Face (concept)

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Face is a sociological concept for an individual's public self-image. One's face is always in progress and develops within social interaction. Each individual in a social group has his/ her own face that he/she wants to protect against threats.

Face as a sociological term

The term face has been established in the late 1960s by the American sociologist Erving Goffman. It is defined by Goffman as an image of the self which depends on both the rules and values of a particular society and the situation the social interaction is embedded in. It hence mirrors the way a person wants to be perceived by others in his surrounding space. Goffman describes three levels which influence an individual's actions in order to correspond to one's face needs:

  • The need to fulfil one's own desires is described as pride.
  • One's emotional and physical attitude in social interaction is described as dignity.
  • An individual's duties towards the society are defined as honour.

The dependance of face on social values is, for instance, reflected in the way a person behaves when representing a particular religious community or profession. Sense of face in social interaction is mutual with regard to individuals sending and receiving a message. The person committing a social act is equally aware of the addresse's face. Aiming at avoiding threats to one's own and and the other person's face, verbal and non-verbal acts are modified accordingly. These interaction patterns serve as face-saving acts. On the contrary, acts which work against the face needs of sender and recipient are known as face-threatening acts.

Face-saving acts

Saving one's own face depends on the mutual interaction between sender and recipient. Accepting each others' faces and the corresponding social roles people are taking, is defined as face-to-face talk. According to this definition, a teacher is able to interrupt his student, whereas the student might commit a threat to the teacher's authority when interrupting the latter.

To avoid misleadings of one's own or the addressee's face, social actions are put into a specific order. This is called an expressive order. Expressive orders need to be taken care of in order to avoid threats to one's face and to restore one's face after it has been threatened.

Misleading of Face

The faces of both the sender and recipient are always in progress. An individual's behaviour and the information conveyed about this individual at a particular point in time lead to future expectations of others towards this individual. Signals which do not fulfill these expectations are called misleadings of face.

One distinguishes between two kinds of misleadings of face. If particular information about an individual does not fit the overall impression of others, this person is supposed to be in the wrong-face. This is, for instance, the case with people who are known to be punctual by their peer group and called unpunctual by others who do not belong to this social group. If a particular behaviour of a person does not fit the overall impression of others, a person is supposed to be out-of-face. A person known to be punctual is out-of-face, if she/ he starts to arrive late for meetings within his/ her social group.


According to Goffman, face-work needs to be done in order to avoid and correct misleadings of face. Face-work is hence divided into two processes: In order to avoid a threat to one's face, one introduces different avoidance processes. These include the avoidance of both potential face-threatening situations and people. There are different kinds of avoidance strategies:

  • Defensive strategies include the avoidance of particular topics and to suppress one's emotions, as soon as they do not seem to be appropriate in certain situations.
  • Protecting strategies include polite behaviour towards the addressee, and thus to modify utterances in a conversation.
  • Preventive acts are so-called announcements about potential awkward incidents that might take place in the flow of events.
  • Ignorance of uncomfortable and unforeseen incidents might help to continue in the desired flow of events. One example is the ignorance of stomach noises. However, ignorance strategies do only work in cooperation with the addressee.

One introduces so-called corrective processes, if a particular threat to face cannot be avoided anymore. Corrective processes serve to restore the desired expressive order and flow of events. Examples for corrective processes like apologies are divided into phases:

  • Phase 1: The individual takes responsibility for his/ her behavioural failure.
  • Phase 2: The individual sends signals of regret to the addressee.
  • Phase 3: The individual offers compensation.
  • Phase 4: The addressee accepts the offer.

Corrective processes only work, if all phases have been undergone successfully .

Positive and Negative Face

Face-work is directed to both the basic needs of face (negative face) as well as the desire for the appreciation of one's personality (positive face) (see: positive and negative Face). Linguists Stephen Levinson and Penelope Brown were the first to divide these two aspects of Goffman's face. According to them, politeness in language is the universal tool to protect all aspects of faces in interaction.

See also

face-threatening act

positive and negative face

Other Languages


  • Brown, Penelope und Levinson, Stephen (1978): Universals in Language Usage: Politeness Phenomena. In: Goody, E. N. [Hrsg.]: Questions and Politeness: Strategies in Social Interaction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 56-311.
  • Goffman, Erving (1967): On Face-Work. An Analysis of Ritual Elements in Social Interaction. In: Ders.: Interaction Ritual. New York: Doubleday. 5-45.
  • Turner, Ken und Sbisa, E. (2013) [Hrsg.]: Handbook of Pragmatics: Pragmatics of Speech Actions. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Watts, Richard [Hrsg.] (1992): Politeness in Language. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.