Erving Goffman wrote about face in conjunction with how people interact in daily life. He claimes that everyone is concerned, to some extent, with how others perceive them. We act socially, striving to maintain the identity we create for others to see. This identity, or public self-image, is what we project when we interact socially. To lose face is to publicly suffer a diminished self-image. Maintaining face is accomplished by taking a line while interacting socially. A line is what the person says and does during that interaction showing how the person understands the situation at hand and the person's evaluation of the interactants. Social interaction is a process combining line and face, or face work.

Brown and Levinson use the concept of face to explain politeness. To them, politeness is universal, resulting from people's face needs:

  1. Positive face is the desire to be liked, appreciated, approved, etc.
  2. Negative face is the desire not to be imposed upon, intruded, or otherwise put upon.

Positive politeness addresses positive face concerns, often by showing prosocial concern for the other's face. Negative politeness addresses negative face concerns, often by acknowledging the other's face is threatened. Anytime a person threatens another person's face, the first person commits a face-threatening act (FTA). Face-threatening acts come in four varieties, listed below in order from most to least face threatening:

  1. Do an FTA baldly, with no politeness (e.g., "Close your mouth when you eat you swine.").
  2. Do an FTA with positive politeness (e.g., "You have such beautiful teeth. I just wish I didn't see them when you eat.").
  3. Do an FTA with negative politeness (e.g., "I know you're very hungry and that steak is a bit tough, but I would appreciate it if you would chew with your mouth closed.").
  4. Do an FTA indirectly, or off-record (e.g., "I wonder how far a person's lips can stretch yet remain closed when eating?"). An indirect FTA is ambiguous so the receiver may "catch the drift" but the speaker can also deny a meaning if they wish.

Of course, a person can choose not to threaten another's face at all, but when a face must be threaten, a speaker can decide how threatening he or she will be.

For detailed information read:

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Brown, P., & Levinson, S. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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