Face Negotiation Theory

Asians and Americans have a difference that is less talked about, not racial but social in nature. The difference is how they behave in conflict situations due to their social upbringing, as Asians belong to collectivist culture and they think of their whole group before making any decision and try to negotiate to protect their image in conflicts unlike Americans.

Cultural differences create communication as a response to conflicts. Face Negotiation Theory talks about keeping or saving face in conflict situations according to the culture of people involved. Here, face refers to identity and personality we let others see or a public image. The social public image of any person is just a display of the person according to his/her needs and wants. This image made through cultural differences change the way people manage conflicts. It is used mostly for interpersonal communication and group communication.

The theory was introduced by Stella Ting Toomey in 1985, a professor of human communication at California State University. It states that people handle conflicts to maintain a face in the society which is done according to the desire of individuals to confirm to a group. She got the idea while she was doing her doctoral research at University of Washington. She found that most of the researches were biased to Western culture and only showed their viewpoints and "other face" in people from Eastern or collectivist cultures were not in individualistic cultures. She also build this theory due to her disagreements with interpersonal conflict communication theories of 1980s.

 trying to hide face and be somebody else to face conflicts

Concepts in Face Negotiation Theory

People have self-face that is only known by himself/herself and another face that is known to the world also known as personality. There are two kinds of people- collectivist and individualist. Collectivist people try to solve conflicts in a compromising and accommodating way. Individualistic people try to solve conflicts in a competing and aggressive way. People have status and status quo in collectivist societies and have less individualism. Collective behavior is found to be more in people who are worried about their image in the society.

Culture defines what kind of personality is favorable. Personality in turn creates behavior patterns. Realities of people are created through their lifetime. Conflict styles as well as conflict resolving is a learnt behavior that comes with socialization. People can have characteristics like dominating, avoiding, obliging, compromising, and integrating.

Toomey included three conflict managing styles to the five used for Western countries which were:

  • Avoiding- Collectivist approach, keep away from conflicts
  • Compromising- Negotiate and come to an agreement as a individualist approach
  • Dominating- Individualistic approach, never bow down
  • Integrating- Work together, both collectivist and individualist but more of an individualist approach
  • Obliging- Do what other says, collectivist approach

The three added styles of conflict management were:

  • Emotional expression- Speak needs and wants clearly to control conflict.
  • Third-party help- Taking help from other people to resolve conflict.
  • Passive aggression- Place blame on other people indirectly.

When face becomes bad due to a conflict, a face restoration is needed which is done through a facework strategy. The strategy is used to preserve autonomy and to build it back to its original condition. The damages must be repaired and restored. Face giving strategy is used in collectivist cultures to decrease face threat to other members of groups as the members also have inclusion needs. Face giving is to retain face threats and maintain face mutually.

Locus of face is the degree to which somebody concerns of self and others face. Face move patterns or face movements are related to:

  • High level of concern to self face and other face: Mutual face protection
  • Low level of concern to self face and other face: Mutual face obliteration
  • High level of concern to self face and low level to other face: Self face defense
  • High level of concern to other face and low level to self face: Other face defense

Masquerade to hide real personality

Features of Face Negotiation Theory

  • It tries to understand intercultural communication.
  • The theory also tries to explain its dynamics.
  • Cultures are divided into individualist and collectivist.
  • Different cultures have different ways to save face and resolve conflicts.
  • People doing one thing according to their culture might not be appropriate in other cultures.
  • Everyone wants to save face regardless of their culture.
  • The theory tries to understand conflicts.
  • Faces are taken as positive and negative.
  • This is a negotiating process.
  • Individual personality also play a part.

Examples of Face Negotiation Theory

People in Western countries are more individualistic and they have a different way to react in conflicts in comparison to the people in Eastern countries. Individualistic people become more aggressive and progress oriented in conflicting situations. They try to protect themselves and dominate or compete in times of trouble. Unlike it, collectivist people show their cultural characteristics in hard times. They try to avoid troubles and are very accommodating. They also try to compromise or oblige to the conditions of the other party.

Individualistic people speak up for rights and freedoms as well as try to be independent. They are said to make other people lose face to save their own face. Collectivist culture teaches people to value we-feeling. Group needs are kept in the forefront. Similar to their stance, their communication tones, gestures and words are changed in their communication to solve the conflict.

Different cultures can have different meanings for various feelings like eye contact as respect or rudeness. In some Western cultures people take eye contact as a good gesture of attention and respect. But, in contrast, some Asian cultures take it as rude if the person is talking to someone in power.

For instance, when a Korean multinational company starts a branch in America, the American staffs must also learn to follow collectivist culture as their bosses value such cultures. They must learn to save their own face and other's face too.

According to Ting-Toomey, people from collectivist culture try to save face of other people too like when a classmate comes late, others make excuses for them. Though it doesn't benefit them in any way, they save others too, which is known as saving "other face".

Criticisms of Face Negotiation Theory

  • Individualistic behavior is growing among people and it is being taken as normal which is making negotiation theory irrelevant. It is happening mostly in Western countries.
  • Face negotiation cannot be generalized in all situations.
  • Ting-Toomey herself found with further research that collectivist cultured people can also be self-protective like the Japanese people.
  • Inheritance of authority provides power in collectivist culture is also falsified by researches as such people can also be egalitarian.
  • The theory has been updated and upgraded too many times, the latest one was in 2005.
  • It has been widely applied and is taken as a practical theory.
  • The theory sometimes might not be able to explain cultural differences.
  • The theory is becoming less applicable due to globalization.