company's work culture.

When looking at anticipated future interaction, Fink & Walker (1977) believed that people were more likely to use humor strategies if an anticipated future interaction was expected (pp. 476-477). This is because the receiver of the interaction could provide feedback on how smoothly (or disastrously) the interaction went. When people know that they will not receive feedback at that moment or in the future, this subsequently weakens the constraints for the person to perform in front of the receiver. In other words, the person will feel less pressure to perform "in-face." However, since humor can build warm relations for the future, it makes sense that humor is a favored tactic to use when a future interaction is expected.

Self disclosure is another type of account and is defined as voluntary communication of intimate information about oneself to another (Holtgarves, 1992, p. 149). Generally, self disclosures do not occur randomly because of their face-threatening nature. Therefore, the interactants together create a context for the disclosure (Holtgarves, 1992, p. 149). Negative self disclosures in particular are more manageable because of their jointly created context. Thus:

the disclosure is made more manageable for the recipient (thereby easing the threat to the recipient's negative face), and negative perceptions of the speaker are attenuated (thereby lessening the threat to the speaker's positive face (Holtgarves, 1992, pp.149-150).

Since self disclosure falls under accounts, self disclosure can also be blended with humor. Manusov et al (2004) found that self disclosures were more complex depending on the blameworthiness of the offense, with the less complex accounts used for accidental or intentional offense, as opposed to a negligent offense (p. 519). However, the researchers also noted that "lengthier and more varied self disclosures had a tendency to be linked with lower perceptions of negative face-attentiveness by elicitors and higher perceptions of negative face-attentiveness by accounters" (Manusov et al, 2004, p. 533-534).

Much of self disclosure research recognizes the fact that self disclosure is not an isolated act because it occurs within a conversation as a whole. This presents a difficulty for researchers, since self disclosure cannot be studied exclusively in a laboratory. Therefore, the "linguistic realization of face management should be distributed throughout the entire conversation" (Holtgarves, 1992, p. 149). As such, time-consuming and expensive research methods have been used to collect and analyze the data, including textual analysis. Past research on self disclosure assumes a certain degree of facework inherent in different account forms or to suggest that face issues are the main force behind accounting practices (Manusov et al, 2004, pp. 515-516). Thus, researchers have to be very familiar with the facework strategies of the culture that they are studying.

Apologies is a fairly straightforward type of account because, not only does it acknowledge the perpetrator behind the face-threatening act, but it also acknowledges that the face-threatening act was wrong. An apology is considered a very pro-social strategy because it attempts to alleviate a wrong committed (Schlenker & Darby, 1981, pp. 276-277). More effective apologies can also include a promise to avoid performing the face-threatening act again. Goffman (1971) detailed the strategies that could be integrated into effective apologies when he wrote:

expressions of embarrassment and chagrin; clarification that one knows what conduct had been expected and sympathizes with the application of negative sanctions; verbal reflection, repudiation and disavowal of the wrong way of behaving along with vilification of the self; espousal of the right way and an avowal to pursue that course; performance of penance and the volunteering of restitution (p. 143).

Since the strategies and situations are varied, it remains important for transgressors to tailor the strategies for their specific situation. Some of the most effective apologies may not employ a great quantity of apologetic strategies. Rather, will use a few of the most important strategies to create a simple, heartfelt apology. After all, since an apology validates the victim's claims, careful planning is needed (Gonzales et al, 1990, p. 618).

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