Face Management Theory: Modern Conceptualizations and Future Directions

By Alexander E. Hopkins
2015, Vol. 7 No. 04 | pg. 4/6 |

Epistemological Assumptions

Epistemology questions what knowledge is and how it can be acquired. In the academic community, this is primarily accomplished through research. In the case of face management theories in general, there has been a lot of research on the embarrassability of research subjects. This is not surprising, as an emotion such as embarrassment is ripe for examining the concept of face, as well as the face and facework strategies that people use to overcome embarrassment in general. Embarrassability is a diverse subject in the academic community, as microsociologists, psychologists and sociolinguists study the phenomenon (Gonzales et al, 1990, p. 610). A broad, interdisciplinary definition of embarrassment would be: a social predicament that stems from how a person wants to behave and how they end up behaving (Edelmann, 1985, p. 196; Metts & Cupach, 1989, p. 151; Modigliani, 1971, p. 16; Semin & Manstead, 1982, pp. 367-368, Sharkey, 1992, p. 257; Silver, Sabini, & Parrott, 1987, p. 47; Weinberg, 1968, p. 382).

Conceptualizing Embarrassment

When embarrassment occurs, the phenomenon will show the basic requirements of role performance for every party (Cross & Stone, 1964, p. 1). However, this is under the assumption that everyone wants to avoid or overcome embarrassment. Embarrassment is innately tied to self-presentation, which is "an attempt to control images of self, or identity-relevant information, before real or imagined audiences" (Edelmann, 1985, p. 200). Embarrassment separates the concepts of how a presenter wants to present themselves to an audience, as well as the embarrassing act that actually occurs. Embarrassability can be conceptualized as an "umbrella term" in face management theories, as there are other forms of similar emotions that are studied. Just a sampling of these include shyness, audience anxiety and shame (Edelmann, 1985, p. 196).

Just as the interdisciplinary research defines embarrassability slightly differently, the conceptual parts of the phenomenon are viewed differently as well. Edelmann (1985) believes that there are two types of embarrassment: the immediate response to an embarrassment is called primary embarrassment, while the response to one's overt embarrassment is called secondary embarrassment (p. 205). However, Silver, Sabini, & Parrot (1987) also add two other terms: (1) anticipatory embarrassment, which is embarrassment that stems from a failure to perform during practice sessions and (2) solitary embarrassment, which is when we embarrass ourselves and nobody else notices (Silver, Sabini, & Parrot, 1987, pp. 49-53).

Despite the differing conceptual variables of embarrassment, there are common characteristics of the phenomenon that many interdisciplinary researchers have agreed upon. Most of the consensus is on the physical symptoms of embarrassment, which include decreased eye contact, increased blushing, increased smiling, postural shifting and speech disturbances (Miller, 1987, p. 1062). Edelman (1985) agrees with Modigliani's 1968 three-step model of embarrassment: (1) an assumption that the embarrassing incident fails to fulfill certain social expectations; (2) a decrease in the individual's perceived public esteem and (3) a decrease in the individual's internal self-esteem (p. 197).

Silver, Sabini, & Parrot (1987) summarized six common characteristics of embarrassment: it is typically unpleasant, is typically accompanied by surprise, face can often be rescued by tact and wit, can be disarmed through humor, is a necessary social function, and can appear exaggerated from the point of view of the embarrassed party (pp. 49-50). Cross & Stone (1964) have observed that embarrassment can be contagious, but can also note that the likelihood may be decreased, particularly if the audience feels that they would be embarrassed themselves (p. 2). Cross & Stone may be inferring that embarrassment is contagious in the sense that it attracts a lot of attention. However, it is unclear the factors that the audience considers on whether or not to react to a person or group's embarrassing predicament.

Sharkey (1992) adds that the experience is often short-lived, but notes that memories may linger if the experience is particularly unsettling or if the person has a long relationship with one or members of the audience (p. 257).Similarly, Silver, Sabini, & Parrot's research on why embarrassment cannot be ignored has received praise within the academic community. In general, these reasons can be categorized by practical, social, moral and psychological limits (Silver, Sabini, & Parrot, 1987, p. 58). The researchers identified four interrelated reasons for embarrassment's overwhelming public visibility. First, there may be a lack of material resources to avoid embarrassment. Second, the gaffe may be too offensive to ignore, such as a racist joke. Third, there may be a difficulty in coordination among embarrassed parties to avoid embarrassment. Fourth, the embarrassed may have a tendency to react too quickly to a potentially embarrassing situation when, in reality, avoidance could prevent embarrassment altogether (Silver, Sabini, & Parrot, 1987, pp. 56-57).

Research on Embarrassment

However, researchers over the years have found unique results to their experiments that convey a fresh take on face and facework. Cross & Stone (1964), for example, classified descriptions of embarrassing situations into three broad categories: (1) loss of social identity, in which an individual is unable to perform in a designated role; (2) loss of personal poise, where an individual fails to control their body or other nearby props; and (3) loss of confidence, where an individual feels uneasy regarding ongoing or future interactions (pp. 1-3).

A common thread among these three broad categories was that they often occurred in a continuous, coordinated role performance (such as a speech, ceremony and so on) in which embarrassment is noticeable at a very public event (Cross & Stone, 1964, p. 2). The researchers also pioneered research into the phenomenon of deliberate embarrassment. Examples of deliberate embarrassment include Greek society hazing, teasing and practical jokes (Cross & Stone, 1964, p. 13).

Cross & Stone believed that there were three main reasons why deliberate embarrassment was perpetuated. First, deliberate embarrassment is believed to sustain the confidence to handle embarrassment later in life (Cross & Stone, 1964, p. 13). In their research questionnaires, Cross & Stone (1964) noticed that the adolescent years were commonly cited as prime times for perpetuating deliberate embarrassment (p. 13). This was believed to prepare teenagers for humiliations in their not-so-distant future as young adults. Second, deliberate embarrassment can be used as a negative sanction, such as "calling out" someone who is giving an undesirable performance (Cross & Stone, 1964, p. 14).

Compared to the first reason, this reason is much more practical, as it prevents an imposter from playing a role that may fool an audience into collective agreement. Likewise, it can encourage and incentivize a performer to give their best performance possible. Third, deliberate embarrassment can be used to establish and maintain power (Cross & Stone, 1964, p. 15). The researchers were not clear as to what constitutes power, but social examples could include fraternity hazing or bullying.

Deliberate embarrassment, like it's counterpart of unintentional embarrassment, often has the same repercussions for the embarrassed person and the audience. Cross & Stone outlined this when they wrote, "The embarrassed person stands exposed as incapable of continued role performance--a person who cannot be depended upon. In his presence, all must pause and review their assessments and expectations" (p. 13). However, unlike unintentional embarrassment, it appears that the audience has a more active role in reviewing the assessments and expectations. After all, assuming that the audience had a role to play in the practical joke, they would be able to see how the embarrassed person would react prior to making any judgment calls.

In 1965, Jerome Sattler performed a study that classified over 3,000 events. He subsequently created five general categories that reflected the possible relationships between the person who feels embarrassed and the person creating the embarrassment: (1) the embarrassed person is the agent; (2) the embarrassed person places another person in a negative position; (3) the embarrassed person is the recipient of the other person's behavior; (4) The other person does something which reflects on the embarrassed person and (5) the embarrassed person is embarrassed for the other person (Sattler, 1965, pp. 19-21). The first two types are predicaments experienced as a result of behavior perpetuated by the embarrassed actor. The last three, on the other hand, pertain to embarrassment experienced by an actor as a result of the actions of another person or group (Cupach & Imahori, 1993, pp. 431-432). The first two are arguably the most studied of these five predicaments.

In 1968, Weinberg performed a situational face management study on nudist camps. Weinberg (1968) believed that nudists were found to not be embarrassed in their surroundings for four reasons. First, nudism and sexuality are unrelated (Weinberg, 1968, p. 385). This makes sense, as none of the nudists observed were engaging in sexual activity. Second, nudists were led to believe that there is nothing shameful about exposing the human body (Weinberg, 1968, p. 385). This is a reasonable assumption because, as members of a specialized camp, they were not breaking any laws by maintaining a nudist lifestyle.

Third, the abandonment of clothes led to a feeling of freedom (Weinberg, 1968, p. 385). Once again, this is a reasonable assumption, as nudists would not feel compelled to join a nudist camp if they did not feel that it complimented their lives in a positive way. Fourth, nudist activities in the sun led to a feeling of physical, mental and spiritual well-being (Weinberg, 1968, p. 385). From a biological standpoint, this view is well-reasoned, as sun exposure leads to the production of mood-boosting Vitamin D.

Weinberg also examined variables that led to this absence of embarrassment among nudist camp members. From a physical standpoint, there is no judgment among an audience in proximity, as the audience is a group of homogenous nudists (Weinberg, 1968, p. 386). From a psychological standpoint, the mere presence of nudists enjoying their time in a nudist camp leads to the normalization of nudist activity (Weinberg, 1968, p. 386). A third variable could be added, namely, that of a secluded area where non-nudist observers were not allowed. The two variables that Weinberg (1968) identified led to a phenomenon that he explained as "the external and internal bases for embarrassment are neutralized" (p. 386).

One of the most influential studies on facework involved Modigliani's 1971 study involving embarrassment and eye contact. Modigliani gathered a group of participants that performed a group activity in which they succeeded or failed, either in public or in private. Modigliani (1971) proposed four hypotheses: (1) embarrassment can only occur in the presence of others; (2) embarrassment can be "attenuated by a knowledge that one's demeanor is not as deficient as it appears to others"; (3) embarrassment is associated with a decrease in eye contact and (4) embarrassment is associated with efforts to improve one's projected self through facework (p. 15).

Modigliani (1971) found partial support for the first hypotheses, as embarrassment could occur either in public or private (p. 15). This became a study that proved influential for Silver, Sabini, & Parrot in 1987, as they coined the term solitary embarrassment to describe embarrassment in private. While hypothesis 2 could not be tested, hypotheses 3 found partial support, but it was suggested that "embarrassed subjects reduced their eye contact with another group member primarily because they resented his criticism of their poor performance" (p. 15). Finally, hypothesis 4 was clearly supported because group members used documented facework strategies to decrease their embarrassment Modigliani, 1971, p. 15).

In 1980, Arnold H. Buss expanded upon Sattler's 1965 work and identified five more types of events that cause considerable embarrassment: impropriety, lack of competence, conspicuousness, breach of privacy and over praise (Cupach & Metts, 1992, p. 150). However, these have been criticized by Edelmann (1987) as failing to "convey a clear picture of the nature of the embarrassing situations" (p. 53). To alleviate this criticism, Cupach & Metts (1990) proposed a taxonomy that identified actors, if any, that were responsible for the embarrassing situation.

An actor responsible is an actor that is responsible for their own embarrassment because their behavior is inconsistent with the three levels of competence: idealized social actor, accomplished role performer, or idealized self image (Cupach & Metts, 1990, p. 343). An idealized social actor is a person who envisions their behavior "to be congruent with normative social expectations" (Cupach & Metts, 1990, p. 344). The observer responsible is "some other person [that] performs [a] behavior that 'thrusts' the embarrassed person into a predicament" (Cupach & Metts, 1990, p. 344). Finally, indirect involvement happens "when the embarrassed person is a passive observer to an embarrassing event or is implicated in an embarrassing event while absent" (Cupach & Metts, 1990, p. 345).

In 1981, Schlenker & Darby studied the use of apologies in social predicaments that stemmed from embarrassment. Their findings influenced Manusov et al's 2004 on complex disclosures because Schlenker & Darby (1981) found that highly-ritualized apologies were made during very serious infractions, concluding, "As expected, subjects said they would use the ritualized form only when the consequences were low. The interaction indicated that when the consequences were trivial, greater responsibility produced the greatest use of the perfunctory apology" (p. 275). Schlenker & Darby (1987) also found that avoiding solutions as the transgression unfolded was ineffective, writing:

Walking away from the transgression without doing anything was apparently considered an inappropriate response, as subjects said they were unlikely to do so. However, acknowledging the presence of the other through some non-verbal action and then walking away without doing anything else was a more viable tactic, but only when the consequences were low (p. 275).

This finding would receive mixed results within the academic community. Brown & Levinson (1987) would likely disagree with this view, as they view avoidance to be a highly-effective strategy because it avoids any confrontation at all (p. 77). However, a researcher like Brett (2000) would take a moderate view, arguing that it depends on whether a culture is high-context or low-context (p. 101). Oetzel and Ting-Toomey (2003) would likely concur on the grounds that other face is associated positively with avoiding conflict styles (p. 604). However, Silver, Sabini, & Parrot (1987) would agree with Schlenker & Darby's view, adding that their research discovered why embarrassment cannot be ignored based upon practical, social, moral and psychological limits (p. 58).

One of the most under-studied facets of face and facework are the gender differences on how conflict is perceived and solved. Petronio (1984) found that women often employed represented excuses (denial of responsibility), while men reported justifications (accepting of responsibility) as more helpful in reducing embarrassment (p. 28). Cupach, Metts & Hazleton (1986) echoed Petronio's study on the female denial of responsibility and the male acceptance of responsibility. However, Cupach, Metts and Hazleton (1986) found that females preferred apologies over males, while males rated excuses less appropriate than females. Males, however, rated avoidance more appropriate than females (pp. 187-188).

Gonzales et al (1990) examined not only gender differences in accounts, but also the status and consequences associated with them. Gonzales et al (1990) found that women would provide deeper accounts, which is surprising because "women spent no more time on the average than men in their conversation with the confederates, and spoke at approximately the same rate on the average as did men" (p. 618). Contrary to previous studies that maintained women were more likely to provide more excuses than men, Gonzales et al (1990) found that women were more likely to apologize repeatedly, as well as provide assistance. As such, women were viewed as being more polite than men (pp. 618-619). Gonzales et al (1990) hypothesized that this was due to a female's socialization of how a "proper lady" should act (p. 618).

Holtgarves (1992) made five major prepositions of the face management theory of language: (1) "When people perform face threatening acts, they will construct their utterances so as to encode face concerns, both for single turns at talk and for sequences of talk;" (2) "the more threatening the act, the greater extent to which face concerns will be encoded;" (3) "the hearer's face will be supported, however, only when the speaker's own face is not an overriding concern;" (4) "the face management processes involved in language production also will play a role in language comprehension; the extent to which face concerns are salient will increase the likelihood that an utterance will be interpreted directly; and (5) individuals may differ in their assessment of the degree of face-threat, and this situation will result in differences in the extent to which their speech attends to face (p. 155).

Holtgarves (1992) believed that these preposition were useful and necessary because, not only are they broad, that they also "can explain the production of other verbal acts such as accounts, disagreements, and self-disclosures" (p. 156). He also believed that, even if face strategies were never classified, there would eventually be a need to classify them because of the sheer amount of face concerns (p. 156). Nonetheless, Holtgarves (1992) also added that the propositions would not only apply to specific research subjects, but also to research fields as a whole, writing, "because face is central in social interaction, face management theory may be applied profitably to language comprehension, person perception, and cross-cultural communication, among other things" (p. 156).

William Sharkey (1992) continued research on intentional embarrassment that was made popular by Cross & Stone (1964), as well as his own research from the previous year. Like Cross & Stone (1964), Sharkey (1991) believed that intentional embarrassment was perpetuated for three reasons: (1) inducing guilt; (2) seeking compliance; and (3) controlling poor performance. Clearly, there is some overlap between Cross & Stone (1964) because Sharkey's second reason is similar to establishing and maintaining power (p. 15). Sharkey (1992) made three propositions for the existence of intentional embarrassment: (1) intentional embarrassment is used for attaining goals, specifically to violate the nature of interactants' working consensus, as well as a "direct affront to their presented identities; (2) "using embarrassment as a display of solidarity may indicate that the embarrassor trusts that the embarrassed individual implicitly understands that his or her behavior is to be taken as a display of togetherness;" and (3) "assuming that a show of solidarity is performed with friends and relatives, as intimacy increases in a relationship, the desire to uphold a partner's positive face (desire for social approval) also increases" (pp. 267-268). With regards to the first proposition, Sharkey found that there may not be a problematic violation for victims of intentional embarrassment, especially if

the victim(s) are friends or family members. This aligns quite well with Sharkey & Stafford's (1990) assertion that how an individual copes with face threats depends upon who is perpetuating the face-threatening act (pp. 315-317).

In fact, Sharkey (1992) felt that intentional embarrassment would be perceived much differently if the victim(s) knew about the act beforehand, writing, "the embarrassor assumes that all parties involved understand that the embarrassor's behavior is to be interpreted in a non-malevolent manner and, as such, is in line with his or her role-identity" (p. 267). Sharkey also carefully explained Cross & Stone's (1964) assertion that intentional embarrassment is a means for achieving power, delineating between teasing and bullying. Writing about teasing, Sharkey (1992) concluded that, "participants were least likely to employ teasing to achieve power. Teasing is playful in nature" (p. 270).

Sharkey's research, as well as that of Cross & Stone's, in proved influential for Ting-Toomey's research on face negotiation theory because power distances and social hierarchies were categorized and explained. In particular, Sharkey's research would correspond roughly to Ting-Toomey's power distances because smaller power distances are generally more informal interactions (such as with friends and family) and, thus, have a greatly-diminished possibility of creating real harm during a face-threatening act.

Hodgins, Liebeskind & Schwartz (1996) identified three variables that influence face threat: (1) general causality motivation orientation, (2) sex differences and (3) blameworthiness (pp. 301-302). General causality motivation orientation consists of three factors: (1) autonomy orientation, which is the tendency to imitate behavior out of choices based upon an awareness of one's needs, feelings and goals; (2) control orientation, which is the tendency to find external controls and experience events as pressures that determines feelings and behaviors; and (3) impersonal orientation, which is the tendency to experience desired outcomes as unable to be attained, while displaying little sense of intentionality (p. 301). Hodgins et al's (1996) research on sex differences found that men were more likely to repair their own faces and attend to others' less than women do (p. 301).

This result, of course, stands in stark contrast to Gonzales et al's (1990) finding that found women to be more likely to apologize repeatedly, as well as provide assistance (pp. 618-619). However, this finding mirrors that of Petronio (1984) and Cupach, Metts & Hazleton (1986), who both found that men were more accepting of responsibility. Finally, blameworthiness is the degree to which guilty perpetrators cannot claim positive social identity (Goffman, 1955, pp. 215). ). Hodgins et al's (1996) research found that men in particular were highly blameworthy and "would be associated with lower threshold for one's own face threat" (p. 302). They also found that men provided shorter accounts and were more aggravating, which led them to conclude that "maleness may be viewed as another determinant of threshold for face threat and, consequently, of defensiveness" (Hodgins et al, 1996, p. 312). Ironically, men who employed aggression in their accounts expected a brighter future for their relationships. This led the researchers to conclude that men were not nearly as cognizant of the negative consequences for future interactions (Hodgins et al, 1996, p. 312).

Hodgins et al (1996) believed that closeness was the main factor that influenced the motivation to maintain the relationship, noting that it prevents conflict by writing, "There is evidence that people implicitly understand that severe predicaments have an impact on future relationships and that aggravating accounts will terminate a relationship" (p. 302). Thus, they found support in their study that people would make more of an effort to repair a close relationship, as opposed to a more distant one.

This roughly translates to their study subjects making "more mitigating and fewer aggravating statements" (Hodgins et al, 1992, p. 302). This finding aligns well with Baxter's (1984) study, which examined compliance-gaining as a form of politeness (pp. 427-429). Interestingly, Hodgins et al's finding contradicts a similar study by McLaughlin, Cody, & O'Hair (1983), which did not find study participants using more polite tactics in close relationships when making a face-threatening statement (pp. 208-209).

Brackett's (2000) study examined the facework strategies among romance fiction readers. Brackett (2000) defined "face" when reading a book as "the positive image an actor attempts to maintain in the eyes of her observers. The readers, then, feel obligated to justify the reading, not only in terms of the time spent, but why it is useful and enjoyable" (p. 348). This study brought up an interesting concept because reading what may be considered a taboo book is a choice that is open to criticism. Reading a book in public enables onlookers to see the title of the book, as well as the artwork, allowing the public to classify a book as a taboo romance novel.

Using the facework strategies identified by Goffman, Brackett separated facework strategies into preventative and corrective. However, Brackett also employed a third categorization in which readers blend both strategies. The two main preventative strategies were (1) concealing the book and (2) establishing sophistication by criticizing those who read elementary-level romances (Bracket, 2000, pp. 350-352). The two main corrective strategies identified by Brackett (2000) were (1) citing intellectual validity, in that romance novels (particularly longer novels with well-developed characters) contain lessons that can be applied to real life; and (2) classifying romance novels as any other book--a leisure activity designed to escape the pressures of everyday life (pp. 353-355).

The dual preventative-corrective strategy was the separation of oneself from the typical romance reader. Brackett (2000) explained this by writing, "This is a way to decrease their chance of stigma by association and stifle the critics when they are uncovered as romance readers. As such, separating can be used in both preventative and corrective situations" (p. 355). Thus, taking all of the facework strategies into account, Brackett's research suggests that the tactics employed by readers are more important than the stigma itself (Brackett, 2000, p. 357).

Humphreys' (2005) study examined how people proceed through their daily social interactions while talking on a cell phone. Her study drew heavily upon Goffman's (1971) research on the two types of people in public spaces: (1) people who are alone ("singles") and (2) people who are with other people ("withs") (p. 331). Goffman's research found that "singles" are treated much differently than "withs." "Singles," Goffman (1971) found, were much more vulnerable to contact from others and were far more likely to be judged as anti-social (pp. 22-26). The cell phone, in this case, proved to be a game-changer because "singles" could appear busy talking to someone else, regardless if someone else was on the other line (Humphreys, 2005, p. 813).

Goffman (1971) believed that the lack of non-verbal cues in a phone conversation was a hindrance to social reality (p. 220). He believed that, without non-verbal cues, it was difficult to gain a sense of how the other person was really feeling. Interestingly, Goffman's (1971) view on phones contradicts Humphreys' study because he felt that telephone calls interrupt face-to-face interactions, leading physical bystanders to feel alienated by the intrusion of the call (p. 220). However, this can be explained by the technological developments in which each author lived. When Goffman was alive, the cell phone had not yet been adopted by the mainstream public, due to their clunky and expensive nature. Thus, the landline could be considered a "sacred space" because, since this is where every call was routed to, those answering the phone only had one location to take the call. Therefore, the receiver had to give each call care and attention. The boundaries of this "sacred space" is made clearer, as landline cords could only stretch so far.

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