Promoting Face to Preserve Peace

 Douglas E. Noll, Esq.

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 February 2002

“You are a dishonest crook!”

 “You lied to me and doesn’t deserve one dime from me!”

 “You ‘re an s.o.b., and I wouldn’t trust you with my garbage!”

  These are a few of the more moderate accusations I have heard in my peacemaking work.  The insults are an all too face threatening familiar strategy in conflict.

    Face concerns self-esteem, self-respect, and positive views of self. It is associated with honor, status, reputation, credibility, competence, family/network connection, loyalty, trust, relational indebtedness, and obligation issues. Face is an important component of how we view ourselves.  When our positive perception of ourselves is confirmed by others, we are happy and satisfied.  When it is not, we are unhappy and dissatisfied. To ignore face is dangerous and to threaten it in conflict is metaphorically suicidal.  Yet we do it all the time.

 Face is important for many reasons.  First, personal control is integral to our self-esteem.  As long as we have a sense that we can control our environment, we have good self-esteem.  If our self-esteem is challenged or weakened, our sense of control is threatened.  People with low self-esteem tend to believe that events control them rather than the other way around.  Consequently, face and self-esteem flowing from face may have adaptive advantages in motivating people to survive in difficult environments.

 Second, we look for confirmation of our pre-existing self-perceptions.  Along with personal control, competency in life skills gives us confidence that we can survive successfully.  While we can objectively determine our competence in many activities, most social interactions are ambiguous and subjective. Therefore, we may doubt our own assessment of social situations and look for confirmation from others. We seek self-consistency, or the need to ensure that others view our impression as we view it.

 Third, we implicitly signal how we want to be treated by adopting physical identity cues.  These clues include choosing what we wear, taking on social roles that communicate our self-perceptions, and soliciting self-confirming feedback.  When our chosen identities, self perceptions, and subtle requests for feedback are rejected, we suffer a loss of face. Others are telling us in these situations that we are not what we think we are.

 Finally, we actively seek to discourage others’ mistaken impressions of us. We are quick to explain, justify, or rationalize our behaviors to others if we sense that we are being misunderstood or if our credibility is being challenged.

 Despite the importance we place on face, we often ignore the face of others. For example, face may be ignored when efficiency is paramount, such as in emergencies.  In these situations, the time to attend to face is perceived as not available. Unfortunately, face is  more often sacrificed for convenience rather than for true need.  In these situations, expediency is a shallow excuse for a face threatening act.

  Face is also ignored when one party has no incentive to deal with the face wants of others  Our culture seems to perpetuate the idea that giving face to another means losing some of our own face.  This concept is consistent with a competitive win-lose ideology.  The logic seems to be that I gain face when you lose it.  Hence, I will not give you face because it means I am losing face.  Sadly, face is one of the least expensive chits in negotiation.  It costs nothing, but seems so dear.

 Some people are simply unaware of the need for competent face work.  Attending to the face of others is much less important than attending to one’s own face needs.  Furthermore, other than basic lessons in civil social behavior we learn as children, the skills and techniques of face work are not formally taught.  Rather, we are “expected” to understand the dynamics of face and act appropriately.  Of course, the expectation is not met in everyday life as many people are ignorant of proper face work behaviors.  They may act awkwardly when confronted with a face-threatening situation.  Having a sense of good social manners helps, but if early social training is weak, adult face-work is likely to be weak.

 Fear may also play a role in poor face work skills.  Face work requires a certain amount of trust. Rather than risk rejection, exploitation, or embarrassment if a face-saving behavior fails, people may simply avoid face work.

 Finally, face work may be deliberately rejected. Face rejection  may be based on a desire to harm another person or a desire to increase one’s face at the expense of others.  Children learn how to taunt, tease, and ridicule each other to bolster their own self-esteem.  By adulthood, the techniques of insult, put-down, and disrespect become more subtle.  Nevertheless, the motivation is the same—build me up at your expense.  Although the emotional lift from insult is momentary, it is sufficient to motivate people to actively threaten or injure face simply to feel better about one’s self.  This is, of course, a classic escalation behavior.  And, the sad truth is that no one feels better after insulting another.

 In conflict, parties typically do not attend to each other’s face. More likely, they are actively engaged in threatening or injuring the face of others.  Interestingly, parties in conflict seek respect from others so as to enhance their personal face. They want to be perceived as fair, honest, reasonable, even as they are describing the other side as unfair, dishonest, and unreasonable.  Yet they fail to realize that their inattention to face work is denying them that which they desire the most.

 The strong need for face enhancement is thus a key to peacemaking.  Even when the conflict is highly escalated, people will seek self-respect.  Setting up the conditions for each person to acknowledge the other and provide some positive face is therefore a paramount, but difficult,  condition of peacemaking.

Douglas E. Noll, Esq. is a lawyer specializing in peacemaking and mediation of difficult and intractable conflicts throughout California. His firm, Douglas E. Noll and Associates is based in Central California. He may be reached through his website and email at

© 2002, Douglas E. Noll