Social interaction and face

Two formally dressed men shaking hands in the street

Polite encounter

The importance of social interaction and relationships as a key function of spoken discourse should be clear. Crucial to social interaction is the establishment and maintenance of social relationships. For social relations to function smoothly, politeness is a fundamental consideration in any interaction. Brown and Levinson (1987) provide one of the best known accounts of politeness based on studies of politeness in a wide range of cultures and languages. For Brown and Levinson the origins of politeness in all societies reside in the notion of face. The term face was taken from the work of the sociologist Erving Goffman (1967). However, it is roughly analogous to the English expressions 'to save face' and 'to lose face' relating to individual's self esteem and respect in relation to others.

Here is the reading list for this topic:
Reading list for 'Social interaction and face' (pdf, 48KB). You may wish to print this document.

In these activities you will examine the concept of face and the associated ideas of positive and negative face, face threatening acts and strategies for doing face threatening acts.

Activity 1: Positive and negative face

All adult members of a society have 'face' and this face is seen by Brown and Levinson to be divided into two types - positive face and negative face. This activity is going to introduce you to the two types of face.



Consider the two explanations below and select the type of face that each refers to. Then read the feedback.

"The want of every 'competent adult member' that his actions be unimpeded by others" (Brown and Levinson, 1987). This involves such areas as avoiding imposing on others, wanting to complete actions without interference from others, expressing deference to others and expecting respect from others.

"The want of every member that his wants be desirable to at least some others" (Brown and Levinson, 1987). This involves such areas as wanting to be liked, wanting others to like the same things as you like, agreeing with others, eexpressing solidarity and equality with others.

Activity 2: Face threatening acts (FTAs)

When we interact with other people many of our normal actions are potentially face threatening acts (FTAs). That is, they could potentially undermine the positive or negative face of the speaker, the hearer or both. For example, if I ask to borrow your pen I am potentially imposing on you and so threatening your negative face. Conversely, if I apologise to you I will be threatening my own positive face, in that I am acknowledging having imposed on you and asking for your acceptance of this (which you may reject). Brown and Levinson produced a list of possible acts that may threaten either positive or negative face and in this activity you are going to consider these.



Examine this list of actions and decide if they threaten positive or negative face. Move them into the correct box and then read the feedback.

Acts that threaten the addressee's negative face
Acts that threaten the addressee's positive face
Contradictions or disagreements
Expressions of disapproval, criticism or complaint
Expressions of violent emotions
Irreverence or expression of taboo topics
Non-cooperation in an activity
Offers (suggesting a future debt the addressee must accept or reject)
Orders and requests
Promises (suggesting a future debt the addressee must accept or reject)
Suggestions, advice
Threats, warnings, dares
Use of inappropriate terms of address (deliberately or accidentally)

Activity 3: Strategies and FTAs

Brown and Levinson believe that participants in social interaction will try to avoid or minimise the impact of any face threatening acts, and they offer a schema of possible strategies for FTAs to achieve this. In this activity you are going to examine this schema.



Open and read the FTA schema, study the scenario below and the different possible actions. Match each possible action with the FTA strategy that it reflects and then read the feedback.

Face Threatening Acts (pdf, 41KB). You may wish to print this document.

You are at a bus stop waiting for your bus to go home when you discover that you have no money. You can:

© eLanguages, Modern Languages and Linguistics, University of Southampton, 2014. All rights reserved. Image courtesy of star5112 (Flickr).