The Origin of Face

As mentioned in my previous post, many of us who study sales and negotiation have probably heard “always allow your customer (or buyer) to save face…”

However, rarely do we find an exact description of what this means. For this reason, I would like to dedicate my first post to the origin of this idea.

The theory of face was coined in the 1950s by an influential Sociologist named Erving Goffman. Throughout his career he published numerous classic works describing what happens when two or more people interact. In his collection of essays called “Interaction Ritual” we find the first full description face.

According to Goffman, we act in a ritualistic way when in the presence of others. For example, he describes:

Every person lives in a world of social encounters, involving him either in face to face or mediated contact with other participants. In each of these contacts, he tends to act out what is sometimes called a line – that is, a pattern on verbal and nonverbal acts by which he expresses his view of the situation and through this his evaluation of the participants, especially himself…The term face may be defined as the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact.

Said differently, when we are in the presence of others, we are not usually presenting our full true selves, but a version of ourselves that we believe is best designed for the approval of the specific person or persons in front of us. 

Further, because we are constantly trying to maintain positive social feelings and avoid negative ones, we exhibit certain patterns of our persona to which we are mostly unaware. They usually involve verbal and non verbal behaviors to protect our pride, honor, and dignity, as well as to avoid embarrassment or shame.

Now, there is an important secondary element to Goffman’s theory. What he persuasively argues is that in addition to our own behaviors striving to maintain face we also exhibit behaviors that will help others maintain theirs. For example, he writes:

Just as the member of any group is expected to have self-respect, so also he is expected to sustain a standard of considerateness; he is expected to go to certain lengths to save the feelings and the face of other present, and he is expected to do this willingly and spontaneously because of emotional identification with the others and with their feelings. In consequence, he is disinclined to witness the defacement of others. 

So, not only are we constantly calibrating our own verbal and non verbal behaviors with the goal of positive social approval for ourselves, we are also adapting our own behavior to help the other person maintain their positive social approval in front of us or others. 

It is this reciprocal ritual and pattern of two-way behavior that Goffman and other Social Psychologists believe is the very foundation of social interaction whenever one or more people are in the presence of others:

A person’s performance of face-work, extended by his tacit agreement to help others perform theirs, represents his willingness to abide by the ground rules of social interaction. Here is the hallmark of socialization as an interactant. If he and others were not socialized in this way, interaction in most societies and most situations would be a much more hazardous things for our feelings and faces. 

Conclusion

If we are to believe, like Goffman, that face is the very foundation of social interaction, then it should not be too far a leap to believe that face and related factors can powerfully influence every sales interaction. It is for this reason that I believe we owe a much closer look.

In the next post, I will describe some specific situations I’ve observed, how they are related to this concept, and why I believe better awareness of these ideas can help us navigate away from the “hazardous” and towards greater effectiveness.

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