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Face negotiation theory

Face-negotiation theory is a theory first proposed by Brown and Levinson (1978) to understand how people from different cultures manage rapport and disagreements. The theory posits "face", or self-image, as a universal phenomenon that pervades across cultures. In conflicts, one's face is threatened; and thus the person tends to save or restore his or her face. This set of communicative behaviors, according to the theory, is called "facework". Since people frame the situated meaning of "face" and enact "facework" differently from one culture to the next, the theory poses a cultural-general framework to examine facework negotiation.

Face-negotiation theory is primarily based on the research of Brown and Levinson. In this theory, "face" is a metaphor for self-image, which originates from two Chinese conceptualizations: lien and mien-tzu. Lien is the internal moral face that involves shame, integrity, debasement, and honor issues. Mien-tzu, on the other hand, is the external social face that involves social recognition, position, authority, influence and power.

Erving Goffman situated "face" in contemporary Western research. He noted that face is a concern for one's projected image that is both immediate and spontaneous and is tied to the dynamics of social interaction. Correspondingly, "facework" denotes actions taken to maintain consistency between the self and public line. Further research by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson on politeness suggests that the desire for face is a universal concern.

Ting-Toomey expands this thinking and conceptualizes face as an individual's claimed sense of favorable social self-image in a relational and network context. Facework is defined as clusters of communicative behaviors that are used to enact self-face and to uphold, challenge/threaten, or support the other person's face.

With these concepts and frameworks, Face-Negotiation Theory investigates intercultural conflict styles. The perceived or actual conflict differences revolve around three issues: content, relational, and identity. Content conflict refers to the substantive issues external to the individual involved. Relational conflict refers to how individuals define, or would like to define, the particular relationship in that particular conflict episode. Identity-based conflict concerns issues of issues of identity confirmation-rejection, respect-disrespect, and approval-disapproval. In this way, identity issues are tided closely to culture-based face-orientation factors. A face-threatening episode is an identity expectancy violation episode. Thus, the Face-Negotiation Theory views conflict, intercultural conflict in particular, as a situation that demands active facework management from the two interdependent conflict parties.

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  • Cupach, W. & Metts, S. (1994). Facework. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Greenberg, J., Simon, L., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & Chatel, D. (1992). Terror Management and Tolerance: Does Mortality Salience Always Intensify Negative Reactions to Others Who Threaten One's Worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63,212-220.
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  • Kirschbaum, K. (2012). Physician communication in the operating room: expanding application of face-negotiation theory to the health communication context. Health communication, 27(3), 292-301.
  • Oetzel,J., Ting-Toomey, S., Yokochi, Y., Masumoto, T.,& Takai, J., (2000). A Typology of Facework and Behaviors in Conflicts with Best Friends and Relative Strangers. Communication Quarterly, Vol 48 No 4 Pg 397-419
  • Oetzel,J., Meares, M., Myers, K., & Lara, E., (2002). Interpersonal Conflict in Organizations: Explaining Conflict Styles via Face-Negotiation Theory. Communication Research Reports Vol 20 No 2 Pg 106-115
  • Oetzel, John, Stella Ting-Toomey, Martha Idalia Chew-Sanchez, Richard Harris, Richard Wilcox, and Siegfried Stumpf. "Face and Facework in Conflicts With Parents and Siblings: A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Germans, Japanese, Mexicans, and U.S. Americans ." Journal Of Family Communication. 3.2 (2003): 67-93.
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  • Ting-Toomey, S. (1988). Intercultural conflict styles: A face negotiation theory. In Y. Y. Kim & W. B. Gudykunst (Eds.), Theories in intercultural communication (pp. 213–238). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  • Ting-Toomey, S. (1997). Intercultural conflict competence. In W. Cupach and D. Canary (Eds.), Competence in interpersonal conflict, New York: McGraw-Hill. pp.120-147.
  • Ting-Toomey, S., & Kurogi, A. (1998). Facework competence in intercultural conflict: An updated face-negotiation theory.International journal of intercultural relations, 22(2), 187-225.
  • Ting-Toomey, S. (1999). Face and facework. In J. Mio, J. Trimble, P. Arredondo, H. Cheatham, & D. Sue (Eds.) Key words in multicultural interventions. (pp. 125-127), Westport, CT: Greenwood.
  • Ting-Toomey, S. (2004). Translating conflict face-negotiation theory into practice. In Landis, D. R., Bennett, J. M., & Bennett, M. J. (Eds.). Handbook of intercultural training. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Ting-Toomey, S. (2005) The Matrix of Face: An Updated Face-Negotiation Theory. In W.B. Gudykunst (Ed.), Theorizing About Intercultural Communication(pp. 71–92). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Ting-Toomey, Stella, and John Oetzel. (2003). Face Concerns in Interpersonal Conflict: A Cross-Cultural Empirical Test of the Face Negotiation Theory. Communication Research. 30.6 (2003): 599-624.
  • Tracy, K., & Baratz, S. (1994). The case for case studies of facework. In S. Ting-Toomey (Ed.), The challenge of facework (pp. 287–306). Albany, NY: SUNY.
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  • Yep, G. A. (1998). Safer sex negotiation in cross-cultural romantic dyads: An extension of Ting-Toomey's face negotiation theory. In Cole, E., Rothblum, E. D., Fuller, L. K., & Roth, N. (Eds.). Women and AIDS: Negotiating safer practices, care, and representation. Routledge, NY: Taylor & Francis. pp. 81-100.


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