Sarah Rosenberg

Original Publication Feb. 2004, Current Implications added by Heidi Burgess in Sept, 2018.

MBI MOOS LogoCurrent Implications

As I read this article, I immediately thought about U.S. President Trump and North Korean President Kim Jung Un. Both crave the respect of their constituents. Both feel a tremendous need to appear strong, decisive, effective, and resolute—despite the fact that one comes from a “high-context” and the other a “low-context” culture. More...

Much has been written about the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. One perspective put forth by a leading researcher on face theories, Stella Ting-Toomey, is that the negotiation came down to how both sides could retreat to more peaceful positions without losing face, or causing loss of face for each other. From the correspondence between the two leaders (Kennedy and Khrushchev),[1] it is apparent that they were trying to figure out how they could both retain personal and national honor in relation to each other and to the international arena. Kennedy, in his memoirs, wrote about the seven lessons he learned during the crisis, number six being, "Don't humiliate your opponent," which is, of course, a central face issue. And, as Ting-Toomey put it, "By understanding the face-honoring process intuitively, intellectually, and diplomatically, the two statesmen learned to honor and give face mutually in the eyes of their salient referents and in the arena of international diplomacy."

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Face: A General Definition

Face is a multi-faceted term, and its meaning is inextricably linked with culture and other terms such as honor and its opposite, humiliation. Saving face or giving face has different levels of importance, depending on the culture or society with which one is dealing. Perhaps the most familiar term to many is "saving face," which we understand simply to mean not being disrespectful to others in public, or taking preventive actions so that we will not appear to lose face in the eyes of others. Some will immediately associate the term "face" with Sino-Japanese cultures, but it would be a mistake to think that those are the only cases where face issues are important. In the Cuban missile crisis, it was very important both sides not to lose face or credibility, and this need guided both sides' negotiating tactics.

Ting-Toomey defines face as "the interaction between the degree of threats or considerations one party offers to another party, and the degree of claim for a sense of self-respect (or demand for respect toward one's national image or cultural group) put forth by the other party in a given situation."[2] Specific to face-negotiation theory, face is understood as the image one projects of oneself or one's national image in a public forum. As Brown understood the issue:

Among the most troublesome kinds of problems that arise in negotiation are the intangible issues related to loss of face. In some instances, protecting against loss of face becomes so central an issue that it swamps the importance of the tangible issues at stake and generates intense conflicts that can impede progress toward agreement and increase substantially the costs of conflict resolution.[3]

Low-Context vs. High-Context Cultures

To understand the relevance of face in different cultures, one must learn how to identify low-context and high-context societies and what types of characteristics they each imply, especially in negotiating behavior. It is important to note that many cultures are neither wholly low-context nor high-context, but instead combine the two, and that the context may vary depending on the situation. However, these principles are helpful as a framework for discussion and analysis.

In general, the U.S. and other Western countries are considered low-context societies. This means that verbal communication is most often direct, and that there is very little concern or need for nonverbal cues in order for people to understand each other. Raymond Cohen, a respected researcher on culture and negotiation, explains that at the core of a low-context society is the belief in the freedom of the individual, hence the term "individualistic" societies.

In these societies, individual rights supercede blind duty to one's family, clan, ethnic group, or nation. People generally try to "say what they mean and mean what they say." In individualistic societies, "[e]quality is the prevailing ethic in society and politics. Status is acquired, not inherited..." and, more importantly, "...contract, not custom, prescribes the individual's legal obligation to a given transaction, role or course of action."[4] In these societies, it is individual, personal guilt that serves as a moral compass. If one commits a social blunder as an adult, in most cases, there is no group shame involved, only personal embarrassment, and (one hopes) a desire to correct the wrong with a sincere apology. Conflicts are seen as a natural part of life; they are simply dealt with and then people move on. In individualistic societies, in theory if not always in practice, people are free to move and associate themselves with any groups they like. In light of all this, the place that face issues hold in low-context cultures is not nearly as important as in collectivistic societies. But when communicating with cultural "others," it is obviously extremely important to make oneself aware of possible differences beforehand. Face, it turns out, is quite a serious issue in many places.

High-context societies include countries such as Korea, China, and Japan in Asia, Middle-Eastern countries such as Egypt and Iran,[5] and Latin American countries. Sometimes, these cultures are referred to as collectivistic, or interdependent. Very often, these high-context cultures are hierarchical and traditional societies in which the concepts of shame and honor are much more important than they are in low-context societies.[6]

In high-context cultures, group harmony is of utmost importance. People in these cultures dislike direct confrontation, and for the most part avoid expressing a clear "no." Evasion and inaccuracy are preferred in order to keep appearances pleasant. There is a danger of losing face simply by not reaching an agreement with another person or group, if that was the goal. Being humiliated before the group, or losing face before one's constituents, can be a fate worse than death in some cases.[7]

Ways in which one can lose face include:

  • a rebuffed overture
  • exposure to personal insult
  • exposure to a derogatory remark or disregard for one's status
  • being forced to give up a cherished value
  • making what may later be seen as an "unnecessary" concession
  • failure to achieve goals
  • revelation of personal inadequacy
  • damage to a valued relationship.[8]

The key difference to remember here is that high-context cultures want to repair or build relationships while low-context cultures most often desire to simply problem-solve and move on.

Somewhere in this difference in thinking and behavior lies the key to the importance of face in interdependent cultures.

Importance in Communication and Language

High-context communication is primarily concerned with maintaining face and group harmony.[9] Every word is considered carefully, and many expressions of respect and courtesy are included. These communicators are concerned about losing face, and will usually employ evasiveness instead of explicit disagreement, because being rebuffed could cause loss of face. This is when tone, phrasing, and body language become very important. For example, low-context negotiators often have trouble recognizing a "no" when a high-context negotiator expresses a vague, non-binding form of an affirmative.

For the low-context communicator, language is a means to find and convey information. One is not offended when met with contradiction, Cohen says, because individualistic societies thrive on debate and the fundamental belief in the freedom of expression. One's behavior is guided by a sense of personal responsibility and a personal sense of guilt, rather than by shame inflicted by the group; as a result, communication is much less carefully watched than in collectivistic cultures, where humiliation is to be avoided at all costs.

Importance in Negotiation

According to Cohen, a high-context negotiator's nightmare is loss of face. As listed above, there are many ways in which this might happen, and he or she will do everything in order to ensure that it will not happen. A high-context negotiator prefers to take as much uncertainty as possible out of the picture. Even failure to reach an agreement can result in loss of face, so he or she will try to foresee and plan every aspect of the ensuing negotiation in order to prevent failure. Cohen lists China and Japan as two different strategic examples for how this is done. Many Japanese negotiators engage in extensive information gathering, so that they know the positions ahead of time and can then adjust their own position to what they think will be realistic. Chinese strategy is the exact opposite. They make sure that the other party is quite aware of nonnegotiable positions ahead of time. They will only come to the table if these terms have already been implicitly accepted. Most likely, they will not come to the table if they think there is too much potential for humiliation and loss of dignity. The common denominator between these two positions, according to Cohen, is "avoiding a leap into the unknown" and diminishing the possibilities for loss of face ahead of time.[10]

Ting-Toomey's Face-Negotiation Model

Ting-Toomey's article, Intergroup Diplomatic Communication, highlights the fact that during negotiation, there are two simultaneous face processes going on. Although much more attention has been given in the past to face-threatening behaviors, face-honoring processes also occur. She argues that diplomats must learn that face-maintenance is the key to successful inter-group negotiation. By face-maintenance, she means "the desire to project an image of strength and capability, or conversely, to avoid projecting an image of incapability, weakness, or foolishness."[11] The following figure helps to explain this model.

Face-threatening processes include face-saving and face-restoration. Face-saving measures have to do with anticipating potential loss of face, and are future-oriented. Face-restoration deals with repairing damage to one's image that has already occurred. Thus, the first is an offensive perspective, while the second is defensive. Both revolve around one's own face (self-face concern), while having very little to do with the other's face (other-face concern). Ting-Toomey says that in negotiation, one needs to take into consideration the realities of mutual face-concern, or the face-honoring processes, which often take place hand-in-hand with face-threatening maneuvers. Ting-Toomey cites international diplomatic cases such as the Camp David Accords, the Sino-British Hong Kong case, and the Cuban missile crisis as examples of this dual process.

The face-honoring process includes two components:

  1. One or both parties feel that the other is making positive overtures of respect, and that their image (face) is being validated and honored by the other.
  2. Concessions are perceived by the parties as equitable, and neither feels exploited by the other.

When one party states their needs and wants in an honorable manner, taking into consideration the notion of mutual face-concern, this is called face-assertive behavior. When one side purposely takes action to enhance the honor of the other, especially in regard to national face, this is called face-giving behavior. As can be expected, low-context cultures tend to engage in more face-threatening exchanges, while high-context cultures will focus more on face-honoring exchanges. Another way to look at this dichotomy is to see it as "getting to the point," as opposed to "building relationships." As Ting-Toomey reminds us, other "cultural variability factors, interaction event constraint factors, personality factors, and the perceived and actual communication exchanges between the inter-group negotiators all work simultaneously to influence the face-negotiation process."[12]

When we talk about face in an international negotiation setting, there are three types of face to worry about. There is the personal individual level, the national honor the diplomat represents, and finally the national face in relation to international politics. In order to repair damage caused by face-threatening behavior and to return to a mutual face-concern attitude, it is necessary to consider which of the three faces need to be attended to.

Despite cultural differences, face-threatening acts will most likely lead to more of the same in any culture. When face-threatening moves are deemed necessary, the chances for a successful negotiation increase when there is a good balance of face-honoring moves as well, to mollify the effects of threats to face. In general, according to Ting-Toomey, a bilateral attitude of mutual face-concern will tend to lead to more productive outcomes in intergroup diplomatic exchanges.

Relevance of Face and Negotiation in Different Countries

France is a good example of a Western country in which face matters. For the most part, the French try to avoid negotiation altogether. They have little belief in the values of negotiation and compromise, because, in their view, concessions tend to lead to loss of power and status. "The French have a strong sense that their own status and prestige is constantly at stake in any negotiation, and it often can be protected best by rejecting discussion or concessions, or taking a conflictual stand on grounds of principle." The importance of maintaining national honor is important, but unlike in high-context societies, failure to reach an agreement does not cause loss of face. Instead, unnecessary concessions are more cause for concern about national face.

In the former Soviet Union, compromising was only for the weak. A strong person, someone with self-esteem, would choose a confrontational strategy and would only agree to compromise if it could be proven that the negotiator had struggled very hard. The Russians seem to fall between the U.S. and France in regard to negotiating styles and importance of face. The Russians still prefer progress to abandoning the process altogether. However, they prefer to do this by getting the other side to make the first concession. They make every one of their own concessions seem like a huge burden, and so increase the appearance of benevolence to the other group and to outsiders.

For Egypt, the use of a third party was a key factor in saving face for the Egyptians and achieving the Camp David Accords in 1978. Shuttle diplomacy, which is a common way of negotiating in the Middle East, enabled Egypt to make concessions to and for the U.S. that Egyptian President Sadat could not have made directly to Israel without suffering severe loss of face.

The key to resolving the stalemate at Camp David had to do with realizing that Egypt's main concern was restoring lost face. Because Egypt had been sorely humiliated after the 1967 war, Egypt's need to regain all of the Sinai was about restoring lost face, whereas Israel's need was for security. The solution was a demilitarized Egyptian Sinai and everybody was relatively happy. This formed the basis of the 1978 Camp David Accords.

The Chinese term lian is the source for the concept of face. "It represents the confidence of society in the integrity of moral character." Loss of face occurs when one fails to meet the requirements of one's position in society. The cornerstone for the conflict resolution process in Chinese culture is for both parties to care about the other's face. In many cases, in order to save face, as in Middle Eastern countries, respected third-party mediators are needed to manage the communication between parties in conflict.

According to Harry Irwin, author of Communicating with Asia, in order to understand Chinese personal corporate and national identities, one must get a feel for all of the face work that is needed. For the Chinese, proper conduct of face maintenance is equivalent to being a moral member of society; the most important social value is creating and perpetuating group harmony. Gaining face is as important a concept as losing face. A primary goal in many Asian cultures is to increase one's face value or standing in society, while successfully avoiding the loss of face.[13]


Although countries are changing and modernizing all the time, face issues can be very important, especially in intergroup negotiating processes. However, even in same-culture conflict resolution or negotiating, it seems likely that a shared attitude of mutual face concern will yield more successful results than aggressive confrontation and face-threatening behaviors. It may also be important to include a mutually respected third party to assist when face issues between two parties are difficult to solve.

Current Implications

As I read this article, I immediately thought about U.S. President Trump and North Korean President Kim Jung Un. Both crave the respect of their constituents. Both feel a tremendous need to appear strong, decisive, effective, and resolute—despite the fact that one comes from a “high-context” and the other a “low-context” culture.

The North Korean weapons conflict is largely a conflict about face. North Korea wants to be taken seriously on the world stage. They want to be part of the community of “Nuclear Nations”—which they see as the most powerful, most respected nations in the world. The U.S. (and many other nations) do not want North Korea to become a nuclear power, as they see the regime as unstable, hostile, and dangerous.

Face concerns also brought the two leaders to loggerheads in the summer of 2017, as they built up their own personal images by denigrating the other. (Trump referred to Kim as “little rocket man,” and threatened him with “fire and fury like the world has never seen;” Kim responded that President Trump was a “frightened dog” and a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”) Had this escalation of rhetoric been allowed to continue, the end result could have been catastrophic.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and people on both sides apparently convinced their respective leaders that their image could be better protected if they held a summit and achieved some sort of breakthrough agreement. So the rhetoric was replaced with more respectful language, and two leaders met and agreed, at least for the immediate time, to treat each other with more respect, and try to work through a mutually-acceptable agreement. This doesn’t seem to be amounting to much a year later, but it was enough to save each leader’s face…and save the world from nuclear war.

Of course face is important to everyone--not just leaders.  If you are in a negotiation with another person, figuring out a way to at least make it look like the other side won (even if they didn't), will make it more likely that you can reach an agreement.  Sometimes allowing people to "look good" is actually more important than the substantive issues being negotiated. 

Similarly, if one wants to de-escalate a conflict, or avoid escalation in the first place--far better to treat the other side with respect, avoiding communication or behavior that might be seen as demeaning or humiliating, which will harm a relationship and accelerate escalation.

Also worth noting: a leader's sense of face affects all his or her followers. Leaders—even the most corrupt and ruthless—maintain their position by the acceptance of their people. Once that acceptance is lost, the chances of revolt rise greatly (as has been seen around the Middle East with the “Arab Spring” revolts, for example).

To avoid such outcomes, it is in leaders’ best interest to convey the impression (even with outright deception) that all of the leader’s decisions have been for the good. We see President Trump doing this all the time…he constantly seeks to assure his base—and the Congress which continues to support him,--that his policies and actions are sound … and are, indeed, “making America great again” (to use his words). That makes changing course—especially if it involves admitting mistakes—very hard to do.

That’s why it was so important for the ending of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Summer 2017 North Korean Rhetoric Crisis (my name) that the leaders be given a way to back down that didn’t hurt their public image. Had they not found such—in both cases, the world might be a very different place.

So my take on face is that it is always important, regardless of whether one is in a high-context or low-context society, and regardless of whether one is a leader or a private citizen. If a way can be found to get the opponent to change their ways that doesn’t look like a loss or a failure, the chances of getting them to change are much higher. If people are treated with disrespect or humiliation, as is often done in highly escalated, polarized conflicts, the chances of transformation or resolution go way down.

Heidi Burgess, Sept. 2018

[1]. This is according to the reporting in Ting-Toomey, Stella, A Face Negotiation Perspective Communicating for Peace. Sage, 1990. Other cases where face was considered an important bargaining feature according to Brown were the 1951 Korean ceasefire negotiation, the 1972 Paris-Vietnam peace talks and Middle East truce negotiations. p. 80.

[2]. Ting-Toomey lists a number of sources for this definition. Brown, 1977: Brown and Levinson, 1978, 1987; Goffman, 1955, 1967; Ho, 1976, Hu, 1944; Katriel, 1986; Lim, 1988 Ting-Toomey, 1985, 1988; Yutang, 1968

[3]. Brown, B. (1977) "Face Saving and Face Restoration in Negotiation." In D. Druckman (Ed.), Negotiations: Social-Psychological Perspectives. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage. P. 275.

[4]. Cohen, Raymond. Negotiating Across Cultures. Communications Obstacles in International Diplomacy. Washington DC: U.S. Institute of Peace Press. 1997.

[5]. Israel, although in the Middle East, is considered to be one of the most extreme cases of low-context societies. This has caused some problems during negotiations with its Middle-Eastern neighbors, such as Egypt.

[6]. There are also pockets of honor-based societies in Western countries, such as street gangs and some Southern culture in the U.S. for example.

[7]. Cohen, p. 133.

[8]. Cohen, p.56.

[9]. Cohen, p.25

[10]. Cohen, p.56-57

[11] Ting-Toomey, p. 80

[12]. Ting-Toomey p.83

[13]. Irwin, p.68.

Additional resources:

More on Collectivism and Individualism can be found in:

Adamopoulos, John. "The Emergence of Cultural Patterns of Interpersonal Behavior" in Social Psychology and Cultural Context Adamopoulos, J. and Kashima, Y. Eds. Sage, 1999.

Triandis, H.C. "Collectivism and Individualism as Cultural Syndromes." Cross-Cultural Research, 27, 155-180. 1993.

Culture and Negotiation Faure, Guy and Rubin, Jeffery Z. Eds. Cohen Raymond, "An Advocate's View". p.30-31 on Egypt and Israel. More on cultural differences that influence negotiating styles.

Use the following to cite this article:
Rosenberg, Sarah. "Face." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: February 2004 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/face>.

Additional Resources