Face Management Theory: Modern Conceptualizations and Future Directions

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

Underlying Axiological Assumptions

Advantages of Face Management Theories

Axiology is the study of value. With the voluminous amount of research on face, facework and face negotiation theory within the broad term of face management, these theoretical underpinnings offer a rich, applied practice in both the domestic and international contexts. For starters, the concept of face is recognized as being inherent in every person, regardless of their cultural identity (Cupach & Imahori, 1993, p. 431). This is important for two reasons. First, this shows that virtually any face management theory can be applied to just about everyone. Second, it also implies a great deal of respect for the individuality of each person. At the same time, this facet also recognizes that cultural norms are relativistic and should be approached pragmatically.

Much of the recent research on face management has leaned towards face negotiation theory. This is not at all surprising, as the world is becoming increasingly globalized, thanks in part to sophisticated, wide-ranging digital communication. Thus, a face management theory like face negotiation has a broad scope and explains phenomena that "occur frequently or in a wide range of circumstances" (Cupach & Metts, 2008, p. 212). With such a broad scope, it is easy for an inherently-heuristic theory to inspire future research on very specific matters, such as intercultural communication (Cupach & Metts, 2008, p. 212; West & Turner, 2004). At the same time, such a theory can be adapted and integrated towards each generation.

As this paper has detailed, the evolving research on face management theory in general has proceeded in a logical, easy-to-understand manner. The rudimentary knowledge of face and facework was explained by Goffman, while Stella Ting-Toomey was able to expand upon the theory in an increasingly-globalized world. At each stage, new variables (such as power distance and self-construals) and were added as a means for organizing an "explanatory framework for conflict behaviors" (Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 2003, p. 602). Face negotiation theory, in particular, will likely be researched more because our "global village is becoming smaller" (West & Turner, 2004). This is happening mainly because demographic changes domestically and internationally substantially increase the likelihood of heterogeneity, which in turn, is more likely going to cause conflict due to cultural differences (Oetzel et al, 2000, p. 398).

Theories that involve face management are particularly good for students of all ages (Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 2003, p. 617). Ting-Toomey's research on face negotiation theory, in particular, is ideal because Ting-Toomey uses her Chinese background to avoid an overly-Westernized perspective. One of the hallmarks of academic freedom is the diversity of ideas. When students are exposed to varying cultures and utilize face management theories (particularly face negotiation), they can create a welcoming and understanding environment for an endlessly diverse combination of intriguing ideas. This will prove to be useful for life after graduation because virtually every career requires communication with a diverse group of co-workers, supervisors, clients and the like.

However, there are some career paths that would explicitly require the use of a face management theory, such as face negotiation. For public relations practitioners who are traveling to a foreign country to meet with a client, face negotiation strategies will enhance the understanding of why particular cultural practices differ, thus allowing practitioners to manage cultural conflicts in a productive manager (Elsayed-Ekhouly & Buda, 1996, p. 71). Thus, in turn, will lead to an increased likelihood of business success for the practitioner. Likewise, employees who are employed with a foreign corporation would stand to benefit. (Fernandez et al, 1997, p. 52). With increased globalization comes fiercer competition from businesses, which highlights the importance for all businesses to maintain a culturally-diverse, ethically-sound corporate brand personality (Keller & Richey, 2006, p. 74).

Disadvantages of Face Management Theories

As with many theories, face management theory is not without their drawbacks. Although face management theories inspire future research, this can prove to be cumbersome, as it is not concise (Cupach & Metts, 2008, p. 213). While various face management theories are fairly straightforward, applying them to different countries can be an exhaustive process (Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 2003, p. 617). This owes to the great diversity of countries throughout the world, the predominantly-Westernized perspective in cross-cultural research, and some conflicting research. For instance, while Ting-Toomey theorized that individualistic cultures are not usually compromising, West & Turner (2004) found that some of Ting-Toomey's research had highly-individualistic American respondents that employed a very high degree of compromising when faced with a conflict.

While Brown & Levinson's research is highly-influential in face management, Holtgarves (1992) was particularly critical of politeness theory. Brown & Levinson's face management strategies have an inherent tension between giving and receiving face through accounts because, if one face-saving strategy does not work, further explanation will be needed in the form of an account (Holtgarves, 1992, pp. 150-151). Similarly, the ordering of the super strategies may not always be face-saving through disagreements because saving face is an orderly process on a theoretical level, as opposed to on an applied level Holtgarves, 1992, pp. 150-151). Likewise, face management strategies could occur over a series of moves, as opposed to being exercised in a single-turn (Holtgarves, 1992, pp. 150-151). This facet is illustrated in self-disclosures because social interactions are constantly in flux between two or more parties.

Holtgarves (1992) also felt that Brown & Levinson's identification of the bald on-record strategy was not a face strategy at all because even those who are unaware of face rules can still perform this strategy (p. 144). Likewise, Holtgarves (1992) felt that the avoidance process did not add any new research to Goffman's avoidance process (p. 144). Similarly, Leech (1983) found off-record requests to be inefficient and therefore not the politest strategy to employ (p. 128). Between the bald on-record request and avoidance are the off-record requests, where the speaker drops a hint to the receiver.

Holtgarves & Yang (1990) found the off-record requests to be manipulative, especially towards people who do not understand the hint being offered (p. 724). However, much of the criticism levied against off-record requests is theoretical in nature (Holtgarves, 1992, p. 145). It remains difficult to examine off-record requests in an everyday conversation. Time-consuming and expensive textual analysis therefore often has to be used to analyze conversations. But even then, verbal hints dropped in a conversation may be easier to identify and understand because it is difficult to transcribe body language and verbal tones.

The effects of relationship distance on politeness has received mixed results (Holtgarves, 1992, p. 145). As Brown & Levinson understood this logic, the high distance, unfamiliar relationships had an unknown potential for aggression. Thus, politeness is used to signal a lack of aggressive intent. Of course, in low distance, familiar relationships, this is a given. If relationship theory is conceptualized as the degree of familiarity between interactants, then the theory is a strong one. On the other hand, if relationship theory is conceptualized as both familiarity and liking, then research suggests that this conceptualization is incorrect (Slugoski & Turnbull, 1988, p. 105). To remedy this issue, Brown & Gilman (1989) suggested that a separate variable called "relationship liking" be included to address how much the speaker likes the receiver (p. 196)

Future Research

Since theories that fall under face management involve solving face-threatening acts, future research would likely examine the identification of situations that cause a face-threatening acts to occur. One area that prior research has focused on is what is considered a taboo topic. Of course, this will vary from generation to generation. In U.S. history, for example, taboo topics included: women's rights (prior to 1920), prohibition (1920-1933) and race relations (prior to 1960). However, taboo topics can also vary from country to country. As of this writing, for example, the U.S. is considered to be a more welcoming society for the LGBT community, while Russia is not.

Future research would benefit if it included experiments that focus on digital media. Over the past twenty years, digital media has proved to be an indispensible source of communication for the global community. As such, interpersonal communication is no longer limited to just face-to-face communication (Knapp & Daly, 2011, p. 10). Digital communication will likely increase in the future, as handheld electronic communication devices continue to shrink in size and become more sophisticated. With the implementation of GPS tracking in many handheld communication devices, it would be easier to track usage based on country. For instance, extending Humphreys' (2005) study on cell phones usage, researchers could examine face-threatening acts that occur over video chat services, such as Skype of Apple's Face Time. However, one little-discussed aspect of the sophistication of digital media is the fact that messages, text messages and (sometimes) calls are digitized and archived, threatening privacy because this leaves a digital paper trail.

In research that examines a face-threatening act, digital media could be used to collect and analyze aggregate data. In previous decades, researchers were confined to using costly and time-consuming conversation-analytic research, which sometimes did not detect subtle conversation clues that triggered a face-threatening act (Holtgarves, 1992, p. 148). Now, researchers would be able to use video, audio and digital transcribing services to analyze a conversation in real-time. Even after an experiment has ended, researchers can still conduct easy-to-use and highly convenient online surveys to be sent to their research subjects to triangulate their research.

Expanding beyond digital media, future research would certainly benefit on a precise definition of a highly-valued "social skill" for different cultures. Goffman himself alluded to this when he referred to a social skill as "tact," "savoir faire," and "diplomacy" (Cupach & Metts, 2008, p. 213). With a highly-valued social skill, an individual could protect themselves from experiencing a face-threatening act. Clearly, this would translate into significant social power for this individual. At the same time, however, this power could be used to inflict a face-threatening act on another individual or group (Sharkey, 1992, pp. 270-271). With this in mind, future research could also examine the ethical considerations of intentional embarrassment (Sharkey, 1992, pp. 270-271).

Edelmann (1985) believed that some cultures were more prone to embarrassment than others, so future research could focus on how to conceptualize embarrassability among cultures (p. 210). Many of the same variables from previous research could be integrated, including power-distance, vertical/horizontal social dimensions and individualistic/collectivistic classifications. Holtgarves (1992) believed that one of the most important aspects of future research was the shift of single utterances to sequences of utterances (pp. 155-156). Recall that many of the face management theories outlined in this paper focused on steps to take for someone caught in a face-threatening situation. Sometimes, these steps would require multiple passes, as opposed to just one pass.

With face negotiation theory, one important aspect that has not been studied are the within-culture differences towards negotiating face (Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 2003, p. 616). For example, a country like Great Britain has a fragmented culture because there is no collective consensus on what it means to be British. Rather, people feel a sense of loyalty to the areas where they live, such as Birmingham and Manchester. Future research could examine some of these areas to determine the specific face negotiation strategies they would use, as well as how people process deviant behavior and how they sanction this behavior (Ungar, 1981, p. 263). Likewise, it could also focus on the non-verbal strategies that people use to negotiate face (Oetzel et al, 2000, p. 416). This would be a more difficult aspect to study, given that a transcript would not suffice to capture the rich diversity of non-verbal strategies.


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