Face (definition)


“the public self-image that every member wants to claim for himself” (Brown and Levinson, 1987: 61)

“as an image of the self which depends on both the rules and values of a particular society and the situation the social interaction is embedded in.” (Goffman, 1967)

We all have a face which we try and maintain when conversing in public. We assume that our interlocutor(s) also has a face and we know that it is in our mutual interests to maintain each other’s face. We thus use politeness features in our language to mitigate any threats to face.

Face comes in two flavours:

  • negative face
  • positive face

Negative Face

“the want of every ‘competent adult member’ that his actions be unimpeded by others” (Brown and Levinson, 1987: 62

As we go about our daily lives, we feel that we have a right to be unimpeded in certain actions and events. For example, I have the right to walk down the street without people standing in my way. If I have a watch, then it is my watch and for you to get the time from me, you will need to attend to my negative face in order to do this.

Positive Face

“the want of every member that his wants be desirable to at least some others”  (Brown and Levinson, 1987: 62)

While we want to be unimpeded by others as we go about or daily lives, we also want others to like us and to make us feel that we are part of their group. We are social creatures. In order to attend to positive face, we might compliment them on something or ask about their health. We might greet them when we first see them and ask how they are doing. These are all devices to anoint positive face. Using someone’s name is also a positive politeness feature.


See this article for a basic outline of face.

This article is a good example of negative and positive politeness strategies


Brown, P. and Levinson, S.C. (1987). Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Goffman, E. (1967): On Face-Work. An Analysis of Ritual Elements in Social Interaction. In: Ders.: Interaction Ritual. New York: Doubleday. 5-45

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: