Face negotiation theory

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Face negotiation theory is a theory first proposed by Stella Ting-Toomey in 1985 to understand how different cultures throughout the world respond to conflict. Our self-image, or “face”, is at risk in conflict and our culture is attached to the way we deal with this issue and communicate.


The theory has gone through multiple iterations since its creation, most recently in 2005.[1] In essence, the theory applies specifically to conflict, and is based on identity management on an individual and a culture.

The various facets of individual and cultural identities are described as faces. Faces are the image of an individual, or that of a group, that society sees and evaluates based on cultural norms and values. Face can also be defined as "the claimed sense of favorable social self-worth and/or projected other-worth in a public situation" (Ting-Toomey & Kurogie,1998). Conflict occurs when that group or individual has their face threatened. Faces can be lost, saved, or protected.

The "Locus of Face" is known as the degree of concern for self face and others' faces. It is important to observe Locus of Face because it provides the frame work for studying face and face work because it is a direct indicator of how important it is to the individual to maintain face (for him or herself of the face of their culture/group) and in turn it can directly effect the direction of the interaction. The Locus of Face is also valuable because it reflects both self and -other concerns for preserving face, and is relevant to the communicators when navigating through an interaction or negotiation.

People from collectivistic cultures usually adopt conflict styles of avoiding or integrating because the "mutual face" or the face of the group is the top concern. People from an individualistic culture adopt a conflict style of dominating because their main concern is maintaining self face because they have a "face" independent from that of the group.

There are many different strategies and factors affecting how cultures manage identity. Ting-Toomey argues that in collectivist cultures, the face of the group is more important than any individual face in that group. In individualist cultures, the face of the individual is more important than the face of the group.[1]

In addition, power distances play a role in the way cultures view and manage conflict. Power distance deals with the way status affects society. If a culture has a small power distance it will generally believe power is to be earned and worked for and equality is natural. Small power distance characteristically is seen in individualistic places. If a culture has a larger power distance acknowledge inequality and people are born into power. Large power distances are usually seen in collectivistic places.

Theoretical assumptions[edit]

Culture has a significant impact on how people communicate and manage conflict with each other individually, and between groups. Culture provides the frame of reference for individual and group interaction because it consists of values, norms, beliefs, and traditions that play a large part in how a person or a group identify themselves. Dr. Ting-Toomey states that conflict can come from either a direct clash of these cultural beliefs and values, or as a result of misapplying certain expectations and standards of behavior for a given situation. Face-Negotiation Theory identifies three goal issues that conflict will revolve around: content, relational, and identity.[1] Content conflict goals are external issues that an individual holds in high regard. Relational conflict goals, as the name implies, refer to how individuals define, or would ideally define their relationship with the other member in a conflict situation. Finally, identity based goals involve issues of identity confirmation, respect, and approval of the conflict members. These goals have the deepest connection with culture and they are most directly related to face-saving issues.

Face and facework are a part of everyday life, but the frame of reference on how one manages face individually and on a cultural level is what face negotiation theory tries to capture. To that extent, the theory has seven assumptions:[1]

  1. Communication in all cultures is based on maintaining and negotiating face.
  2. Face is problematic when identities are questioned.
  3. Differences in individualistic vs. collectivistic and small vs. large power distance cultures profoundly shape face management.
  4. Individualistic cultures prefer self oriented facework, and collectivistic cultures prefer other oriented facework.
  5. Small power distance cultures prefer an “individuals are equal” framework, whereas large power distance cultures prefer a hierarchical framework.
  6. Behavior is also influenced by cultural variances, individual, relational, and situational factors.
  7. Competence in intercultural communication is a culmination of knowledge and mindfulness

From these assumptions, Dr. Ting-Toomey developed 24 propositions that form face negotiation theory, which will be discussed later in the article.


Before further exploring face negotiation theory, it is important to take a closer look at Dr. Ting-Toomey’s description of facework. She postulates that facework consists of five taxonomies. Understanding these facework classifications will aide in successful face negotiation. Face orientations, or concerns, will be focused on one’s self, the other party, or both.[1]

Focus of Face Orientations

People from individualist cultures tend to be more concerned with self-face maintenance, while people from collectivist cultures tend to be concerned with other-face and mutual-face maintenance. This difference stems from the values of each respective culture.

In individualist cultures, such as the United States, Germany, and Great Britain, there is great value on personal rights, freedoms and the “do it yourself” attitude. In collectivist cultures such as Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Colombia, place more value on “we” vs. “I”. The needs of the group outweigh the needs of the individual. It is interesting to note that one third of the world lives in an individualist society, while the other two thirds are identified with collectivist cultures.

The first taxonomy also involves the concept of power distance with regards to people’s face orientations. People from large power distance cultures accept unequal power distributions, are reliant on established hierarchy, and understand that rewards and sanctions are based on social position. People from small power distance cultures value equal power distributions, symmetric relations, and rewards and sanctions based on performance. The United States is an example of a small power distance culture, while Japan embodies a large power distance culture.

Dr. Ting-Toomey postulates that while individualism and power distance are two separate dimensions, they are correlated. Highly individualistic cultures tend to be low in power distance, and vice versa.[1]

Face Movements or Face Moves’ Patterns

There are four opportunities a mediator has in regards to their concern for self-face, your personal image and other-face, the counterpart’s image of themselves that define face movements:

  1. If there is a high level of concern for both self-face and other-face, the result is mutual-face protection.
  2. If there is a low level of concern for both self-face and other-face, the result is mutual-face obliteration.
  3. If there is a high level of concern for self-face but a low level of concern for other-face, the result is self-face defense.
  4. If there is a high level of concern for other-face but a low level of concern for self-face, the result is other-face defense.

Dr. Ting-Toomey asserts that several conditions must be perceived as severe in order for a negotiator to feel his face is threatened; the importance of the culturally approved facework that is violated, feelings of mistrust because of a large distance between cultures, the importance of the conflict topic, the power distance between the two parties, and the perception of the parties as outgroup members are all conditions which must be made salient for face-threatening communication to occur.[1] Whether or not a person engages in a conflict depends on how face-threatening the situation is perceived.

In an individualistic culture, the more self-face threatening the conflict, the more likely the individual will engage in an attack. In a collectivistic culture, where mutual-face concern is important, avoidance of conflict may prevail in order for the situation to be defused. A combination of the two cultures may require a third-party negotiation to make progress in finding a resolution.

Facework Interaction Strategies

Individualistic cultures operate with a more direct, low-context facework with importance placed on verbal communication and nonverbal gestures for emphasis. Collectivistic cultures operate in a more indirect, high context facework emphasizing nonverbal subtleties. There are three prevalent facework strategies: dominating, avoiding, and integrating. Dominating facework is characterized by trying to maintain a credible image with the goal of winning the conflict. Avoiding facework attempts to preserve harmony in the relationship by dealing with the conflict indirectly. Integrating facework focuses on content resolution and maintaining the relationship.[1]

In terms of conflict, facework is at play before (preventative), during, and after (restorative) the situation. Preventative facework is an attempt to minimize face-loss before the threat occurs. Preventative strategies include credentialing, appealing for suspended judgment, pre-disclosure, pre-apology, hedging, and disclaimers.[2] Collectivistic cultures tend to employ more preventative strategies than individualistic cultures. Restorative facework attempts to repair face that was lost. Restorative strategies include excuses, justifications, direct aggression, humor, physical remediation, passive aggressiveness, avoidance, and apologies.[2] Individualistic cultures are more likely to use restorative facework than collectivistic cultures.

Facework differs from conflict styles (which will be discussed in a later section) by employing face-saving strategies which can be used prior to, during, or after a conflict episode and can be used in a variety of identity-threatening and identity-protection situations. These strategies are focused on relational and face identity beyond conflict goal issues. Conflict styles are specific strategies used to engage or disengage from a conflict situation. Preventative and restorative face-work strategies are typically employed when one’s face is being threatened.

Conflict Communication Styles

Conflict style consists of learned behaviors developed through socialization within one’s culture. They can be attributed to internalization of ingroup values, morals and behaviors.

Rahim (1983,1992) based his classification of conflict styles into two dimensions. The first dimension demonstrates the concern for self, how important it is for the individual to maintain their own face or that of their culture (this is rated on a high to low continuum) and the second is concern for others, how important is it to the individual to help them maintain their own face (also rated on a high to low continuum). The two dimensions are combined to create five styles for dealing with conflict. The individual will choose a style of handling conflict based on the importance of saving their face and that of the face of the other. Note: explanations are from the reader’s perspective

  1. Dominating(“win/lose”)-Competing to win your position, one person has more control.
  2. Avoiding(“lose/lose”)-Removing yourself from the conflict, results in no solution.
  3. Obliging(“lose/win)”-Willing to let the other person have their way, giving in and giving up.
  4. Compromising(“lose/lose”)-Neither person is giving up their side, decide to give and take to come to a solution.
  5. Integrating(win/win”)-Awareness of both sides in a conflict, solve a conflict through working together.

In 2001 Ting-Toomey, Oetzel, and Yee-Jung incorporated three additional conflict communication styles to the original five. These three have further enhanced conflict communication across cultures.

  1. Emotional Expression-Articulating a persons feelings in order to deal with and control conflict.
  2. Third Party Help-Resolving conflicts by enlisting additional help to manage communication.
  3. Passive Aggressive-Reacting to conflict in a roundabout way, placing blame indirectly.

Other researchers used a different way to group the conflict tactics. Ting-Toomey (1983) grouped strategies into three categories of tactics for handling conflict; integrative,distributive and passive-indirect.

Integrative conflict tactics incorporated integrating and compromising styles and is reflective of mutual-face and the need for a solution. Those who chose this tactic work with the other person involved in the conflict to get the best possible solution for both parties. Examples of Integrative tactics may include listening to the other, respecting their feelings, and providing their own personal viewpoints in a manner that assists in the negotiation.

Distributive conflict tactics use the dominating style of handling conflict, and emphasizes the individuals own power over the other. This style reflects self-face.

Passive-indirect conflict tactics are consistent with obliging and avoiding styles of handling conflict and reflects other-face

Individualistic cultures usually see obliging and avoiding conflict styles as negatively disengaged favoring instead more direct forms of conflict. Collectivistic cultures see these as relevant and viable methods of dealing with conflict employing them in an attempt to protect mutual-face interest. Collectivistic cultures view more direct means of conflict communication as negative. The compromising style focuses more on content goal negotiation process neglecting rational and identity-based respect and consideration issues.[1]

Although the five conflict styles serve as a good initial probe of conflict style, it misses factors such as emotions, third-party consultation, and passive-aggressive types of conflict tactics.[1] Emotional expression refers to one using emotions to guide communication behaviors during conflict. Third-party help involves using an outsider to mediate the conflict. Finally, passive-aggressive responses also known as neglect, is characterized by sidestepping the conflict while eliciting an indirect reaction from the other conflict party.

Face Content Domains

Face content domains refer to the different levels an individual will engage in facework on. A disparity in one domain will usually effect one’s feelings in another domain. For instance, one might sacrifice some of the Autonomy face in order to satisfy the needs from their Inclusion face. There are six domains that an individual will operate in:

  1. Autonomy-represents our need for others to acknowledge our independence, self-sufficiency, privacy, boundary, nonimposition, control issues, and our consideration of other’s autonomy face needs
  2. Inclusion-our need to be recognized as worthy companions, likeable, agreeable, pleasant, friendly, cooperative
  3. Status-need for others to admire our tangible and intangible assets or resources: appearance, attractiveness, reputation, position, power, and material worth
  4. Reliability-need for others to realize that we are trustworthy, dependable, reliable, loyal, and consistent in words and actions
  5. Competence-need for others to recognize our qualities or social abilities such as intelligence, skills, expertise, leadership, team-building, networking, conflict mediation, facework, and problem-solving skills
  6. Moral-need for others to respect our sense of integrity, dignity, honor, propriety, and morality

Theoretical propositions[edit]

The heart of Face Negotiation Theories are Dr. Ting-Toomey’s 24 propositions. They are based on the seven assumptions and five taxonomies that have been proven in numerous cases and studies. They describe facework on three levels of communication: cultural, individual, and situational.

Cultural-level propositions[1]

  • Individualistic cultures predominantly express self-face maintenance interests than collectivistic culture members do.
  • Collectivistic cultures are more concerned with other-face maintenance than members of individualistic cultures.
  • Members of collectivist cultures are more concerned with mutual-face maintenance than individualistic cultures.
  • Members of individualistic cultures predominantly use direct and dominating facework strategies in conflict
  • Collectivistic cultures tend to use avoidance strategies more than individualistic cultures do.
  • Members of collectivistic cultures use more integrative facework strategies than individualistic culture members do.
  • Individualistic cultures prefer dominating/competing conflict styles more than collectivistic cultures do.
  • Individualistic cultures use more emotionally expressive conflict styles than collectivistic cultures do.
  • Individualistic cultures use more aggressive conflict styles than members of collectivistic cultures.
  • Collectivistic cultures use more avoidance techniques than members of individualistic cultures.
  • Collectivistic cultures use more obliging conflict styles than members of individualistic cultures.
  • Collectivistic cultures utilize compromising styles of conflict more than members of individualistic cultures.

Individual-level propositions[1]

  • Independent self is positively associated with self-face concern.
  • Interdependent self is positively associated with other-/mutual-face concern.
  • Self-face maintenance is associated with dominating/competing conflict style.
  • Other-face maintenance is associated with avoiding/obliging conflict style.
  • Other-face maintenance is associated with compromising/integrating conflict style.
  • Independent self–construal is associated with dominating/competing conflict style.
  • Interdependent self-construal is associated with obliging/avoiding.
  • Interdependent self-construal is associated with compromising/integrating.
  • Bi-construal is associated with compromising/integrating.
  • Ambivalent is associated with neglect/third-party.

Situational-level propositions[1]

  • Individualist or independent-self personalities tend to express a greater degree of self-face maintenance concerns and less other-face maintenance concern in dealing with both ingroup and outgroup conflicts situations.
  • Collectivist or interdependent-self personalities express a greater degree of other-face concerns with ingroup members and a greater degree of self-face maintenance concerns with outgroup members in intergroup conflict situations.
  • Abigail and Cahn cover three different types of facework[3]
  • Preventive Facework: not allowing face issues to bother oneself. People put themselves in the other persons shoes in conflict, accept others opinions
  • Supportive Facework: When in conflict with someone, this helps reinforce the way the other person is presenting himself or herself. Supportive Facework helps conflict. To generally support people include, consult. Reward and help others. To specifically support people find characteristics in common with one another.
  • Corrective Facework: to act as if no threat to ones face or how they view themselves. If you are threatened in a minor way, act as if no threat was made. Impression management is used in order to solve bigger conflicts concerning facework. Impression management means that the image you want people to see of you is what they see. By making sure others are on the same page and explaining our message clearly, facework is saved

Studies on the theory[edit]

Like many theories, face negotiation theory has been tried and tested to prove the theory works in the real world. There are two studies that aimed to prove the fundamentals of the theory. Both studies took concepts from the theory to investigate how “facework” and face negotiation applied in conflict across cultures.

Study 1: Face Concerns in Interpersonal Conflict

This study by the author of the theory Stella Ting-Toomey and, Department of communication and Journalism at the University of New Mexico, John G. Oetzel was done in order to discover if face was indeed a factor in determining “culture’s influence on conflict behavior” (Ting-Toomey & Oetzel, 2003). There were 768 people from four different countries who partook in the study. The cultures represented were China, Germany, Japan, and the United States. China and Japan representing the collectivist countries and Germany and the United States as the individualist countries. Each contributor was given a survey in which they were to explain interpersonal conflict. [4] The largest findings are as follows.

  1. “Cultural individualism-collectivism had direct and indirect effects on conflict styles.”[4]
  2. “Independent self-construal related positively with self-face and interdependent self-construal related positively with other-face.”[4]
  3. “Self-face related positively with dominating conflict styles and other-face related positively with avoiding and integrating styles.”[4]
  4. “Face accounted for all of the total variance explained (100% of 19% total explained) in dominating, most of the total variance explained in integrating (70% of 20% total explained) when considering face concerns, cultural individualism-collectivism, and self-construals.”[4]

Study 2: Face and Facework in Conflicts With Parents and Siblings

This study implemented by the author of this theory Stella Ting-Toomey, John Oetzel, Martha Idalia Chew-Sanchez, Richard Harris, Richard Wilcox, and Siegfried Stumpf observed how facework in conflict with parents and siblings is affected by culture, self-concept, and power distance. There were 449 people from four different countries and cultures that participated. Germany, Japan, Mexico, and the United States were the countries used in the study. The survey looked at 3 apprehensions of face and 11 behaviors of “facework”. The results are as follows.

  1. “Self-construals had strong effects on face concerns and facework with independence positively associated with self-face and dominating facework and interdependence positively associated with other- and mutual-face and integrating and avoiding facework behaviors.”[5]
  2. “Power distance had small, positive effects on self-face, other-face, avoiding facework, and dominating facework.”[5]
  3. “National culture had small to medium effects with individualistic, small power distance cultures having more self-face and mutual-face and using more dominating and integrating facework and less avoiding facework.”[5]
  4. “Germans have more self-face and used defending more than U.S. Americans.”[5]
  5. “Japanese used more expression than Mexicans.”[5]
  6. “Individuals in conflict with parents were more likely to use respect and expression and less likely to use aggression, pretend, and third party than individuals in conflict with siblings.”[5]

Study 3: Face Negotiation with Mothers

Motherhood of the Construction of “Mommy Identity” – Heisler & Ellis Face Negotiation Theory suggests that, “USA culture simultaneously encourages connection and autonomy among individuals.” [6] Mothers do not want to be vulnerable so there is a “face” that is developed in the culture of mothers. Heisler and Ellis did a study on the “face” and reasons for face in motherhood. The results portrayed that the main reasons for keeping “face” in a culture of mothers are:

1. Acceptance and approval: There is a fear of criticism and rejection by others. There is the avoidance face which deflects others attention. Acceptance face attracts attention.

2. Personal Reasons: There are many internal pressures that mothers face. These include the guilt that they do not spend enough time with their children, insecurities and values they have are not being in met, and their self-esteem is low because of the fear of judgment.

3. Mentoring/helping others: Mothers put on a face in order to appear as a good mother figure to younger mothers that look up to them. There are cultural expectations that can contribute to personal expectations for how mothers should act. Women’s thoughts on mothering are not their own original ideas. They take on a lot of societal pressures. An example would be, if a mother’s child acts poorly in public, it makes the mother look bad.

Motherhood and “face”: Results from the same study showed that mothers participate in “Mommy face work.” Depending on who they are talking to or interacting with. Mothers said to put on their highest face with friends, spouses, mothers and other family members.


Face negotiation theory addresses intercultural communication on cultural, individual, and inter-relational levels. Individualistic and collectivistic cultures will have different methods of maintaining face and resolving conflict. What comes naturally to people from one culture may not seem an appropriate communication style to individuals from another culture.

An example of this was in 2003 when the United States went to war with Iraq. The Iraqi information minister was adamant that US troops were not in the country, despite the obvious fact that they were. Why use such a tactic? Ting-Toomey’s face negotiation theory would recognize Arabic culture as collectivistic. Thus, one might say it was a method of face management to maintain credibility with the ingroup (i.e., the Iraqi people) rather than dealing with the problem more directly.

As Greenberg, Simon, Pyszczynski, Soloman, and Chatel point out, one’s cultural worldview is taken as an absolute, and the fact that there are other people who share that view reinforces it. So, face negotiation theory can be an effective and necessary tool in developing intercultural communication competence.[7]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Ting-Toomey, 2005
  2. ^ a b Culpach & Metts, 1994
  3. ^ Abigail, R. A. & Cahn, D. D. (2011). Conflict through Communication. (4th ed.). Boston MA: Pearson.
  4. ^ a b c d e Ting-Toomey & Oetzel, 2003
  5. ^ a b c d e f Ting-Toomey, Oetzel, Chew-Sanchez, Harris, Wilcox, &Stumpf, 2003
  6. ^ Heisler & Ellis, 2008, pp. 448.
  7. ^ Greenberg et al., 1992


  • Abigail, R. A. & Cahn, D. D. (2011). Conflict through Communication. (4th ed.). Boston MA: Pearson.
  • Cupach, W. & Metts, S. (1994). Facework. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Greenberg, J., Simon, L., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & Chatel, D. (1992). Terror Management and Tolerance: Does Mortality Salience Always Intensify Negative Reactions to Others Who Threaten One's Worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63,212-220.
  • Oetzel,J., Ting-Toomey, S., Yokochi, Y., Masumoto, T.,& Takai, J., (2000). A Typology of Facework and Behaviors in Conflicts with Best Friends and Relative Strangers. Communication Quarterly, Vol 48 No 4 Pg 397-419
  • Ting-Toomey, S. (2005) The Matrix of Face: An Updated Face-Negotiation Theory. In W.B. Gudykunst (Ed.), Theorizing About Intercultural Communication(pp. 71–92). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Oetzel,J., Meares, M., Myers, K., & Lara, E., (2002). Interpersonal Conflict in Organizations: Explaining Conflict Styles via Face-Negotiation Theory. Communication Research Reports Vol 20 No 2 Pg 106-115
  • Tina-Toomey, Stella, and John Oetzel. "Face Concerns in Interpersonal Conflict: A Cross-Cultural Empirical Test of the Face Negotiation Theory." Communication Research. 30.6 (2003): 599-624.
  • Oetzel, John, Stella Ting-Toomey, Martha Idalia Chew-Sanchez, Richard Harris, Richard Wilcox, and Siegfried Stumpf. "Face and Facework in Conflicts With Parents and Siblings: A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Germans, Japanese, Mexicans, and U.S. Americans ." Journal Of Family Communication. 3.2 (2003): 67-93.