Stella Ting-Toomey’s Face Negotiation Theory Explained


Starting in 1985, Stella Ting-Toomey began to develop what she called face negotiation theory. It was based on concepts that were originally proposed in 1978 and focuses on how people from difficult cultures are able to manage their rapport or a disagreement.

The theory suggests that self-image is a universal phenomenon. It is something that exists in every culture. This means if a person feels threatened, then there will be a corresponding emotional reaction that is displayed on their face. When this reaction can be recognized, then it can be used as a negotiation tool.

What Is the Face Negotiation Theory Based On?

Stella Ting-Toomey’s face negotiation theory is based on two concepts of Chinese conception. People are considered to have two specific faces and these are called “mien-tzu” and “lien.” Mien-tzu is an external face, one that is social in nature, and involves authority, power, and influence. Lien is an internal face, one that is focused on morality, and deals with honor, integrity, or even shame.

There is also an expansion of thinking from Erving Goffman, who Westernized the Chinese concepts to include other cultural points of emphasis. Stephen Levinson and Penelope Brown also suggest that politeness is a universal concern that can be shown through face recognition.

Ting-Toomey then expanded upon these concepts based on a person’s own claimed sense of relationships and personal networks. The goal is for each person to create the best possible self-image, but through “facework,” how a person thinks or feels can be communicated through their own self-face that they enact.

What Are the Assumptions of Face Negotiation Theory?

Since 1988, there have been several evolutions within the assumptions that face negotiation theory must make. In the current revision, which was created in 2005, there are 7 specific assumptions that are made, resulting in 24 eventual propositions.

Here is a look at those assumptions.

1. Communication is based on maintaining a negotiating face in every human culture.
2. Facial communication can become problematic when an identity is questioned.
3. Face management is shaped by multiple cultural differences that may include small vs large group settings or individualized negotiations vs collective negotiations.
4. Cultures that place an emphasis on the individual over the collective tend to prefer self-orientation.
5. Small-power cultures place an emphasis on equality, while large-power cultures prefer an emphasis on the chain-of-command.
6. Cultural variances, individual experiences, relationships, and situational elements can all influence behavior.
7. Competence is a form of communication in all cultures because it is a culmination of mindfulness and knowledge.

These assumptions are then placed into “core taxonomies” that help to create the framework of facial communication themes. There are 5 total themes that are part of the 2005 update to the face negotiation theory.

  • Orientation. This refers to the actual concerns that are being experienced by the individual.
  • Movement. This theme addresses how an individual actually moves their face when they are encountering a specific incident.
  • Interaction. Once a cue has been received and processed, an individual begins to determine how their facial communication will be perceived by others.
  • Conflict. Each person who looks at the facial communication of others will be evaluating what is being seen to determine if they feel a personal challenge is being initiated.
  • Content. This is the actual message that is being offered to others in a non-verbal way.

What Are the Applications of Face Negotiation Theory?

The primary application for face negotiation theory is to resolve intercultural conflicts that may occurs. These may be personal or professional conflicts and are based on the idea that there is a desire to be mindful of the needs of others.

It can also be applied in sales practices, allowing individuals to determine by brief facial expressions where a proposal is being considered in a positive or a negative way.

Any other opportunity where non-verbal communication can be beneficial in some way can benefit from Ting-Toomey’s face negotiation theory.

Are There Concerns About Face Negotiation Theory?

Although Stella Ting-Toomey’s face negotiation theory aims to prevent conflicts by understanding certain emotions and reactions that are global in nature, interpreting results that are observed can have cultural influences. What may be a negative reaction to one culture could be considered a positive reaction in another culture as well.

There may also be varying levels of emphasis on the self-face aspect of this theory. Some may have no need to emphasize their self-face, while others may over-emphasize it.

This theory offers us an opportunity to explore more of our non-verbal communication with each other across cultures and ethnic divides. It shows us that even though we may be different, in some ways, we are still very much the same.