Which “face” to save while communicating?

Negative and positive politeness strategies.

Do not worry. Positive here does not mean good, and negative does not mean bad. It is about what “face” we want to save when communicating.

According to Brown and Levinson politeness theory, positive face is our desires to be liked, admired, ratified, referring to self-esteem, while negative face is desire not to be imposed upon referring to freedom to act.

Therefore, interacting with other human beings, we apply positive or negative politeness strategies, depending on what face we want to “ save”.

To save the positive face we attend to our interlocutor’s needs and interests (Can I do anything?), offer, promise, even insist.

We are rather direct in our wish to be included in their personal space, be closer.

We tend to choose more direct grammatical structures. I did a short survey while living in Spain about structures used to invite a friend to a birthday party. 70% of participants said they would use imperative. The equivalent to “ Would you like to come to my party” got only 3 %.

To save the negative face we use conditionals, questions and we minimize the imposition. We always leave the possibility to say “no” and feel ok about it. To say it without feeling uncomfortable, losing the face. To avoid any possible conflict.

Different cultures tend to prioritise different strategies. Don’t get me wrong: all human beings use both. But there are cultural nuances that are worth considering while studying a language and communicating with people from other cultures. It will help us avoid stereotypical thinking that some people are “ over polite, never say the truth in the face, hence hypocrites” or “ rude and too direct”. And understand nuances of other people communicative behaviour better.


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