Every now and then, university teaches me about concepts that are not currently in mainstream use, but really should be. Take the linguistic concept of face, for example. Not only is it applicable to many real-life situations, it’s also a lot of fun to tell people they’re hurting your negative face.
Ever wondered why people say, “It’s quite chilly in here, isn’t it?” instead of “Close the goddamn window”? Or wondered what the most effective way to get rid of a person is? Or what exactly the term “saving face” is supposed to mean? This crash course on face explains it all.
Face is a theory about the way people interact. Everyone in society has face. Think of it as public self-image, ‘ego’, or maybe even reputation. When I converse with you, I provide you with access to some of my ideas and values and opinions; I present you with my face.
The theory of face presumes that all of us want to retain face as much as possible. And because everyone’s face depends on everyone else’s face being maintained, it is in everyone’s interest to maintain each other’s face.
Sounds vague, doesn’t it? Let’s make it a bit more concrete.
Face is twofold. Everyone has a positive face and a negative face. Positive face is the desire I have for you to approve of me and appreciate me. I want you to like my personality. I want you to agree with those ideas, values and opinions I just shared with you.
I also have a negative face: the desire for my actions to be unimpeded by others. I want to make my own decisions. I want freedom. I don’t want anyone to interfere with my life.
Ideally, then, you’d leave me to do whatever the hell I want, and cheer me on every step of the way. After all, that’s the only way both my faces could remain intact. Here’s some great advice: if you ever find someone who keeps both your faces intact, marry them instantly. Never lose sight of them again. Consider implanting a tracking device into them just in case.
People who don’t damage face are rare. To be honest, I’m not sure they exist at all. We constantly take swings at each other’s faces. When I ask you what time it is, I’m damaging your negative face by making you undertake action (answering me). If we were leaving the movie theater and I told you, “Oh my God, that was amazing!” whereas you thought the movie we just saw was the worst cinematic venture since The Happening, how would you respond? Would you lie and say you agree, shrug noncommittally and steer the conversation in a different direction, or damage my positive face by being honest?
It is a sad fact of life that we damage face all the time. There is one way to avoid this: refrain from speaking altogether. If you’re extremely worried about other people’s faces, you’ll just have to smile and nod a lot.
Thankfully, we can also sugarcoat our statements and hereby soften their blow. You’ll still be threatening face, but only a little bit. It’ll be a mild scratch rather than a punch. This is where “It’s quite chilly in here, isn’t it?” comes in. Sure, I could tell you to close the goddamn window, but that would be quite a blow to your negative face. Worse, I could offend you and then I’d have to get up and close the goddamn window myself. By mitigating my statement, I don’t shatter your face but do get my point across and achieve the desired result. It’s a win/win situation.
All of the above is relevant when it is your desire to retain everyone’s face, which – according to the theory – is the normal state of affairs. But knowledge of face is also helpful when it is your goal to make someone dislike you. The main idea here is to be as rude as humanly possible. The next time a sleazy person accosts you in the pub, take the following steps:
- Shatter their negative face. Order them around. “Buy me a drink!” “Take your hand off my arm!” “Get the hell away from me!” “Buy me another drink!” The less sugarcoated the better. Strew exclamation points all over the place and avoid the word ‘please’ at all costs. Expressing strong negative emotions such as anger or hatred damages negative face as well, so don’t even consider hiding your annoyance.
- Shatter their positive face. Disagree with every statement they make, even if you agree. “I can’t believe you disliked The Happening, I thought it was the best movie ever.” Openly disapprove of their appearance: “Are you actually wearing those shoes?” Make it clear that you don’t care about their positive face by interrupting them or simply walking away.
You’ll be rid of them in no time!
(Of course there is always step 3. Shatter their actual face, but my local pub doesn’t condone violence. Chances are yours doesn’t, either.)