Face Management Theory: Modern Conceptualizations and Future Directions

By Alexander E. Hopkins
2015, Vol. 7 No. 04 | pg. 3/6 |

Ting-Toomey's Face Negotiation Theory

In 1985, Professor Stella Ting-Toomey developed face negotiation theory to intercultural communication patterns that were absent in prior research. In many ways, face negotiation theory is reminiscent of Goffman's research because, after all, his concept of face originated from the Chinese view (Oetzel et al, 2001, p. 237). Born in Hong Kong, Ting-Toomey understood early on that cultural norms are relative and sometimes unpredictable. As such, interpersonal conflicts by misinformed, differing countries could become a widespread phenomenon (Elsayed-Ekhouly & Buda, 1996, p. 72).

While Goffman's research formally addressed the concept of face, as well as the facework strategies, his research hailed from a Westernized perspective. Similarly, while Brown & Levinson's research advanced the concept of politeness, their research never addressed the specific cultural norms that could be considered appropriate for each culture. While one culture may practice a norm that is considered innocuous, in another culture, the same norm could be considered offensive. In an increasingly-globalized world, Professor Ting-Toomey understood that it was important to conduct informed, unbiased intercultural communication.

Face negotiation theory assumes that, no matter the culture, everyone is concerned with the preservation of their face. At the same time, it seeks to explain why members of two cultures manage conflict differently (West & Turner, 2004). Like Goffman, Ting-Toomey and her researchers believe that everyone has a face. However, Ting-Toomey goes a step further and maintains that face can change meaning in different cultures (Cupach & Imahori, 1993, p. 431). Brett (2000) defines negotiation as a form of social interaction "by which two or more parties try to resolve perceived incompatible goals" (p. 97).

Negotiation is inherently tied to conflict management styles because, as Goffman and Brown & Levinson previously studied, people can choose to increase, decrease or allow the levels of conflict to remain the same. The concept of face in different cultures is intrinsically tied to value, as they "are often viewed as central tenets of a society's culture, representing that which is explicitly or implicitly desirable to a group or an individual" (Fernandez, Carlson, Stepina & Nicholson, 1997, p. 43). On a more specific level, within culture, people are negotiating with themselves and each other (Knapp & Daly, 2011, p. 10).

Thus, face negotiation theory, according to Oetzel et al (2001), can be used to "resolve a conflict, exacerbate a conflict, avoid a conflict, threaten or challenge another person, protect a person’s image, etc" (pp. 238-239). This echoes social learning theory because, with differing values, individuals in each culture become predisposed to certain behaviors (Brett, 2000, p. 101; Oetzel et al, 2001, pp. 240-241; Oetzel and Ting-Toomey, 2003, p. 602; Stamp, 2004, p. 8). Just a few variables that frequently characterize and influence values are language, religion, GNP per capita, and geographical location (Elsayed-Ekhouly & Buda, 1996, p. 71).

Naturally, values are varied because no country has the exact same categorization or amount of each of these vital characteristics. The diversity of values and beliefs in a society is due to several factors. For one, since each culture has a fairly consistent set of values at a given time, people will act out their own view on society's values towards each other (Elsayed-Ekhouly & Buda, 1996, p. 71). Second, time affects cultural congruence because values will shift as new members come in to create diversity (Elsayed-Ekhouly & Buda, 1996, p. 71). Third, cultures can distinguish themselves from others by how they choose to solve particular problems other (Elsayed-Ekhouly & Buda, 1996, p. 72).

Oetzel et al (2001) believe that there are three aspects missing from cross-cultural conflict management: (1) measurements of face, (2) a broader framework that does not over-rely on mainstream models of conflict styles and (3) conflict behavior explanations that go beyond the individualism-collectivism theory (p. 237). The second limitation in particular is important because, since cross-cultural conflict management research hails from a Westernized perspective, other conflict styles may exist beyond the five previously mentioned. The third limitation encourages the second limitation to be examined in further detail, as previous research from Ting-Toomey & Kurogi discovered individual level variables, such as the self-construal (p. 191).

Conflict management is defined by Oetzel and Ting-Toomey (2003) as "general tendencies of patterned responses to conflict in a variety of antagonistic interactive situations (p. 602). Conflict management is crucial towards face negotiation research because it has yet to uncover a full cross-cultural facework typology that has been critical towards facework theories, including substantive, relational and image issues (Oetzel et al, 2000, p. 398). In other words, cross-cultural research does not advance face negotiation theory because conflict types have not been categorized. As a result, while face negotiation theory to begin cross-cultural research from scratch, it will undoubtedly be pioneering research because it will advance global conflict resolution.

Oetzel et al (2000) are quick to differentiate conflict style from facework because, not only can conflict management resolve face concerns, but it can also resolve face behaviors (p. 399). The researchers note, for example, that the integrating conflict style can involve resolving face concerns of conflicting parties, as well as their conflicting behaviors (p. 399). This is important for two reasons. First, even if some countries do not consider face to be at the forefront, it is always a good idea to keep face anyways because eastern countries (such as Japan and China) will consider it paramount to their culture. In other words, if face is realized in all cultures, the habit will become second nature and thus will no longer be a concern. Second, many countries manage multiple face goals that "intertwines substantive, relational, and identity issues" (Oetzel et al, 2001, pp. 238-239). Thus, the more a person realizes that face should be practiced at all times, the more experience they will gain in understanding how it can be intertwined into these varying issues.

According to Oetzel et al (2001) there are four main tenets of face negotiation theory: (1) people in all cultures try to maintain and negotiate face in all situations involving communication; (2) "face" is especially problematic in uncertain situations, including ones involving conflict; (3) cultural, individual-level and situation variables influence cultural members selection of face concerns over others and (4) this combination of variables will influence the use of various conflict and facework strategies in interpersonal and intergroup encounters (pp. 238-239). The first two tenets are similar to Goffman's research because they were the main reasons why he devised the concepts of "face" and "facework." Further, there are three types of face concerns: self face, other face and mutual face. Self face is the concern for one's own image, while other face is the concern for someone else's image (Ting-Toomey & Kurogi, 1998, p. 199). Mutual face is the concern for both parties' images or, more broadly, the image of the relationship between the parties as a whole (Ting-Toomey & Kurogi, 1998, p. 200).

Power distance is another key facet of face negotiation theory and is defined as “the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally” (Hofstede, 1991, p. 28). In general, people in a small-power distance culture believe that there should be less power differentiation between everyone in that society. As such, "power should be distributed relatively equally, people should have equal rights, and status should be diminished" (Oetzel et al, 2001, pp. 239-240). Conversely, people in large-power distance cultures believe that power is a "free for all" that encourages highly-organized, hierarchical relations. In so doing, rank and status determines rewards and sanctions among people (Oetzel et al, 2001, pp. 239-240).

Further, there are two cultural variables in face negotiation theory: individualism and collectivism. Individualism is "a social pattern that consists of loosely linked individuals who view themselves as independent of collectives and who give priority to their personal goals over the goals of others" (Triandis, 1995, p. 2). Collectivism, on the other hand, are "norms and institutions [that] promote interdependence of individuals through emphasis on social obligations. Sacrifice of personal needs for the greater good is rewarded and legal institutions place the greater good of the collective above the rights of the individual" (Brett, 2000, p. 99). Oetzel et al (2001) studied several national cultures and concluded that individualistic cultures include the U.S. and Germany, while collectivistic cultures include China and Japan (p. 240).

However, all of these countries are considered to be moderate examples and, therefore, have some cultural characteristics that do not overlap. For example, when examining the Germans and Americans, Clackworthy (1996) found that Germans were more likely than Americans to be direct and confrontational during conflict (p. 96). Similarly, Hall & Hall (1990) found that Germans were more likely to aggressively defend their position during discussion, while Americans would be tactful when they were direct and confrontational (p. 57).

To Americans, this German conflict style would appear rigid and blunt (Oetzel et al, 2001, p. 240). Another example, using the Chinese and Japanese, would be that the Chinese have a very high concern for face in general social interactions (Gao, 1998, p. 476; Gao & Ting-Toomey, 1998, p. 8). The Chinese also favor the use of a third party to resolve conflicts (Gao & Ting-Toomey, 1998, p. 65). The Japanese, on the other hand, have high mutual and other-face concerns, but not necessarily high self-face concerns (Oetzel et al, 2001, p. 240).

Closely related to the two cultural variables is the self-construal, which is defined by Oetzel et al (2001) as "one’s self-image and is composed of an independent and an interdependent self" (p. 241). The independent construal views the individual as a unique entity with cognitions, motivations and feelings (Markus & Kitayama, 1991, p. 226). In contrast, the interdependent construal emphasizes the importance of people being relationally connected (Markus & Kitayama, 1991, p. 227). Research by Oetzel and Ting-Toomey (2003) found that the independent self-construal was associated positively with self-face, while the interdependent construal was associated positively with other-face (p. 604).

These face concerns ultimately influence conflict styles and remains one of the best predictors of facework and facework behavior (Oetzel et al, 2001, pp. 252-253). This remains important because the way a society treats people affects the way that people self-construe, as well as how they will interact with one another (Brett, 2000, p. 99). In a broader sense, people in all cultures will distinguish between in-groups (of which they are members) and out-groups (of which they are not members). Oetzel and Ting-Toomey (2003) also found that self face is associated with dominating conflict styles, while other face is associated positively with avoiding conflict styles (p. 604).

High and low-context communication is closely tied to the self-construal because it distinguishes whether a culture's communication patterns are more direct in nature or indirect (Brett, 2000, p. 101). In a high-context culture, little information is embedded in the message itself because the context of the communication itself stimulates preexisting knowledge in the receiver. As such, "meaning is inferred rather than directly interpreted from the communication" (Brett, 2000, p. 101). Communication in low-context cultures has information that is contained explicitly in context-free messages. Thus, communication is characterized as "action oriented and solution minded" (Brett, 2000, p. 101). High and low-context communication can also give hints as to how a culture will handle conflict. Some cultures may be more willing to confront conflict directly, as opposed to negotiating directly, avoiding conflict altogether or even concealing ill feelings towards one another (Brett, 2000, p. 101).

Situational variables can be viewed as the miscellaneous variables that defy easy categorization. Oetzel et al (2001) identified several situational variables, including relational closeness, relational maintenance status and social status (p. 242). Argyle, Furnham, & Graham (1981) define this as “the sum of features of the behavior system for the duration of a social encounter” (p. 3). Miller, Cody, and McLaughlin (1994) expand upon this definition, writing that these variables "may provide a 'common language' for thinking about persons, situations, and relationships" (p. 163).

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