You have likely heard the term “saving face” in regards to maintaining some sort of dignity or reputation following a negative event. The sociologist Erving Goffman borrowed from the previously informal phrase for a new, academic purpose in 1955, about 60 years after the colloquial sense had become popular with British nationals in China and about 30 years before it would be borrowed again by linguists.
Face refers to the public self-image a person puts forward. The linguists Brown and Levinson hypothesize that this is a universal concept – that people of all cultures value the opinions of others. There are two types of face: positive and negative. Don’t make the mistake of confusing this concept with the senses of positive/negative as in good/bad. Brown and Levinson define these types of face in their 1987 article on politeness:
Positive face refers to “the positive consistent self-image or personality … the want of every member that his wants be desirable to [others].”
Negative face is defined as “the basic claim to territories, personal preserves, rights to non-distraction—i.e. the freedom of action and freedom from imposition.”
In other words, positive face is put forth when the person wants to engage with others and is associated with self-esteem, while negative face is observable when the person prefers autonomy, exhibiting their desire for independence. The same person may switch between positive and negative face given the context, similar to the ever-changing accents of presidential candidates based on their audience.
In order to maintain the desired face, all participants of the social interaction must maintain cooperation – otherwise, a person’s desire for either acceptance or independence will not be fulfilled. Participants can use several types of politeness in order to maintain each other’s face. For example, for one person to maintain a negative face, the other participants must use negative politeness to support their desired independence. If a participant uses the wrong form of politeness, they perform a face-threatening act (FTA), as described in the chart below.
You can probably think of times when you’ve displayed both positive and negative faces. Once you grasp the concept, it can be fairly easy to observe in your social interactions and even on TV, particularly on discussion-style news and talk shows – it informs your conversational styles and vice versa. The infamous episode of Tucker Carlson’s Crossfire debate show with guest Jon Stewart of The Daily Show is a particularly memorable example of what happens when a person’s face is threatened.
For the first few minutes of the segment, Jon Stewart makes the argument for a genuine debate with one of the hosts, Paul Begala, who seems to at least be attempting to respond with politeness. Throughout, Stewart attempts to maintain a positive face by expressing his desire to engage in topics he finds important and wishes to discuss. Instead of responding with either form of politeness, Carlson chooses direct face-threatening acts. The following clip starts about six minutes into the discussion, and you can see over the next few minutes how this works out.
Below is a breakdown of the conversational features discussed above, along with segments of the transcript that exemplify these features. The full transcript is also available on our References page.