Face Negotiation Theory

Perhaps you have a friend who is from Appalachian America, or another collectivist culture. The lengths your friend would go to in order to avoid conflict during a disagreement may have surprised you. Likewise, your friend may have been shocked by your directness. If you have ever been in a situation like this, you have experienced Face Negotiation Theory in practice.

Face Negotiation Theory seeks to explain and understand the dynamics of intercultural communication. People from individualistic cultures, including most Americans, and people from collectivistic cultures, such as Appalachia, use different ways to save face and resolve conflict. In fact, they have different ideas of what constitutes saving face. Unfortunately, what seems right and natural to members of one culture may seem highly inappropriate to members of another. Fully understood and properly applied, Face Negotiation Theory can help people of different cultures avoid needless misunderstandings and come to mutually beneficial agreements.

What is Face Negotiation Theory?

Face Negotiation Theory is based on the underlying assumption that, regardless of their culture, people are all concerned with saving face. The theory attempts to explain the reasons behind the different ways people from different cultures handle conflict. According to Face Negotiation Theory, this occurs because people of different cultures have different priorities when it comes to saving face, and they have different ideas of what constitutes saving face.

The theory places special emphasis upon the different viewpoints of members of collectivist and individualistic cultures. Because collectivist cultures emphasize the collective, members seek to avoid anything that might damage the group. As a result, they often avoid conflict, and they often allow others to save face when a conflict is unavoidable. Additionally, saving the group’s face is viewed as primary, with individual face-saving taking a backseat. Individualistic cultures, on the other hand, emphasize the individual, and members, who feel the need to make others lose face in order to save their own, often believe that avoiding conflict leads to losing face. In these cultures, the face of the group may be a secondary consideration, or may not be a consideration at all.

Origins of Face Negotiation Theory

Face Negotiation Theory was first conceived by Stella Ting-Toomey in 1985. The theory was born as a result of Ting-Toomey’s frustration with the interpersonal conflict communication theories that were popular in the 1980s. At that time, theories emphasized the value of self-disclosure and conflict confrontation. Strategies often employed by collectivist cultures were ignored or viewed as undesirable or ineffective. These directives did little to improve communication and conflict resolution between cultures with differing styles. Ting-Toomey began working to provide a more complete theory.

Criticism of Face Negotiation Theory

Face Negotiation Theory has been the subject of criticism since its introduction. For example, Ting-Toomey bases her theory on basic assumptions about the way individualistic and collectivist cultures operate. However, these differences do not always fully explain the actual behavior exhibited by most members of such cultures. Ting-Toomey herself found that Japanese people were more likely than Americans to try to save face for themselves. She also discovered that American research participants who were classified as individualistic were much more willing to compromise than her theory would suggest.

In addition, the way power is distributed within a society is an important part of Ting-Toomey’s theory. She asserts that individualistic cultures are small power distance cultures, in which individuals matter and have equal power. Collectivistic cultures, on the other hand, grant power to those who have inherited authority, with those beneath having little to no power. This is not universally the case, however, and some collectivistic cultures also highly value egalitarianism. Members of the Appalachian culture, which covers a large area of the United States along the Appalachian mountain range, live in a collectivistic culture. However, Appalachians place a high value on egalitarianism. In fact, they value it so highly that wealthy community members take pains to avoid appearing ostentatious and even doctors are careful to keep from coming across as authoritative. In some Appalachian communities, police officers are issued printed T-shirts and baseball caps to be worn with jeans, rather than traditional uniforms.

A number of researchers from various cultures continue to conduct research in this area of study and to test Ting-Toomey’s theory. Face Negotiation Theory has seen multiple changes since it was first conceived, as new research yields new information that is incorporated into the theory. The most recent version of Face Negotiation Theory was conceived in 2005.

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