Seth Godin Talks Face

On Wednesday’s episode of his Akimbo podcast, Seth Godin dedicated his monologue to the precarious difference between truth and belief. He argues that because this difference is often overlooked, we have a tendency to talk past each other and miss the opportunity for real conversation. 

In explaining the difference between truth and belief, he gives the example of sports fans, such as those rooting for the Yankees or Red Sox, who continue to support and believe in their team no matter winning or losing. (Go Yankees!)

However, what truly caught my attention was an interestingly dark example Seth provides to demonstrate the power of saving face.

He tells a story about a doctor who discovered that washing our hands before delivering a baby can dramatically lower birth related deaths. (Turns out, doctors at that time frequently handled dead bodies previous to handling deliveries…Lovely, right?)

The point of conflict in the story is that at first many doctors were completely resistant to changing their ways, even after being provided with clear evidence and data. Fortunately, as you may have guessed since we’re here reading this, doctors finally abandoned this terrible habit.

In the end it was not the truth or facts that prevailed, but the ability for doctors to save face and avoid having to admit they were wrong. (If you’re wondering, he keeps the breakthrough mystery…)

Through this lesson, Seth provides us an all too vivid example of two important realities:

  1. Facts often do not change our minds, beliefs, or behavior
  2. Our minds, beliefs, and behavior can change if face – ie. someone’s pride or previous commitments – can be saved.

His specific prescription for salespeople is asking questions that will help to separate the truth out into the open, like sifting through sand for a hard tangible object.

What kind of questions specifically?

Seth hearkens back one of his heroes, Zig Ziglar, and a questioning technique that long-time students of sales and negotiation might quickly recognize:

If I could…would you?

For example, “If I could demonstrate XYZ, would you buy today?”, or “If I could convince you of XYZ, would you consider exploring this further?”


Seth’s sage advice to utilize what he describes as “simple questions asked with respect” can help us converse – and thus sell – more effectively.

Unfortunately, questions such as these are often discounted as the sales methods of old. So let’s dust them off…

Because while these questions like these might not save lives, they most certainly will help save face.

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. 


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.

Why I’m starting this Blog

For 10+ years now I’ve worked in various types of sales. 

Like many Sales Professionals, I became quickly addicted to reading books, watching videos, and listening to audio materials by popular sales and ”success” gurus. 

Thinking I had covered enough ground and looking for the next hidden advantage, I began exploring the subject of negotiation to further my understanding of selling related concepts such as deal making, bargaining, creating value, etc.

Almost immediately, I found the concepts, techniques, and perspectives of the popular negotiating experts both highly fascinating and easily applicable to everyday selling. This only sparked my interest to grow, and after reading over 100 books on both subjects I began to see numerous similarities between selling and negotiating – to the point where it was hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

For example, one specific concept called “saving face” continued to pop up in both sales and negotiation literature. However, never did the authors seem include an exact description of just what it was and why it was so important. 

Completely hooked on finding more ways to unify these two topics , I slowly but surely discovered that all roads lead back to works under the umbrella of Social Influence Psychology, reaching as far back as 70 years and still going strong today.

From all of my research, I now have a comfortable understanding of “face”,  and this has led me to believe the following:

  • Many of the well known sales and negotiation strategies are not only related, but often times interchangeable
  • There exist many powerful strategies that have yet to make it into the popular culture of selling and negotiation that we have today
  • Greater awareness of Social Influence Psychology will facilitate better outcomes in all of our person to person interactions

My mission going forward is to curate this wide body of knowledge, further explore the ideas above, and identify the most practical applications of Social Influence Psychology for salespeople and other professionals.

Coming up next week will be the first official blog post, explaining the concept of ”face” and why it can potentially make or break every sale.