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Face Negotiation Theory is a theory first postulated by Stella Ting-Toomey in 1985 to explain how different cultures manage conflict and communicate.

The theory has gone through multiple iterations since that time and has been updated most recently in 2005.[1] In essence, the theory explains that the root of conflict is based on the task of maintaining 'Face' through impression management on an individual and cultural level. The various facets of individual and cultural identities are described as faces. Faces are the public image of an individual, or group, that their society sees and evaluates based on cultural norms and values. Conflict occurs when that group or individual has their face threatened. There are many different strategies and factors affecting how cultures manage identity. Ting-Toomey argues that in collectivist cultures, the face of the group is more important than the face any individual in that group. In individualist cultures, the face of the individual is more important than the face of the group.[2] Furthermore, there are small and large power distances associated with each culture. A small power distance culture believes that authority is earned, power is distributed equally, and everyone’s opinion matters. The individual is highly valued. In large power distance cultures, authority is inherited, power is from top to bottom, and the boss is infallible. The good of the group is valued. Face negotiation theory operates on the following set of assumptions and rules.

Theoretical Assumptions[]

Culture has a significant impact on how people communicate and manage conflict with each other individually, and between groups. Culture provides the frame of reference for individual and group interaction because it consists of values, norms, beliefs, and traditions that play a large part in how a person or a group identify themselves. Dr. Ting-Toomey states that conflict can come from either a direct clash of these cultural beliefs and values, or as a result of misapplying certain expectations and standards of behavior for a given situation. Face-Negotiation Theory identifies three goal issues that conflict will revolve around: content, relational, and identity.[3]

Content conflict goals are external issues that an individual holds in high regard. Relational conflict goals, as the name implies, refer to how individuals define, or would ideally define their relationship with the other member in a conflict situation. Finally, identity based goals involve issues of identity confirmation, respect, and approval of the conflict members. These goals have the deepest connection with culture and they are most directly related to face-saving issues.

Dr. Ting-Toomey describes the concept of face as self-identity management and other-identity consideration beyond an individual conflict episode.[4] Faces are the public image of an individual, or group, that their society sees and evaluates based on cultural norms and values. It is a prime consideration in conflict management. Affectively, when someone’s face is threatened it will elicit an emotional response of some degree. On a cognitive level, face threat is measured based on the degree of how far the threatening action diverges from the cultural norm of behavior. The degree of divergence from normative behavior will elicit different facework behavior. Facework refers to the communication skills one uses to uphold and manage face.

Face and facework are a part of everyday life, but the frame of reference on how one manages face individually and on a cultural level is what Face Negotiation Theory tries to capture. To that extent, the theory has seven assumptions:[5]

  1. Communication in all cultures is based on maintaining and negotiating face.
  2. Face is problematic when identities are questioned.
  3. Differences in individualistic vs. collectivistic and small vs. large power distance cultures profoundly shape face management.
  4. Individualistic cultures prefer self oriented facework, and collectivistic cultures prefer other oriented facework.
  5. Small power distance cultures prefer an “individuals are equal” framework, whereas large power distance cultures prefer a hierarchical framework.
  6. Behavior is also influenced by cultural variances, individual, relational, and situational factors.
  7. Competence in intercultural communication is a culmination of knowledge and mindfulness.

From these assumptions, Dr. Ting-Toomey developed 24 propositions that form Face Negotiation Theory, which will be discussed later in the article.


Before further exploring Face Negotiation Theory, it is important to take a closer look at Dr. Ting-Toomey’s description of facework. She postulates that facework consists of five taxonomies. Understanding these facework classifications will aide in successful face negotiation.

  • Face orientations, or concerns, will be focused on one’s self, the other party, or both.[6]

People from individualist cultures tend to be more concerned with self-face maintenance, while people from collectivist cultures tend to be concerned with other-face and mutual-face maintenance. This difference stems from the values of each respective culture. In individualist cultures, such as the United States, Germany, and Great Britain, there is great value on personal rights, freedoms and the “do it yourself” attitude. In collectivist cultures such as Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Colombia, place more value on “we” vs. “I”. The needs of the group outweigh the needs of the individual. It is interesting to note that one third of the world lives in an individualist society, while the other two thirds are identified with collectivist cultures. The first taxonomy also involves the concept of power distance with regards to people’s face orientations. People from large power distance cultures accept unequal power distributions, are reliant on established hierarchy, and understand that rewards and sanctions are based on social position. People from small power distance cultures value equal power distributions, symmetric relations, and rewards and sanctions based on performance. The United States is an example of a small power distance culture, while Japan embodies a large power distance culture. Dr. Ting-Toomey points out that while individualism and power distance are two separate dimensions, they are correlated. Highly individualistic cultures tend to be low in power distance, and vice versa.[7]

  • Face Movements or Face Moves’ Patterns[8]

Face movements refer to the four possible options a negotiator has regarding concern for self-face and other-face:

  1. Mutual-face protection is high concern for both self- and other-face
  2. Mutual-face obliteration low concern for both self- and other-face
  3. Self-face defense is high concern for self-face but low concern for other-face
  4. Other-face defense is high concern for other-face but low concern for self-face

Dr. Ting-Toomey asserts that several conditions must be perceived as severe in order for a negotiator to feel his face is threatened. The importance of the culturally approved facework that is violated, feelings of mistrust because of a large distance between cultures, the importance of the conflict topic, the power distance between the two parties, and the perception of the parties as outgroup members are all conditions which must be made salient for face-threatening communication to occur.[9] Whether or not a person engages in a conflict depends on how face-threatening the situation is perceived. In an individualistic culture, the more self-face threatening the conflict, the more likely the individual will engage in an attack. In a collectivistic culture, where mutual-face concern is important, avoidance of conflict may prevail in order for the situation to be defused. A combination of the two cultures may require a third-party negotiation to make progress in finding a resolution.

  • Facework Interaction Strategies[10]

Individualistic cultures operate with a more direct, low-context facework with importance placed on verbal communication and nonverbal gestures for emphasis. Collectivistic cultures operate in a more indirect, high context facework emphasizing nonverbal subtleties. There are three prevalent facework strategies: dominating, avoiding, and integrating. Dominating facework is characterized by trying to maintain a credible image with the goal of winning the conflict. Avoiding facework attempts to preserve harmony in the relationship by dealing with the conflict indirectly. Integrating facework focuses on content resolution and maintaining the relationship.[11]

In terms of conflict, facework is at play before (preventative), during, and after (restorative) the situation. Preventative facework is an attempt to minimize face-loss before the threat occurs. Preventative strategies include credentialing, appealing for suspended judgment, pre-disclosure, pre-apology, hedging, and disclaimers.[12] Collectivistic cultures tend to employ more preventative strategies than individualistic cultures. Restorative facework attempts to repair face that was lost. Restorative strategies include excuses, justifications, direct aggression, humor, physical remediation, passive aggressiveness, avoidance, and apologies.[13] Individualistic cultures are more likely to use restorative facework than collectivistic cultures.

Facework differs from conflict styles (which will be discussed in a later section) by employing face-saving strategies which can be used prior to, during, or after a conflict episode and can be used in a variety of identity-threatening and identity-protection situations. These strategies are focused on relational and face identity beyond conflict goal issues. Conflict styles are specific strategies used to engage or disengage from a conflict situation. Preventative and restorative face-work strategies are typically employed when one’s face is being threatened.

  • Conflict Communication Styles[14]

Conflict style consists of learned behaviors developed through socialization within one’s culture. They can be attributed to internalization of ingroup values, morals and behaviors. Conflict communication styles are typically conceptualized by researchers in two dimensions. The first dimension demonstrates the degree to which a person seeks to satisfy their own interest. The second represents the degree to which an individual incorporates the concerns/interest of others. The two dimensions combine to form five styles of interpersonal conflict: Note: explanations are from the reader’s perspective

  1. Dominating-emphasizes a person’s own position, one person asserts their dominance over the other, win-lose
  2. Avoiding-involves eluding the conflict topic, situation and party altogether, lose-lose as neither party wins and the conflict goes unresolved
  3. Obliging-characterized by high concern for the other’s interest above own, one individual gives in to the demands of the other, this is a lose-win situation and is useful when one party is not fully committed to his/her position
  4. Compromising-is the give-and-take approach, both parties give something up in order to find a middle ground and reach a solution, this is a lose-lose although a positive solution may result and is useful when both parties are equally committed to their positions
  5. Integrating-reflects high concern for one’s self and the other, win-win useful when both parties are equally committed to their positions and results in a positive solution for both parties.

Individualistic cultures usually see obliging and avoiding conflict styles as negatively disengaged favoring instead more direct forms of conflict. Collectivistic cultures see these as relevant and viable methods of dealing with conflict employing them in an attempt to protect mutual-face interest. Collectivistic cultures view more direct means of conflict communication as negative. The compromising style focuses more on content goal negotiation process neglecting rational and identity-based respect and consideration issues.[15]

Although the five conflict styles serve as a good initial probe of conflict style, it misses factors such as emotions, third-party consultation, and passive-aggressive types of conflict tactics.[16] Emotional expression refers to one using emotions to guide communication behaviors during conflict. Third-party help involves using an outsider to mediate the conflict. Finally, passive-aggressive responses also known as neglect, is characterized by sidestepping the conflict while eliciting an indirect reaction from the other conflict party.

  • Face Content Domains[17]

Face content domains refer to the different levels an individual will engage in facework on. A disparity in one domain will usually effect one’s feelings in another domain. For instance, one might sacrifice some of the Autonomy face in order to satisfy the needs from their Inclusion face. There are six domains that an individual will operate in:

  1. Autonomy-represents our need for others to acknowledge our independence, self-sufficiency, privacy, boundary, nonimposition, control issues, and our consideration of other’s autonomy face needs
  2. Inclusion-our need to be recognized as worthy companions, likeable, agreeable, pleasant, friendly, cooperative
  3. Status-need for others to admire our tangible and intangible assets or resources: appearance, attractiveness, reputation, position, power, and material worth
  4. Reliability-need for others to realize that we are trustworthy, dependable, reliable, loyal, and consistent in words and actions
  5. Competence-need for others to recognize our qualities or social abilities such as intelligence, skills, expertise, leadership, team-building, networking, conflict mediation, facework, and problem-solving skills
  6. Moral-need for others to respect our sense of integrity, dignity, honor, propriety, and morality

Theoretical Propositions[]

The heart of Face Negotiation Theories are Dr. Ting-Toomey’s 24 propositions. They are based on the seven assumptions and five taxonomies that have been proven in numerous cases and studies. They describe facework on three levels of communication: cultural, individual, and situational.

Cultural-level Propositions[18][]

  • Individualistic cultures predominantly express self-face maintenance interests than collectivistic culture members do.
  • Collectivistic cultures are more concerned with other-face maintenance than members of individualistic cultures.
  • Members of collectivist cultures are more concerned with mutual-face maintenance than individualistic cultures.
  • Members of individualistic cultures predominantly use direct and dominating facework strategies in conflict
  • Collectivistic cultures tend to use avoidance strategies more than individualistic cultures do.
  • Members of collectivistic cultures use more integrative facework strategies than individualistic culture members do.
  • Individualistic cultures prefer dominating/competing conflict styles more than collectivistic cultures do.
  • Individualistic cultures use more emotionally expressive conflict styles than collectivistic cultures do.
  • Individualistic cultures use more aggressive conflict styles than members of collectivistic cultures.
  • Collectivistic cultures use more avoidance techniques than members of individualistic cultures.
  • Collectivistic cultures use more obliging conflict styles than members of individualistic cultures.
  • Collectivistic cultures utilize compromising styles of conflict more than members of individualistic cultures.

Individual-level Propositions[19][]

  • Independent self is positively associated with self-face concern.
  • Interdependent self is positively associated with other-/mutual-face concern.
  • Self-face maintenance is associated with dominating/competing conflict style.
  • Other-face maintenance is associated with avoiding/obliging conflict style.
  • Other-face maintenance associated with compromising/integrating conflict style.
  • Independent self –construal associated with dominating/competing conflict style.
  • Interdependent self-construal associated with obliging/avoiding.
  • Interdependent self-construal associated with compromising/integrating.
  • Bi-construal associated with compromising/integrating.
  • Ambivalent associated with neglect/third-party.

Situational-level Propositions[20][]

  • Individualist or independent-self personalities tend to express a greater degree of self-face maintenance concerns and less other-face maintenance concern in dealing with both ingroup and outgroup conflicts situations.
  • Collectivist or interdependent-self personalities express a greater degree of other-face concerns with ingroup members and a greater degree of self-face maintenance concerns with outgroup members in intergroup conflict situations.


Face negotiation theory addresses intercultural communication on cultural, individual, and inter-relational levels. Individualistic and collectivistic cultures will have different methods of maintaining face and resolving conflict. What comes naturally to people from one culture may not seem an appropriate communication style to individuals from another culture. An example of this was in 2003 when the United States went to war with Iraq. The Iraqi information minister was adamant that US troops were not in the country, despite the obvious fact that they were. Why use such a tactic? Ting-Toomey’s face negotiation theory would recognize Arabic culture as collectivistic. Thus, one might say it was a method of face management to maintain credibility with the ingroup (i.e., the Iraqi people) rather than dealing with the problem more directly. As Greenberg, Simon, Pyszczynski, Soloman, and Chatel point out one’s cultural worldview is taken as an absolute, and the fact that there are other people who share that view reinforces it. So, face negotiation theory can be an effective and necessary tool in developing intercultural communication competence.[21]

See also[]


  1. Ting-Toomey, 2005
  2. Ting-Toomey, 2005
  3. Ting-Toomey, 2005
  4. Ting-Toomey, 2005
  5. 1Ting-Toomey, 2005
  6. Ting-Toomey, 2005
  7. Ting-Toomey, 2005
  8. Ting-Toomey, 2005
  9. Ting-Toomey, 2005
  10. Ting-Toomey, 2005
  11. Ting-Toomey, 2005
  12. Culpach & Metts, 1994
  13. Culpach & Metts, 1994
  14. Ting-Toomey, 2005
  15. Ting-Toomey, 2005
  16. Ting-Toomey, 2005
  17. Ting-Toomey, 2005
  18. Ting-Toomey, 2005
  19. Ting-Toomey, 2005
  20. Ting-Toomey, 2005
  21. Greenberg et al., 1992


  • Cupach, W. & Metts, S. (1994). Facework. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Greenberg, J., Simon, L., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., & Chatel, D. (1992). Terror Management and Tolerance: Does Mortality Salience Always Intensify Negative Reactions to Others Who Threaten One's Worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63,212-220.
  • Ting-Toomey, S. (2005) The Matrix of Face: An Updated Face-Negotiation Theory. In W.B. Gudykunst (Ed.), Theorizing About Intercultural Communication(pp. 71–92). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.