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Concept of Face

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English

Face is a sociological concept that plays an important role in sociology and sociolinguistics. The concept of face refers to an individual's public self-image, which is constantly progressing and developing within social interactions. Each individual in society has a face they may wish to preserve and protect from face-threatening acts, like humiliation or loss of respect. We also generally try to preserve the face of the people we interact with.

Concept of face

The concept of face as a sociological term has been around since the 1950s and was established by the American sociologist Erving Goffman. Goffman first introduced 'face' into social theory in his 1955 article On Face-work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements of Social Interaction and later expanded on the concept further in his 1967 book Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior.

Goffman defines face as 'the positive public image you seek to establish in social interactions'. He also suggests that individuals are emotionally attached to the face they have constructed for social situations and feel good when their face has been protected or maintained. In contrast, a loss of face, either through embarrassment, criticism, or disagreements, can result in emotional pain or distress.

Goffman identified three levels that influence an individual's actions in order to meet their face needs:

  • An individual's need to fulfil their own wishes is described as pride.
  • An individual's emotional and physical attitude in social interactions is described as dignity.
  • An individual's duties towards society are defined as honour.

Face is an abstract concept and has nothing to do with your physical face! Goffman recommends thinking of your 'face' more like a mask.

Chinese concept of face

Although face was established as a sociological term by Goffman, the concept itself originates from China, and it is still an important aspect of Chinese culture today. In China, there are two different words for the concept of face, Mianzi (面子) and Lian (臉) (Mianzi 面子 is the older and more common term). Although the two words have overlapping meanings, there are a few distinct differences between them.

  • Mianzi (面子) = An individual's status, prestige, social position.
  • Lian (臉) = A sense of shame in relation to social standards of morality and behavior.

It is possible for a person to have Mianzi and yet have no Lian. For example, a corrupt official who disregards social and moral standards has no Lian. However, if he has status and prestige, he has Mianzi.

Some theorists have suggested that the Chinese concept of face goes far beyond the narrower Western concept. Unlike the 'Western face', which is more individualistic, 'Chinese face' is more relational and affected by others in the community. Typically speaking, 'Chinese face' is more about how an individual is viewed by others, and their face can either be given and earned or taken away and lost.

Lin Yutang, an influential Chinese writer, stated that:

Face can be granted and lost and fought for and presented as a gift. Abstract and intangible, it is yet the most delicate standard by which Chinese social intercourse is regulated. ¹

Here are some common Chinese phrases involving the term face²:

  • Having face (有 面子): Having a good reputation or good social standing.
  • Not having face (没 面子): Not having a good reputation or having bad social standing.
  • Giving face (给 面子): Giving respect to someone in order to improve their standing or reputation.
  • Saving face (面子): Keeping others from losing respect for oneself or to avoid embarrassment.
  • Losing face (丢脸): Losing social status or hurting one's reputation.
  • Not wanting face (不要脸): Acting shamelessly in a way that suggests one doesn't care about one's own reputation.

Example of gaining face = A parent helps and supports their child through their education and they end up getting accepted to a very good university. Not only does the parent feel happy for their child, but they also feel they have gained face through their child's achievements.

Example of losing face = Leaving a tip in a restaurant in China may seem like a kind gesture, but it could actually cause your waiter to lose face. Tipping is not a common occurrence in China and leaving money on the table may cause your waiter to feel inferior, as if they need charity to get by. In fact, when dealing with money it is always better to be discreet!

The importance of maintaining or 'saving' one's face is not only prominent in China, but also across much of Asia, especially in East Asian countries.

Men can't live without face, trees can't live without bark. "

人 要 脸 树 要 皮 - Chinese Proverb.

Positive and negative face theory

Politeness theory is an important branch of pragmatics and was developed by Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson in the 1970s. The theory draws heavily upon Erving Goffman's concept of face and has advanced this concept with a particular focus on how and why we are polite to others.

Politeness theory works on the assumption that we each have two different types of face: Positive face and Negative face.

Positive face is defined as an individual's desire to be liked and appreciated by others. You can think of this as a person's self-esteem.

Negative face describes an individual's desire to protect their personal rights, such as their freedom of speech and action.

When we are polite to people, we are appealing to either their Positive or Negative 'face'.

Appealing to a person's Positive Face = Making the individual feel good and positive about themselves.

Appealing to a person's negative face = Making the other person feel like they haven't been imposed upon or taken advantage of.

Brown and Levinson suggest that when we are rude to people or impede their personal freedoms, we commit face-threatening acts to the listener's face. When we admit and apologize for our own shortcomings, we commit face-threatening acts to our own (the speaker's) face. They also suggest that cooperation is needed amongst the participants during any social interaction to maintain each other's face.

Concept of face Positive and negative face StudySmarter'Face' can be thought of as a mask we put on during social interactions, StudySmarter Originals

Both Goffman and Brown & Levinson's approach to face has been accused of being ethnocentric in its approach as it fails to recognize that politeness can vary between countries and cultures. The main criticism is that they invoke a Western-centric bias towards Anglo-Saxon culture. It has been suggested that different cultural backgrounds may lead to different kinds of politeness.

Ethnocentric = To see one's own culture as 'normal', and to evaluate other cultures against it.

Face and interpersonal communication

As the concept of face is inherently linked with social interactions, we'll now look at the different ways interpersonal communication can impact face.

Face-saving acts

Face-saving involves doing or saying something to avoid embarrassment or a loss of social status. Face-saving behaviour typically occurs when an individual has made a mistake or a 'social blunder' and then acts to uphold their dignity. Face-saving acts can involve individuals attempting to save their own face and other people helping someone else maintain their face. Helping someone else save face can be done actively or passively. Passive face-saving takes a 'do no harm' approach and means you avoid doing or saying things that would embarrass the other person. In comparison, active face-saving is where you go out of your way to help and rescue them, for example, by taking the blame for something that wasn't your fault.

I'm sorry I'm late! The traffic was terrible! I did check the news, but it didn't say anything about there being any traffic." - Here the speaker is attempting to 'save face' by giving excuses for being late and removing the blame from themselves.

An older man leaves the bathroom with some toilet paper stuck to his shoe. To avoid embarrassing him in public and causing him to lose face, everyone ignores it and waits for him to figure it out himself.

You notice that someone has made an error. Instead of correcting that person, you let it slide to help them 'save face'.

Face-threatening acts

A face-threatening act is when communication can damage a person's sense of face. Face-threatening acts can be verbal (using words or language), paraverbal (conveyed in the characteristics of speech such as tone or inflexion), or non-verbal (facial expressions or body language). According to Brown and Levinson, face-threatening acts may threaten either the speaker's or the listener's positive or negative face.

I don't like that outfit at all! " - This statement would likely threaten the listener's positive face as it may damage their self-esteem.

“I'm all over the place right now and haven't done any housework in weeks! " - This statement would likely threaten the speaker's positive face as it is an admittance of loss of control.

I really like you. " - In some situations, this would be lovely to hear. However, imagine you don't really like this person, and now you feel obliged to say something nice in return. This statement would likely threaten the listener's negative face as they now feel imposed upon.

Can you think of any situations you have been in where you have tried to save face? Or any situations where you have felt your 'face' threatened?

Facework

Facework refers to an individual's identity in a social world and how that identity is created, reinforced, diminished, and maintained within communication. Goffman's article on face-work examines the ceremonial gestures that people use when interacting face to face. He argues that when face to face communication takes place, human beings function as 'actors' and attempt to preserve their image in the eyes of their 'audience'.

Goffman believed that a person's social world is made up of countless social interactions, which require them to choose a pattern of verbal or non-verbal gestures to express their view on any given situation and express their appreciation to those around them. Therefore, face-work refers to the way individuals choose to act and present themselves in accordance with the environment they are in.

People can often find themselves in two different faces: The 'right face' and the 'wrong face'.

Right face = An individual feels they are acting in accordance with their environment and feels self-confident.

Wrong face = An individual has been caught off-guard and is not acting in accordance with the situation or environment.

Goffman states that it is a mix of self-respect and consideration towards others that obliges us to preserve our own face and the face of others in social situations. However, he also highlights that face-work is not a natural state for human beings but rather is a 'working state' (hence why we call it face-work).

Face-negotiation theory

Stella Ting-Toomey developed Face-negotiation Theory in 1985 to address the issue of cultural differences when discussing the concept of face and face-work. Unlike Goffman's theories, Face-negotiation theory recognizes that cultural differences can influence how different people manage conflicts and that 'maintaining face' can differ according to culture. Ting-Toomey identified two aspects of conflict styles: People belonging to individualistic cultures (think the USA, the UK and Australia) and people belonging to collectivist cultures (think China, Japan, and India). Ting-Toomey suggests that those belonging to individualistic cultures try to preserve their face for their own sake. In contrast, people from more collectivist cultures try to maintain face for the sake of the wider society.3

Based on the recognition of the differences between individualistic and collectivist cultures, Ting-Toomey established five different conflict styles:

  • Domination - An individualistic approach to making decisions by dominating or controlling.
  • Avoiding - A collectivistic approach of staying away from the conflict.
  • Obliging - A collectivistic approach to giving up.
  • Compromising - An individualistic approach to negotiate to come to a solution.
  • Integrating - An individualistic approach to work together to reach a solution.

It is important to note that Face-negotiation theory has been criticized for several reasons. Firstly, Ting-Toomey bases her theory on assumptions about how individualistic and collectivist cultures operate. These differences do not always explain how individuals behave, and the theory relies on the assumption that everyone from a certain place behaves the same way. Ting-Toomey herself recognized these flaws and found in one study that Japanese people were more likely than Americans to try to save face for themselves. She also found that Americans partaking in a study were more willing to compromise than her initial theory suggests.

When discussing cultures, it is important to be wary of stereotypes and to remain critical when grouping millions of people together!

Concept of Face - Key takeaways

  • The concept of face as a sociological concept was developed by the American sociologist Erving Goffman in the 1950s. Goffman defines face as “The positive public image you seek to establish in social interactions”.
  • The concept of face originated in China, and it is an important aspect of Chinese culture today. 'Chinese face' is more about how others view an individual, and face can either be earned or lost.
  • Politeness theory is an important branch of pragmatics created by Brown and Levinson. The theory draws heavily upon Goffman's concept of face and has advanced this concept with a particular focus on how and why we are polite to others. Politeness theory works off the assumption that we each have two different types of face: Positive face and Negative face.
  • Face-saving acts help individuals to maintain face. A face-threatening act is when communication can damage a person's sense of face.
  • Stella Ting-Toomey developed Face-negotiation Theory in 1985 to address cultural differences when discussing the concept of face. The theory recognizes that 'maintaining face' can differ according to culture.


References

  1. Lin Yutang. My country and my people. 1935.
  2. Charles Custer. 'Face' culture in China. 2020.
  3. Ting-Toomey, Stella. 'Toward a Theory of Conflict and Culture.', Communication, Culture, and Organizational Processes. 1985

Concept of Face

Goffman defines face as “The positive public image you seek to establish in social interactions”. He suggests that individuals are emotionally attached to the face they have constructed for social situations and feel good when their face has been protected or maintained.

In Chinese culture, the concept of face (面子 or miànzi) refers to the amount of dignity or prestige associated with an individual. Typically speaking, 'Chinese face' is about how an individual is viewed by others, and their face can either be given and earned or taken away and lost.

Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson stated that each individual has a positive and negative face. 

  • Positive face is defined as an individual's desire to be liked and appreciated by others. 

  • Negative face describes an individual's desire to protect their personal rights, such as their freedom of speech and action.

The concept of 'face culture' refers to a category of attitudes and behaviors in different countries and cultures associated with honor, dignity, and self-image within social groups.

The concept of face was a theory developed by Erving Goffman which describes the way in which people put across the best possible version of themselves in social interactions in order to gain respect or acceptance from others. 

Final Concept of Face Quiz

Question

Where did the concept of face originate?

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Answer

China.

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Question

Which American sociologist established face as a sociological concept in the 1950s?​​​​​

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Answer

Erving Goffman.

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Goffman identified three levels that influence an individual's actions in order to meet their face needs. What are they?


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Answer

Pride, Dignity, and Honour.


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Question

What theory did Brown and Levinson establish in the 1970s?


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Answer

Politeness Theory.

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What are face-saving acts?


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Answer

Face-saving involves doing or saying something to avoid embarrassment or a loss of social status.


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What are face-threatening acts?


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Answer

A face-threatening act is when communication can damage a person’s sense of face.

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According to Brown and Levinson, individuals have two different faces. What are they?


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Answer

Positive face and Negative face.

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What did both Goffman and Brown and Levinson fail to account for in their theories?


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Answer

That culture can affect individuals’ behaviours. 


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Who created the Face-negotiation theory?


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Answer

Stella Ting-Toomey.

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Why has Face-negotiation Theory been criticised?


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Answer

 Because the theory relies on the assumption that everyone from a certain place behaves in the same way.

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What was Goffman's theory?

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Answer

The theory of face

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What does 'dramaturgical model of social interaction' mean?

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Answer

Social interactions are similar to a theatre play, where the speakers are actors presenting their best self-image to an audience. 

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What was Brown and Levinson's theory called?

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Answer

Politeness Theory

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Question

How many kinds of 'face' are there and what are they?

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Answer

There are two types of face:

  • positive face
  • negative face

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Define positive face.

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Answer

Positive face concerns making people feel good about themselves. Positive politeness often takes the form of giving people compliments or accolades.

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Define negative face.

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Negative face revolves around wanting to preserve personal boundaries and make people feel respected. Negative politeness seeks to ensure people don't feel taken advantage of. 

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True or false, only the listener's face can be threatened.

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Answer

False, the speaker's face can be threatened as well as the listener's.

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Give one example of how a speaker might threaten their own face.

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Apologising for our own undesirable behaviour threatens our own face.

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What are the four main politeness strategies?

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Answer

  • positive politeness
  • negative politeness
  • bald on-record politeness
  • off-record politeness

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According to Goffman, what is the goal of social interactions?

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To gain acceptance or acknowledgement from the other participants in the interaction.

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Which politeness strategy does the phrase 'watch out!' align with?

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Bald on-record politeness

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What kind of language does off-record politeness use?

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indirect or vague language

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What kind of politeness strategy has the sub-category 'task oriented'?

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Bald on-record politeness

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What kind of linguistic approach does politeness theory use?

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Pragmatic approach

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What does it mean to 'save face'?

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To avoid humiliation or people losing respect for you.

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Which theorist likened social interactions to actors performing in a theatre play?

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Goffman

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What three factors are social interactions dependent on, according to Goffman?

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  • time
  • place
  • audience

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True or false: The concept of face refers to a person's physical face as well as their metaphorical face. 

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Answer

False

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Which of these phrases refers to a person's 'face' according to Goffman?

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Self-image

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What three key interests do Brown and Levinson share, making them good partners?

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Answer

Culture, language, and cognition 

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Define 'pragmatics'.

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Pragmatics is a branch of linguistic study concerned with the relationship between language and its users with a particular focus on interactional implicatures  

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What does 'tacit' mean

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implied

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'You've got such a great sense of style!' is an example of which kind of politeness?

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Positive politeness

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'Sorry to bother you, but would you mind helping me carry these folders to the classroom?' is an example of which kind of politeness?

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Negative politeness

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True or false: using good manners is a way of preserving our own face as well as that of the listener. 

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True

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Define positive face.

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Positive face is an individual's desire to be liked and appreciated by others.  

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Define negative face.

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Negative face is an individual's desire to protect their personal rights, such as their freedom of speech and action. 

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Which type of face can be described as a person's self-esteem?

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Positive face

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If you appeal to someone's positive face, what are you doing?

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Answer

Making them feel good about themselves.

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If you appeal to someone's negative face, what are you doing?

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Answer

Making them feel as though they have not been imposed upon or taken advantage of.

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What does 'ethnocentric' mean?

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Answer

To see one's own culture as 'normal', and to evaluate other cultures against it.  

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What are the two types of face in the Chinese concept of face?

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Answer

  • Mianzi: An individual's status, prestige, social position.
  • Lian: A sense of shame in relation to social standards of morality and behavior.

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Question

Do face-threatening acts always threaten the face of the listener?

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Answer

No, face-threatening acts can threaten the face of the speaker as well as the listener. In other words, we can threaten our own face as well as the face of others. 

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Which of these is NOT face-threatening act?

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Answer

Using good manners when talking to someone. 

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What is facework?

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Answer

An individual's identity in a social world and how that identity is created, reinforced, diminished, and maintained within communication 

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Question

What is face-negotiation theory?

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Answer

Face-negotiation theory is a theory that explores how face can be preserved across different cultures, as each culture might have different forms of or standards for politeness. 

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Question

Which of these countries belongs to an individualistic culture?

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Answer

The USA

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Which of these countries belongs to a collectivist culture?

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Answer

Japan

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Question

What are the five different conflict styles according to Ting-Toomey?

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  • Domination - An individualistic approach to making decisions by dominating or controlling.
  • Avoiding - A collectivistic approach of staying away from the conflict.
  • Obliging - A collectivistic approach to giving up.
  • Compromising - An individualistic approach to negotiate to come to a solution.
  • Integrating - An individualistic approach to work together to reach a solution.

Show question

Question

What does 'wrong face' refer to?

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Answer

When an individual has been caught off-guard and is not acting in accordance with the situation or environment. 

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