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date: 18 November 2017

Facework and Culture

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. Please check back later for the full article.

Facework represents an important mediation of the intersection between an individual’s private self-conception and the individual’s need to cooperate—or not—in a society, especially at the interpersonal and organizational levels of communication. More clearly, facework builds on the notion of a metaphorical ‘face’, which represents how an individual is viewed—that is, respectfully or not—by others in an interaction. Facework is, then, in its basic form, the interpersonal skills or strategies (i.e., work) needed to maintain or elevate, and in some cases, hinder, others’ perception of an individual’s right to deserve respect. Culture mediates this interaction even further by dictating whose face an individual should be most concerned (i.e., face-concern) with during an interactional exchange. For example, individualistic cultures (e.g., United States, Canada, Germany) prioritize that individuals generally should be most concerned with protecting their own sense of respect (i.e., self-face) while interacting or in conflict, while collectivistic cultures (e.g., China, South Korea, Japan) prioritize the focus on maintaining the other individual’s (i.e., other-face) sense of dignity and respect in an interaction. Yet, individuals in either individualistic or collectivistic cultures may also choose to try to enact concern with both themselves and others in an interaction (i.e., mutual-face).

Other iterations of facework strategies and/or concerns—all at least partially mediated by cultural values and social norms—have emerged, including: face-negotiating, face-constituting, face-compensating, face-honoring, face-saving, face-threatening, face-building, face-protecting, face-depreciating, face-giving, face-restoring, and face-neutral. Notions of face and facework has also given rise to several face-oriented communication theories such as Face-Negotiation Theory (FNT), which aims to examine and predict, generally, how individuals in various cultures might negotiate and manage conflict(s) and conflict styles. Original understandings of face are primarily grounded in Erving Goffman’s sociological work on facework and Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson’s Politeness Theory, works that have been used to examine and compare communication practices in multiple intercultural and cross-cultural contexts.