Face-threatening act

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A face-threatening act (FTA) is an act which challenges the face wants of an interlocutor. According to Brown and Levinson (1987 [1978]), (speech) acts may threaten the speaker’s (S) as well as the hearer’s (H) positive face and/or negative face.

Types of FTAs

A distinction can be made between (i) FTAs which threaten positive face and those which threaten negative face, and (ii) FTAs which threaten the hearer’s face and FTAs which threaten the speaker’s face.

FTAs Threatening the Hearer’s Face

Positive Face

FTAs threatening the hearer’s self-image include (i) expressions of the speaker’s negative evaluation of the hearer’s positive face, e.g. disapproval, criticism, complaints, accusations, contradictions, disagreements etc., as well as (ii) expressions which show that the speaker does not care about H’s positive face, e.g. expressions of violent emotions, taboo topics, bad news, emotional topics, interruptions etc.


  • Criticism: “I think your report was not concise enough.” -> The hearer’s positive face is threatened because s/he is blamed for having done sth. badly, i.e. his/her self-image is negatively evaluated.
  • Emotions: “You’re feeling sad because of your ex-boyfriend, aren’t you?” -> The speaker addresses a topic which involves a state of emotional weakness of the hearer, i.e. the speaker does not care about the 'public self-image' of the hearer. Therefore, the positive face is threatened.

Negative Face

FTAs threatening the hearer’s personal freedom include (i) acts stating a future act of the hearer, e.g. orders/requests, suggestions/advice, reminding, threats/warnings/dares, (ii)acts stating a future act of speaker towards the hearer, e.g. offers/promises, and (iii) acts stating a desire of the speaker towards the hearer or his/her goods, e.g. compliments, expressions of emotions.


  • Order: “Please give me that book.” -> The speaker expresses an anticipation of some future action of the hearer and thereby restricts his/her personal freedom. In that way the hearer’s negative face is threatened.
  • Promise: “I promise I will come by tomorrow.” -> The speaker states a future action in which the hearer should be involved. Thereby the hearer’s personal freedom (negative face) is threatened.
  • Compliment: “I really like you.” -> The speaker expresses positive emotions towards the hearer which may involve an anticipation of a positive reaction by the hearer (giving thanks/expressing positive emotions towards the speaker). Therefore, the hearer’s personal freedom of action (negative face) is threatened.

FTAs Threatening the Speaker’s Face

Positive Face

FTAs threatening the speaker’s self-image include apologies, acceptance of a compliment, breakdown of physical/emotional control, self-humiliation, confession etc.


  • Apology: “I think I made a huge mistake.” -> The speaker makes a confession about his/her own shortcomings, thereby 'damaging' his/her own positive self-image/face.

Negative Face

FTAs threatening the speaker’s personal freedom include expressing thanks, acceptance of thanks/offers/compliments, apologies, excuses etc.


  • Expression of thanks: “Thank you so much for your help.” -> The speaker expresses thanks because he/she feels constrained to do so. Therefore his freedom of action is threatened in the moment of speaking.


  • Brown, Penelope and Stephen C. Levinson (1987 [1978]). Politeness: Some Universals in Laguage Usage. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Eeelen, Gino (2001). A Critique of Politeness Theories. Manchester: St Jerome.
  • Janney, Richard W. and Horst Arndt (1993). Universality and Relativity in Cross-cultural Politeness Research: A Historical Perspective. Multilingua 12.1: 13-50.
  • Locher, Mriam A. and Richard J. Watts (2005). Politeness Theory and Relational Work. Journal of Politeness Research 1.5: 9-33.
  • O’Driscoll, Jim (2007). What’s in an FTA? Reflections on a Chance Meeting with Claudine. Journal of Politeness Research 3.7: 243-268.


Wikipedia Wikipedia: Politeness_theory#Face-Threatening_Acts (English)