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Face-Negotiation Theory

Face-Negotiation Theory assumes that people of every culture are concerned with the presentation of their face. It is a theory that infuses conflict into its framework, trying to explain why members of two different cultures manage conflict differently. Ting-Toomey asserts that different cultural values exist in dealing with conflict, and these conflictual episodes, in turn, are influenced by the face concerns and face needs of communicators.

The theory has sparked some interest among intercultural researchers. Several of the key features of the theory have been studied. Ting-Toomey's interfacing of conflict and face has prompted researchers to investigate differences between the Japanese and the Americans (Morisaki & Gudykunst, 1994). Ringo Ma (1992) studied the effects of face maintenance by mediators in conflict episodes, and Mark Cole (1989) looked at self-face and face threats in formal, public, and nonintimate settings. Yuling Pan (2000) employed facework in research on face-to-face interactions of the Chinese. Finally, face and facework in conflict have been studied, analyzing cultures of China, Germany, Japan, and the United States (Oetzel, Ting-Toomey, Masumoto, Yokochi, Pan, Takai, & Wilcox, 2001). The theory, then, is heuristic. The way in which Ting-Toomey presents her theory—effectively intersecting face, culture, and conflict—also makes this theory's scope and boundaries clear.

There are a few concerns with the theory, however. For instance, you will recall that the theory rests on the differing experiences and perceptions of individualistic and collectivist cultures. Ting-Toomey uses this foundation to lay out the core of her theory. At times, however, this cultural dimension may not fully explain cultural differences. For instance, in her own research, Ting-Toomey and colleagues (1991) discovered some discrepancies. She found that Japanese respondents showed more concern for self-face than U.S. respondents. In addition, although Ting-Toomey proposes that individualistic cultures are not usually compromising in their conflict styles, the highly individualistic U.S. respondents used a significantly high degree of compromising when faced with a conflict. In this study, then, the I identity of the U.S. respondents was displaced.

Ting-Toomey and Cocroft (1994) respond to these differences in expectations by noting that looking at facework from the individualistic and collectivistic orientation "is a necessary starting point for facework behavior research" (p. 314). The researchers also state that many of the facework category systems in research reflect individualism–collectivism thinking, and therefore, Face-Negotiation Theory must necessarily begin from this vantage point.

Finally, as we have mentioned, Ting-Toomey (1988) has positioned Face-Negotiation Theory within the politeness perspective of Brown and Levinson (1978). She incorporates a number of the components of their thinking, including positive face and negative face. Yet, Tracy and Baratz (1994) believe that such labeling in Brown and Levinson's framework "may be too general to capture the face-concern most central to an interactant" (p. 290). That is, other issues pertaining to face concern exist that are not identified by the researchers. Ting-Toomey's endorsement and application of politeness research, then, may be questionable. Interestingly, Ting-Toomey and Cocroft (1994) agree with the fact that Brown and Levinson have presented an original template from which to draw but report data that demonstrates several problems with their research.

Face-Negotiation Theory will continue to intrigue communication researchers. Particularly at a time when culture pervades nearly all aspects of life and the global village is becoming smaller, the theory will have lasting appeal. When two people from two different cultures have a conflict, understanding how they maintain and negotiate face will have implications beyond the encounter. Ting-Toomey has given us an opportunity to think about how we can mediate the potential difficulties in communication among cultures, and she elegantly presents important information on a world dependent on communication.

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