On maintaining face in intercultural negotiations

There are many dangerous perceptions around the concept of face. Some people think face is only relevant in Asian countries… in western countries, something like face doesn’t exist. As long as I don’t insult someone on purpose, everything is fine. ‘Facework’ is something bad, because I hide behind a mask and don’t act like myself for the sake of being polite… and many more.

First of all: there is much more to it than just ‘being polite’, or ‘not insulting someone’. When the talk about face, we talk about maintaining aspects of one’s identity such as independence, privacy, nonimposition, likeability, agreeability, cooperativeness, reliability, loyalty, expertise…and this is just a incomplete list. All these are characteristics of crucial importance in order to maintain trust with another person. And I don’t need to point out how important it is to be seen as trustworthy, I believe.

Stella Ting-Toomey, one of the world’s leading academics in the field of intercultural relations, identified seven aspects of facework. Below, we will discuss three of them:

Locus of face

We can either be concerned with maintaining our own image in the eyes of another person, or  with respecting the face of another person. Or, and this is very important, we can do both at the same time. In negotiations, where both parties try to work towards the fulfillment of their own needs and expectations, it is easy to create a situation which one person leaves as the ‘loser’, and one as the ‘winner’. It also often happens that one person uses strategies to subtly damage the other, in order to gain advantages for him or herself. The ‘winner’ then gets what he wants… but potentially destroys their relationship altogether. It is the reason, for example, why many competent people become entrepreneurs. They don’t want people in power to force them to do things in ways they don’t like.

Face valence

We can either work to maintain, defend, or upgrade our face. An example in which upgrading is important is the job interview. But again, too much upgrading can be perceived as boasting, and have negative consequences on one’s credibility. You can see, face issues are not that simple. It becomes even more difficult when considering cultural differences. A job interview in Japan will be completely different from a job interview in the United States. In an individualistic country like the United States, the interviewee will want to look competent by maintaining eye contact, and having a confident body language. In Japan, on the other hand, the interviewee will lower his gaze to avoid disrespecting nis prospective employer, and he will be careful to boast about his own individual achievements. He can upgrade his face by acting respectful towards the interviewer, and follow the cultural scripts that are the norm during an interview. As you can see, different countries will maintain, defend, or upgrade face in completely different ways.

Face Tempos

This is a topic that always comes up for me as a German, and something that my fellow Germans always point out. Meetings in Germany have clear agenda, which all attendees will work through point by point until each point is solved, and problems are immediately addressed. A lot of people think that Germans will not struggle with working in another ‘western’ country, because the cultures are very similar. However, this is one aspect in which Germany differs from, for example, Australia. Meetings in Australia may not be as structured as they are in Germany, having a clear list of topics to address, but it may be more informal, with time for out-of-topic discussions as well. People in monochronic time value it when the goals they set at the beginning of their meeting get done quickly, while people in polychronic time cultures value building and maintaining relationships more than reaching the original goals of the meeting. Sure, they also want to come to a conclusion, but they are fine if it takes a bit longer, when in return their relationships have become stronger.

Is there something ‘better’, or ‘worse’ in each approach? Not at all. However, when an individual from a polychronic culture goes to Germany, and tries to have small-talk during the meetings, then Germans might loose respect for her, because they might perceive her as avoiding work. If a German goes to a meeting in a polychronic culture, however, the German will be perceived as untrustworthy, because he doesn’t establish a relationship first, before he comes down to business. And if problems arise, he is likely to be too blunt and straightforward for the taste of his colleagues.

As you can see, facework is much more complicated than just thinking ‘don’t insult anyone’. And it is important in every single cultural environment, although the strategies the people employ to maintain their face is different.



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