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The Four Faces of Face

Editor’s Note: This is a paper that was first presented in 1999. It is published here for the first time as a recognition of the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach to mediation strategies. The author brings his background in communications to the arena of mediation and examines how studies in facework in communications can assist mediators in their work.

This paper investigates the relationship between maintaining face and mediation and its effects on parties. Specifically, the theoretical formulation of the four faces of face first introduced by Ting-Toomey – face-restoration (self autonomy), face-saving (other autonomy), face-giving (other inclusion) and face-assertion (self inclusion) are used to discuss how they affect mediators. The author then suggests mediation strategies correlated with each of these different face needs[1].


The concept of face has always been a subject of great interest, especially in our Asian culture. It is pervasive. Fred Schneiter claims that “giving face” is something that is floated about all day, every day, “transcending the foreigner’s usual cursory concept of what it is.”[2]

With the increasing use of mediation to resolve disputes in Asia, it is imperative that those of us who are serious about mediation give the concept of face a more than cursory study of the subject. To ignore face is to do injustice to the concept of mediation, to the training of mediators, and to the disputing parties, who are always affected by face concerns. This investigation on facework may be the first step towards developing a uniquely Asian model of mediation.

The Concept of Face

“Face” is a ubiquitous concept that exists in all cultures[3].

The concept of “face” has been defined in many different ways. Goffman[4] conceptualized it as “something that is diffusedly located in the flow of events.” People experience face concerns in different social situations.

Yutang[5] defines it as “a psychologically image that can be granted and lost and fought for and presented as a gift.” This definition includes the concern for dignity, honor, and status. Hence, face can be given by people and lost.

At other times, individuals have to fight to preserve their face. Brown and Levinson in their classic work on politeness[6], present face as “the public self-image that every member of a society wants to claim for himself/herself.” Face is a social image that individuals would like to preserve for themselves.

Fred Schneiter[7] speaks of face as “a person’s social connections. You’re
not an ‘individual’ in the Western sense of being defined by your personality
and character, but rather you’re a locus within a social context. You are X’s
parent, Y’s spouse, Z’s friend, & Q’s employee. Thus you loose face by
violating the propriety of a relationship. You are defined by social

Analysis of Face

The self in the Chinese context is defined through an intricate web of social and personal relationships[8]. According to Ting-Toomey[9], face, in essence, is a projected image of one’s self in a relational situation and is an identity that is conjointly defined by the participants in a setting. She highlights two dimensions that turn face into a multifaceted object of study: positive-negative face and self-other face.

Griffin[10] correctly postulates that the two questions these two dimensions seek to answer are “Do you want autonomy or inclusion?” (positive-negative face) and “Whose face are you trying to save?” (self-other face). Each of these will be addressed in greater detail.

Positive and Negative Face: “Do you want Autonomy or Inclusion?”

Negative facework refers to the degree to which one or both disputing yet interdependent parties protect their own freedom and privacy from interference. Ting-Toomey[11] also asserts that there is no nuance to the terminology because there is nothing inherently negative about desiring autonomy or wanting to avoid someone making impositions on you.[12]

Positive facework emphasizes the need for inclusion, respect, appreciation, and approval[13]. This is demonstrated through speech such as compliments, self-disclosure and promises.

According to Ting-Toomey[14], most individuals want to maintain both autonomy and approval, albeit to different degrees. She postulates that in individualistic cultures like the United States, individuals tend to focus on autonomy needs while for members of collectivistic cultures, people tend to concentrate on meeting the need for inclusion.

Self and Other Face – Whose face are you trying to save?

The other dimension in facework is the self-face and other-face dimension. This refers to the individual’s orientation toward attention for self versus others[15]. According to Ting-Toomey’s research, Eastern countries tend to be more orientated towards the other-face. In contrast the Western countries are more orientated towards the self-face i.e. they want self to look good while others look bad.

The basic assumptions of Ting-Toomey’s theory on facework are as follows :

    1. People of all cultures negotiate over the concept of face.
    2. The concept of face is especially problematic in situations of uncertainty when the identities of the parties are called into question such as situations where difficult or awkward requests are made, situations that are embarrassing, and conflict situations.
    3. All face-negotiations entail multiple-goal orientations. This means that self-concern and other-concern as well as negative-face and positive-face concerns are expressed in face negotiations. Parties may express different face concerns in different situations or in one single communication interaction.All negotiators express a concern for self-face protection and / or other-face support in problematic situations.
    4. All negotiators express a need for dissociation (negative face) and / or a need for association (positive face) in problematic situations.

Both the self-other face dimension and the negative-positive dimensions are influenced by relational variables among the parties to a situation. The level of
intimacy or familiarity between parties, situational variables of the context
(such as private vs public situations) and the salience of the problem, such as
topic magnitude, topic commitment, all have an impact on the different elements of face.

The self-other dimension and the positive-negative need dimensions are influenced by cultural interpretation and cultural expectation levels of the context.

The Four Faces of Face

    1. Face-Restoration or Self Negative-Face is the need to give oneself freedom and space and to protect self from other’s infringement on
      one’s autonomy.
    2. Face-Saving or Other Negative-Face is the need to signal respect
      for the other person’s need for freedom, space, and dissociation.
    3. Face-Assertion or Self Positive-Face is the need to defend
      and protect one’s need for inclusion and association.
    4. Face-Giving or Other Positive-Face is the need to defend and support the other person’s need for inclusion and association.

According to Ting-Toomey, while the sets of super-strategy: face-restoration, face-assertion, face-giving, face-saving, are present in all negotiations settings in all cultures, certain sets of super-strategy are preferred by members of a culture more often than others.

While there have been recommendations[16] for a new theory of facework that should make a clear distinction between strategies that threaten self-face and other-face, and strategies that gear toward negative-face maintenance and positive-face maintenance, Ting-Toomey’s framework itself provides a useful tool for the consideration of face.

It would be more helpful to consider Ting-Toomey’s framework not as four distinct, separate poles/quadrants but more so, in terms of degrees of orientation.

Facework and Mediation

Ting-Toomey’s theoretical framework of facework is a useful tool that can be used to improve understanding of the impact on face in mediation. Mediation is certainly a problematic communication context where parties’ face concerns play an important part in the process. It is important to explore how parties and mediators are affected by these face concerns as well as investigate what strategies are preferred and more effective in the Asian cultures.

The next section attempts to address how facework influence parties/mediators in mediation and how mediators use different strategies to deal with these different face-needs.

How does facework influence parties in mediation and what mediators’
strategies are employed to deal with these face-needs?

The study of facework has largely been confined to human discourse strategies[17], marital relationships[18], and cross-cultural contexts[19].
It has seldom been applied to mediation. This is a tentative but important
first step towards understanding facework and its ramifications on mediation.

First, we will discuss the different face needs such as face-restoration, face-giving, face-saving, and face-assertion and how each of these needs affect parties in mediation. After each face need is discussed, we will look at the mediators’ strategies to deal with them.

To be effective mediators, they should be aware of their own and the parties’
different face needs. By understanding these concerns, mediators can use
different techniques to address them and use them to their advantage in
mediation. Mediators need to be savvy and responsive to the different concerns
that will be expressed by parties in different ways in mediation. Also,
mediators may use one technique to address one or more of these face concerns
such as by maintaining impartiality, mediators address face-restoration (self
need for autonomy) as well as face-giving needs (other need for inclusion).

  1. Face-Restoration Need (Self-Autonomy)Face-Restoration is the need to give oneself freedom and space and to protect self from other’s infringement on one’s autonomy.In the need to restore one’s face (i.e. self negative-face), some parties are reluctant to participate in the mediation process because they want to protect their own privacy. Griffin’s[20] experiences as a volunteer court mediator in Chicago have given rise to the observation that the number of people of Asian origin seeking conflict mediation is disproportionately small. This can be explained on the basis of the saying, “one should not wash our dirty linen in public.”

    This factor seems to affect some cultural groups more than others. This is consistent with Ting-Toomey’s assertion that certain sets of super-strategies are preferred by members of one culture more often than others.

    In Singapore, according to the one report published by the Family Court in 1994[21], Malays are more willing to attend mediation compared with Chinese. Although there is no systematic empirical evidence to support this, I suspect that face-restoration could be one important factor for the reluctance on the part of the Chinese to seek help in a public court.

    Another example of how face-restoration concern affects parties is the amount and depth of information parties want to disclose to the mediator during mediation. Unless they see an advantage in the negotiation or / and they feel that they can trust the mediator, information will be unlikely to be forthcoming.

    Additionally, the need for face-restoration can exhibit itself through parties seeking approval or sympathy from a mediator. Parties are known to ask mediators what they would do in a similar situation or whether they think what the party did was fair or right. This is an attempt to cast positive judgment on their own behaviour.

    Mediators’ Strategies to manage Face-Restoration

    When parties show an eagerness to influence mediators to their side, it is crucial for the mediator to maintain impartiality while avoiding the creation of a negative impression for the party. Maintain impartiality by acknowledging the feelings of the party seeking face-restoration, but reminding that party that the parties have an equal opportunity to share their perspectives.

    Saying “Thanks for sharing how you feel. I can imagine that you feel very strongly about this issue and I appreciate your sharing your feelings with us. I would now like to hear the other party’s perspective.” is one way in which mediators maintain their autonomy as an impartial mediator.

    Another helpful technique that mediators used to protect their own autonomy is to ‘teflon’. Teflon is known as a non-stick substance that has revolutionized the lives of homemakers. Using Teflon in a mediation is
    to ignore parties’ negative comments so that the mediation is not side-tracked by irrelevant and unhelpful remarks. A mediator has to ‘teflon’ his or her feelings and stay focused on the key issue in dispute.

    Another technique that mediators can use is to be ‘issue-focused’.
    This technique is even more effective when we can ‘acknowledge’ the
    feelings/concerns but then move them forward by being ‘issue-focused’.

    Generally, mediators maintain their autonomy as impartial mediators by helping parties move towards agreement “You have raised many issues but I’m wondering how that helps in getting to agreement. Let’s move on to the issue of parenting.”

    The mediators’ guarantee of confidentiality can also respect the parties’ autonomy. (“I want to assure you what is discussed here will be kept entirely
    Other face-saving techniques that mediators use are
    mutualization (“Not only are you hurt by this but I am sure both of you are
    and normalization (“I understand you feel very stuck in this and
    this is a common feeling with people in this situation.”)

  2. Face-Saving (Other Autonomy)Face-Saving is the need to signal respect for the other person’s need for freedom, space, and dissociation.

    In my experience, parties usually do not show great concern for the adversary’s public self-image. A grudging respect for civility is all that’s required[22]. Often, where disputes have come to a head, face saving is the least concern for parties. This is particularly true of disputes that are brought to mediation after a court process has been initiated.

    Face-saving can arise from a concern for the mediator’s or the adversary’s face. Parties have been known to ask for a caucus with the mediator to protect the other person’s autonomy by not revealing information that will embarrass the other person. This can occur particularly in family disputes. This can sometimes signal the willingness on the part of disputants to maintain the relationship with the other disputant or
    at the least not to make it worse.

    Face-Saving can also be an issue when more than one representative is present at the mediation. For example, parties may not be comfortable to disagree with their legal counsel in front of strangers. Parties may also feel uncomfortable disagreeing with others they may have brought to the mediation for support or for face (see face-giving). This is sometimes signaled by parties’ unwillingness to speak up, or their willingness to let someone else speak for them.

    Mediators’ Strategies to manage

    When parties are concerned with face-saving, the use of caucuses is the best technique (“I am sure there are things that you would rather let me know in private. Perhaps this information can help us come to an agreement. Let’s see if there is anything that I can do to help you.”). In a caucus, parties
    can be free to express their feelings about themselves, the other disputant,
    and even the mediator.

    In situations where parties have brought others to the mediation in their support, or where the true decision-maker is influenced by someone else, whether that person is present at the mediation or not, the awareness on the part of the mediator of such face-giving concerns is crucial.

    A mediator who is sensitive to whether a decision-maker is entirely free to make up his mind can ask the right questions. Sometimes, it may be necessary to seek permission to speak to the party alone, without the presence of the legal counsel or supporter or other person. Where such permission is denied, a mediator must decide for himself whether he wants to continue with a mediation where one of the disputants is not autonomous in his decision-making.

    A need to save face on the part of a mediator can be dangerous. A mediator who sets himself up as a expert in any particular area immediately loses his impartiality.

  3. Face-Assertion (Self Inclusion)Face-Assertion is the need to defend and protect one’s need for inclusion and association.

    In mediation, parties sometimes display this concern to mediators and to their legal counsel by trying not to appear too nasty or stubborn in their demands. In my experience, they want to maintain a positive face by being reasonable and compromising to the negotiated offers so that they may be favored by the mediators.

    Such parties tend to be more self-orientated. Disputing parties want to make themselves look good and others look bad. Hence, they project themselves as being more generous, less unkind, more compliant, and less intransigent.

    However, this dimension is not so easily distinguishable in actual mediation as parties tend to vacillate between face-assertion and face-giving depending on whether it suits their interests at that particular mediation moment.

    Mediators’ Strategies to manage

    Face assertion by parties that may lead to them taking
    what appear in their view to be reasonable positions is one of the key benefits
    of interest-based mediation. Parties are generally reluctant to appear
    unreasonable in front of others. Any changes to behaviour to make a person more
    reasonable and less extreme in his demands can only be good. A mediator however
    cannot rest on those laurels. Instead it is important for a mediator to
    recognize when parties are behaving differently because of face-assertion and
    ensure that it is dealt with so that the future behaviour of the disputants are
    similarly circumscribed by reasonableness. For example, in the joint sessions,
    it is important to emphasise how reasonable parties have behaved and how the
    continuation of such behaviour will help in the parties’ relationship and
    communication in the future.

    Mediators themselves have face-assertion needs. To
    maintain their face-assertion needs, mediators often use the summarization
    technique (“Allow me to summarize the key points of what I have heard”)
    so that mediators can be assured that they have heard the parties’ assertions
    accurately. Other techniques that mediators use to ensure that they are
    included in the parties’ interactions are paraphrasing (“Correct me if I
    wrong, I seem to hear you say that you feel are disappointed with yourself and
    want to make amend”)
    or self-blame (“Sorry, I did not hear you
    correctly. Could you say it again?”)

  4. Face-Giving (Other Inclusion)Face-Giving is the need to defend and support the other person’s
    need for inclusion and association.

    Face giving refers to parties’ desires to include others in their decision-making process. Sometimes, parties would like to include others in their mediation such as their legal counsel, colleagues or sometimes their parents. It is not surprising to see parties bringing their spouses or parents into mediations.

    This is especially true in conflicts involving other family members and siblings. In my experience, it is also not surprising to hear from parties that their decisions are influenced by others not present in the mediation. Such persons could be their elders (such as parents) or colleagues. In such situations, it is often useful to determine the persons who are most influential to the disputant, if only to better understand the motivations of the disputant himself.

    Mediators’ Strategies to manage Face-Giving

    Mediators are trained to include both parties in the mediation by their assurance of impartiality (“I have not met either of you before, right? And I have no personal stake in your decision”). The techniques of disputant equality (“Both of you will have equal and full opportunity to share your perspectives and it is important that when one person speaks, the other does not interrupt”) and hearing on positive voices (“I appreciate your hard work on this problem. I can see we are moving forward slowly but surely”) are other attempts at face-giving.

To be effective, mediators have to bear in mind that they need to be cognizant of these different face-needs and use appropriate strategies to manage them. The ability of mediators to intervene appropriately is the key to an effective
mediation session.

Having studied these different face needs, one other important consideration for mediators in Asia is the use of direct and indirect speeches.

General Approach: Direct vs Indirect Speech

One general approach that mediators should bear in mind in maintaining face, in particular Asian mediators, is the use of indirect speech.

According to Brown and Levinson[23], there are five levels of facework strategies that potentially threaten either the negative face or the positive face of the disputing parties. These face-threatening acts (“FTA”) are arranged in different hierarchical levels of direct to indirect verbal speech acts.

Direct FTA are viewed as posing the highest threat to the parties’ faces, and indirect FTA are viewed as posing the least threat and hence the most polite verbal acts. Americans believe in straight talk or assertiveness[24]. Hall[25] says that Japanese communication is more subtle. Bluntness is considered rude; patience and indirection are the marks of a civilized person.

This is also collaborated by Ting-Toomey’s research of high-context cultures[26] such as China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Singapore is unlikely to be an exception. Mediators have to be aware of this as they communicate with parties.

When the parties’ faces are threatened, there is greater tendency to withhold important information. Worse, one party may perceive the mediator as having bias. Both of these tendencies will jeopardize the mediation proceedings. It is conceivable that the more indirect their approach the less threatening the mediators will be to the disputing parties. Mediators will, in turn, be perceived to be more trustworthy and credible to them.

Therefore, for mediation in the Asian context, parties prefer a more indirect approach and mediators should bear this in mind. Caucusing and floating possibilities (“I am wondering if anyone of you have ever considered thought of changing your lifestyle for the sake of the kids”) are some of the more effective
indirect methods.

Limitations of this paper

The lack of empirical research must certainly be one of the most serious limitations of this paper. An important next step would be to embark on a study to determine how much facework has impacted parties in mediation, although operationalizing these concepts may present a challenge for the researchers.

For example, to what degree is negative face a constraining factor in preventing parties from coming for mediation ? Are men more reluctant nthan women? Are Chinese more unwilling to seek help than other races because of fface needs? To what extend are parties’ communicative or non-communicative behaviors restrain by face concerns?

What is the impact of direct FTA and face-threatening type strategies by mediators on mediation and parties? Are these threatening strategies mediated by the mediator’s ascribed position especially in court-initiated mediation?

In my own experience of our more hierarchical Asian society, mediators can be more direct in their approach and language without threatening the parties’ face concerns. Even, if it does, parties will not assert their self-face to preserve the other-face of the mediators because of their perceived authority, especially in court-initiated mediation.

Another area worth exploring is the classification of mediator’s strategies into a theoretical framework or typology. More recently, Shimanoff[27] reconceptualized Brown & Levinson’s FTA typology and identified four types of affective strategies. These are (1) face-honoring (FH), (2) face-compensating (FC), (3) face-neutral (FN) and (4) face-threatening (FT). The first three types
represent respect strategies for other’s face while the last represents a
negative face-confronting strategy.

There seem to be some correlation between these four strategy types and strategies mediators use. For example, the corollary of face-honoring type strategy is the mediation strategy of ‘focusing on the positive’. This involves emphasizing parties’ positive voices and parties’ positive offers during mediation. In the face-compensating type strategies, the correlated mediation strategy is reframing, whereby mediators turn negatives into positives. For example, if one party protests, “I will never accept that kind of demand”, the mediator can offer a face-compensating strategy by reframing, “What demand will you then accept?” The teflon approach that mediators often used is similar to the third face-neutral (FN) type strategy. Mediators apply this neutral strategy by deflecting negative emotional comments by parties and not allowing them to “stick” on the mediators. Finally, the corollary of the face-threatening type in mediation is the “angel of reality” or “parade of the horribles” strategies. These tend to be more confrontational and more direct in its application.

Future empirical research could classify all the different mediation strategies into this Ting-Toomey’s typology, explore the frequency of the different types used by mediators in Singapore and measure the effectiveness of each type at
different stages in mediation process.


This paper is exploratory in nature. But this does not negate its importance. Face is important, not only in Asian cultures, but also western ones. What is important is to consider how differently face is considered in the Asian context. It is hoped that this paper can spark off a discourse about face in the Asian context.

[1] This article was first
presented as a paper at the 2nd Mediation Conference held at the Faculty of Law of the National University of Singapore on 28 March 1999. The author wishes to acknowledge Sophia Ang and Ang Peng Hwa for their comments on an earlier draft of this article.

[2] F. Schneiter, Getting
Along with the Chinese (
Hong Kong: Asia 2000, 1992).

[3] E Goffman, The
presentation of self in everyday life
(Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959).
E. Goffman, Interaction Ritual: Essays on face-to-face interaction
(Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967). E. Goffman, Relations in public (New
York: Harper & Row, 1971). T. Katriel, Talking straight: Dugri speech in
Israeli Sbra culture
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986). B.
Hill, S. Ide, S. Ikuta, A. Kawaski, and T. Ogino, “Univerals of linguistic
politeness: Quantitative evidence for Japanese and American English” (1986) 10 Journal of Pragmatics 347-371. S. Ide, M. Hor, A. Kawaski, S. Ikuta, and H. Haga,
“Sex differences and politeness in Japanese” (1986) 58 International Journal
of the Sociology of Language
25-36. H.C. Hu, “The Chinese concept of ‘face’
“ (1944) 46 American Anthropologist 45-64. R. Okabe, “Cultural
assumptions of East and West: Japan and the United States” in Intercultural
communication theory: Current perspectives
(W. Gudykunst Ed.) (Beverly
Hills, CA: Sage, 1983) p 21-44. S. Ting-Toomey, “Toward a theory of conflict
and culture” in Communication, culture, and organizational processes (W.
Gudykunst, L. Stewart, and S. Ting-Toomey Eds.) (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1985)
p 71-86.

[4] E. Goffman, “On
face-work: An analysis of ritual elements in social interaction” (1955) 18 Psychiatry:
Journal for the Study of International Processes
p 213-231.

[5] L. Yutang, My country
and my people
(Taipei, Republic of China: John Day, 1968).

[6] P. Brown, P. and S.
Levinson, “Universals in language usage: Politeness phenomenon” in Questions
and politeness: Strategies in social interaction
(E. Goody Ed.) (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1978) p 56-289.

[7] Supra note 3.

[8] S. Ting-Toomey,
“Intercultural Conflict Styles: A Face Negotiation Theory: in Theories in
Intercultural Communication
(Y.Y. Kim and W.B. Gudykunst, Eds.) (Beverly
Hills, CA: Sage, 1988) p 213-235 (hereinafter “Ting-Toomey 1988”).

[9] Ibid.

[10] E. Griffin, A First
Look at Communication Theory
(New York: McGraw Hill, 1997).

[11] Supra note 9.

[12] In Ting-Toomey’s latest
iteration, she acknowledges that the terms negative-positive face seem rather
confusing. She has preferred to use self face (saving face), other face (giving
face) and mutual face (both saving and giving face). However her earlier
concept is an useful framework to anchor our discussion on this subject.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] R. Craig, K.
Tracy, and F. Spisak, “The discourse of requests: Assessment of a politeness
approach” (1986) 12 Human Communication Research 437-468. G. Leichty,
and J. Applegate, Social cognitive and situational influences on the use of
face-saving persuasive strategies.
Paper presented at the International
Communication Association Convention, Montreal. 1987, May.

[17] K. Tracy, R. Craig, M.
Smith, and F. Spisak, “The disclosure of requests: Assessment of a
compliance-gaining approach” (1984) 10 Human Communication Research 515-538.

[18] S. Shimanoff, “Rules for
governing the verbal expression of emotions between married couples” (1985) 49 Western Journal of Speech Communication 147-165. S. Shimanoff, “Types of emotional disclosures and request compliances between spouses” (1987) 54 Communication Monographs 85-100.

[19] J. Adamopoulos, “The differentiation of social behavior: Toward an explanation of universal interpersonal structure” (1984) 15 Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 487-508. W. Lonner, “The search for psychological universals” in Handbook of cross-cultural psychology (H. Triandis and W. Lambert Eds.) (Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1980) Vol. 1, p 143-204. H. Triandis, The analysis of subjective culture (New York: John Wiley, 1972). H. Triandis, Interpersonal behavior (Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1977). H. Triandis, “Some universals of social behavior” (1978) 4 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin1-16. Ting-Toomey 1988, supra note 9.

[20] Griffin, supra
note 11.

[21] Needs a citation

[22] Griffin, supra
note 11.

[23] Supra note 7.

[24] Supra note 11.

[25] E.T. Hall, Beyond
(New York: Double day, 1976).

[26] Ting-Toomey 1988, supra
note 9.

[27] Supra note 20.


John Ng

John S. K. Ng, Ph.D John has over 25 years of management consultancy and training experience with corporations, academic institutions and non-profit organizations. A leader and trainer, John is well-versed in the art of people motivation and his warm personality has endeared him to many. His expertise includes leadership coaching,… MORE >

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