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What is Face Negotiation Theory?

By G. Wiesen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Face negotiation theory is a concept that deals with how different people and cultures place importance and value on identity and how conflict is handled by those within those cultures. In general, the theory deals with the idea of “face” as representative of the identity a person has and how the culture someone is in places importance on the individual and society. This theory also deals with how people gain “positive” or “negative” face, based on how others perceive them. Face negotiation theory is largely used in conflict negotiation and understanding how different cultures handle conflict.

The basic concept behind face negotiation theory is the idea that each person’s identity is represented by a “face” that he or she shows to others. This is then expanded upon so that the society a person exists within also has a group “face” of which he or she is a part. Individualist cultures are those that place greater importance on individual face than on the group face, while collectivist cultures are those that place the importance of group face above the individual faces. By using the theory of face negotiation to understand the nature of a particular culture, it is often easier to understand how conflict can best be resolved within that culture.

Using this theory, someone can consider how a country that is highly collectivist in nature, for example, will typically work to resolve conflict between individuals in a way that defends the group face. An individualist culture, on the other hand, will typically promote conflict resolution that defends individual face, even at the expense of the group face. While cultural interactions typically involve varying degrees of group or individual face, it is easier to consider only one or the other for the sake of clarity.

The difference can be seen in the way in which people within the US, a strongly individualist culture, can seem selfish in dealing with conflict resolution, such as the increased use of lawsuits to settle disputes. Collectivist cultures on the other hand, such as China, often promote resolutions that benefit the society as a whole. The distinction between these cultures is not one of intrinsic value disparity, one is not better than the other; instead, face negotiation theory demonstrates that it is merely a difference in values.

Face negotiation theory also demonstrates that people will typically act in a way that is seen as “saving face” to promote a greater positive image to others. Interactions, especially those involving conflict, are often seen as attempts by one person to present a positive face, sometimes while attempting to increase the negative face of someone else. In face negotiation theory, the idea of a “win-win” situation is one in which both parties in a conflict increase positive face. While a “lose-lose” situation is one in which both parties increase negative face; and in a “win-lose” situation one person gains positive face and the other person gains negative face.

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Discussion Comments
By wiesen — On May 09, 2011

It can be quite difficult, which is why good negotiators, especially in politics or business, are well-paid for what they can do. Especially since different cultures can gain negative and positive face differently.

By ddljohn — On May 09, 2011

I think the most important point about this theory is that the positive and negative face is perceived.

So, in reality, both sides might gain equally from negotiating. The point is to make each side perceive that they have gained a positive face.

What this means to me is that, back home, everyone is satisfied with the result of the negotiations, they think that their group has come out with an advantage and that it was a just agreement.

If both groups feel this way, then it's a win-win situation for sure.

What do you think?

By burcinc — On May 09, 2011

Thinking about negotiations through this theory makes it seem that reaching agreements among different cultures would be really difficult.

I have taken a class on identity, and although we didn't talk about this theory, we did learn that people try to improve their positive face by giving "the other" a negative face.

When that is taken to be true, reaching an agreement where both sides increase a positive face seems really hard.

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