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The OCR Glossary


Sherry J. Holladay

The concept of facework refers to how interactants communicate to present their own identities (faces) and respond to others’ identities in social situations. Facework is important to impression management because it directs attention to the interdependence and ritual that underlie interactants’ social construction, acceptance, and rejection of selves (faces) in particular contexts. Facework was introduced by Erving Goffman, a sociologist whose approach is often referred to as “dramaturgical analysis” because he invoked a theatrical metaphor and its associated jargon to describe human interaction. This entry first explains the nature of performance and the concept of facework and its functions. It then describes the implications for the study of reputation.

Several key concepts provide the foundation for the facework concept. Goffman’s first major work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), proposed a framework for conceptualizing interactions as theatrical performances where actors enact scripts in public performances to create the desired effects on audiences. Parallels between theatrical performances and human interaction include attention to actors (characters and their roles), verbal and nonverbal actions (lines) that follow scripts designed to conform to expectations and to create the desired impressions, stages (situations or contexts), and audiences, who evaluate the performances.

Though the concept of “face” in general, as in “saving face” or “losing face,” was not a new one and had been used previously to explain culture-based practices of image management, Goffman elaborated on the nature of face and facework in an essay contained in the book Interaction Ritual (1967). Consistent with common conceptualizations of face that depict it as a valued social asset, Goffman (1967) described face as “the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact. Face is an image of self delineated in terms of approved social attributes” (p. 5). Face denotes the self (identity) presented to others. However, society’s support for the claimed face may be withdrawn if the person fails to live up to that face. “Having face” means presenting an image that is valued by self and others, is internally consistent, can be maintained by taking lines consistent with the face, is supported by others, and demonstrates consistency within the flow of interaction. Thus, face mirrors one’s reputation within a social context.

Facework refers to the process of face negotiation in interaction. Verbal and nonverbal actions (lines) are enacted to present and protect one’s own face as well as the faces of others, demonstrate understanding of the situational demands, and interact in socially approved ways to preserve the expressive order. People are socialized to cooperate while following commonly accepted rules of social interaction in a particular culture and context and have an obligation to support and protect their own face as well as others’ faces. Facework requires a shared understanding of the rules of social interaction demanded by the context, perceptive skills for interpreting the faces others have chosen for themselves and expectations associated with one’s own and others’ faces, and mutual acceptance of the roles interactants have chosen for themselves. Interactants actively self-regulate and coordinate their actions to mitigate threats to face that would disrupt the interaction.

Facework may be protective (supportive, as in demonstrating respect for the social order) as well as avoidant (defensive, as in shunning situations or topics that may pose face threats). Engaging in appropriate facework allows interactions to proceed in a fairly ritualistic fashion and without “incident.” Incidents are problematic situations where one or more interactants experience a threat to face (loss of face) when they are caught wrong-faced (enacting a face that is inconsistent with the previously established or current face) or out of face (not having a line to enact). Threats to face can be unintentional, unplanned, or malicious (intended to threaten the other’s face). Face threats create disequilibrium and an exigency requiring attention by the actor and/or interactants. The threat may lead the person whose face is threatened to pretend that the threat did not occur, claim lack of responsibility for the threat, or engage in a cooperative corrective process where attention is directed to the threat, the threat is acknowledged, and the person is given an opportunity to correct the offense in order to save face. Thus, others participate in the facework to minimize the face threat. In contrast to supporting another’s facework, a person may engage in aggressive facework designed to enhance his or her own face and perhaps damage another’s face.

Overall, Goffman’s work has received considerable attention and is cited frequently by scholars of interpersonal interaction. The idea that people seek to express their identities and maintain their reputations through socially acceptable impression management activities is intuitively appealing. Goffman’s microlevel analysis of specific interaction moves that constitute the presentational and evaluative aspects of facework processes is complex, but it does offer insights into society’s complex communication rituals. A challenge for contemporary readers of his work is to translate the interaction rituals from the 1950s and 1960s into more modern contexts.

Implications for Reputation

Though Goffman focuses on individuals in interpersonal interaction, we can translate several concepts to organizational settings. For example, organizations often are portrayed as demonstrating certain human qualities such as personalities, values, and characteristic behaviors as a way of describing their “organizational face.” We may refer to the CEO of the organization as the “face” of the organization and attribute successes and failures to the CEO. A CEO may engage in facework to maintain a desired identity for himself or herself as a representative of the entity (e.g., as not responsible for an organizational problem) as well as to maintain a desired identity for the organization as a whole. Similarly, analysts may claim that an organization engages in corrective actions (facework) in attempts to save face (i.e., protect its reputation) after failing to meet expectations or after suffering a crisis. Goffman’s ideas can help explain why the public may question organizational responses to face-threatening incidents. The challenge is to determine which facework concepts are a good fit for the organization-public setting.

Brown, P., & Levinson, S. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Cupach, W. R., & Metts, S. (1994). Facework. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Doubleday Anchor.

Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction ritual: Essays on face-to-face behavior. New York: Doubleday.

See Also

Image Repair Theory; Impression Management Theory; Interpersonal Communication; Organizational Identity

See Also

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