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An important concept in the linguistic study of interaction is that of 'face'. The study of face – or 'facework' – is related to our everyday concept of respect and politeness, familiar from expressions such as 'to save face' or 'to suffer a loss of face'. Linguistic studies of face focus on the way in which we use language to acknowledge the fact that people have face 'needs'.

The concept of 'face' in the study of linguistic interaction derives from the work of Goffman (1967), who observed that face had to do with the 'positive social value' that we like to maintain in social interactions. During any one encounter, the interactants will each have a certain face and will produce utterances that take into consideration each other's face in this particular situation. In different situations, a single individual's face will be constructed differently. For example, when an individual is engaged in small talk with their family, they might expect to be addressed through terms of endearment, and not mind having fun made of them; when running a business meeting, on the other hand, they may expect to be addressed more formally, and to be treated with respect by other interactants. An individual's face can also change during a single interaction, for example when a businessman at a meeting completes his speech and turns to colleagues to discuss the injustices of a referee's decisions in the football match the previous evening

One of the most prominent conceptualisations of face is Brown and Levinson's model (1987), which claims to provide a universal account of how face-work operates (although it has been the subject of much debate). Brown and Levinson suggested that there are two distinct types of face: 'positive' and 'negative'. Our positive face reflects our desire to be accepted and liked by others, while our negative face reflects our wish to have the freedom to do what we want and to have independence. Brown and Levinson observe that, generally, people cooperate in maintaining each other's face needs. However, the nature of interaction means that – intentionally or unintentionally – speakers often find themselves producing utterances that threaten one or both types of face: what Brown and Levinson called 'face-threatening acts' (FTAs). Obvious examples include insults or expressions of disapproval, which can harm the addressee's positive face; however, more innocuous speech acts such as requests can also be face-threatening, by rubbing up against an interactant's desire to be free to do what they want to do (their negative face).

Recommended reading

Brown and Levinson's study has been highly influential in the linguistic study of face, and is key reading for those interested in positive and negative politeness and face-threatening acts:

Brown, Penelope and Stephen C. Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some Universals in Language Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

'On Face-Work' in this collection of Goffman essays provides an account of the many ways we acknowledge each other's face in interaction:

Goffman, Erving. 1967. Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behaviour. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 5-46.

Thomas's introductory textbook provides accessible introductions to face and many other topics in pragmatics:

Thomas, Jenny. 1995. Meaning in Interaction: An Introduction to Pragmatics. London: Longman, 168-176.

 

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