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Opinion — Playing with Facework: The Meandering Theorizing Journey by Stella Ting-Toomey

14 May 2019 4:52 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Stella Ting-Toomey
One of the most common questions my students asked me on campus is: ‘What does it take to develop a theory—such as the face negotiation theory?”  I would like to use this column to answer this beguiling question.  

The seed of the conflict Face Negotiation Theory was sown in 1985 due to my dissatisfaction with reading the tons of conflict style research studies in the interpersonal and organizational conflict arenas.  During that period, in the mainstream U.S. conflict studies literature, when a study defined conflict avoidance style, it was often posed as a “low concern for self-interest, low concern for other interest” style.   Furthermore, when it defined conflict compromising style, it was defined as an expedient “quick closure, give-and-take concession” style. Finally, in the interpersonal-intimate conflict literature, researchers advocated the importance of “self-disclosure” and “letting it all out” approach as a productive conflict resolution strategy.  

Drawing from my Chinese Confucius cultural upbringing, and up to that point, I had never considered avoidance conflict style as a “non-caring for self or other interest” communication style.  I actually considered the avoidance style, from my Asian lens, as a creative strategic move of managing conflicts--pending on how one attempts to avoid, defuse, or deflate the conflict issue artfully.  I also could not envision compromising as a quick-fixed concession tactic.  I thought compromising connotes long-term give-and-take relationship-building, and a long-term reciprocity norm of trust building and task goal accomplishments. I had also rarely witnessed my Chinese family or close friends using “upfront self-disclosure” approach to resolve intimate conflicts. Instead, some of them used “eating bitter” tenacious style or passive aggressive attention-seeking conflict tactics.    

Thus, based on my lived experience and observation in the two worlds: the Asian and the Western/U.S. cultural worlds, the seed of the conflict FNT was planted (see Ting-Toomey, 2017).  On the surface level, face is about a claimed sense of favorable social self-image and the extent of consideration of other social self-image in a conflict situation.  On the deeper level, face is about a mosaic set of -- shame, honor, humiliation, dignity, debasement, and integrity --affective identity and cognitive appraisal issues.  Face concern orientation can be emphasized on the self-face, other-face, relational face, and community ingroup/outgroup face levels.  Facework refers to the verbal and nonverbal behaviors used to defend or save face, to maintain face, and/or to uplift or undercut other’s social image in a sociocultural community (Ting-Toomey, 2005, 2015; Ting-Toomey & Dorjee, 2019).

With the above backdrop, from 1985 to the present year 2019, as I look back on the conflict FNT research development trajectory, here are some distinctive features or stages I would “mark” as critical in developing a theory playfully yet methodically:  curiosity-commitment, creativity-collaboration, crystallization-closure. 

As a theorist or researcher or trainer, to me, the starting point is curiosity.  You’ve to be curious about the question of “WHY?”  Why something is working or not working?  Why is it defined this way and not the other way?  Why this cultural group assumes this standpoint definition, while another group defines it from a totally contrastive stance?  Curiosity is playing mental gymnastics, and commitment is running on a treadmill for 48 hours with increased exhilaration (Okay—maybe mixed in with exhaustion also J!).  Curiosity and commitment are the beginning of playing with both light-heartedness and grounded/focused discipline. Commitment is taking the focused time and energy to do the ground work of searching and re-searching about your interested topic. Find a topic you’re passionate about and your curiosity and sustained commitment will fuel you forward in crafting your theoretical hunches with breadth and depth.  

The next stage of theory development is creativity-collaboration. An original, creative idea is hard to come by.  If you’ve a truly original idea, jot it down right away--the creative glimpses can come and go so fleetingly.  Honestly, when I was working on this newsletter column, I was quite stuck.  However, as I walked between my home and office, as I heard children’s playing sounds, the melody of “playfulness” echoed in my mind and actually became the theme of this essay.  Thus, do draw your inspirations from multiple sensory data.  Learn to read across disciplines and beyond, learn to associate with people who are very different from you, and learn to engage in activities that divert your attention occasionally so that you can get some respite from writing your dream book or thesis.  Moreover, learn that you’re not alone.  Collaborative energy is a beautiful coming-together.  Many of my conflict FNT research studies are collaborative and joyous dialogue effort with students, friends, colleagues, and international folks across continents.

Lastly, crystallization-closure stage is essential to any developing research project. Crystallization means that within a specified planned time frame, you need to integrate and sort out your research ideas imaginatively and concretely.  You need to translate your ideas into fruition, and submit them for publication--so that your ideas can be preserved, challenged, approved, or even rejected. No one likes rejection, but without rejection, there’ll be no reinvention or innovation. While we can all treasure the “work-in-progress” attitude, every theorizing effort or research study needs a clear closure “period.” Learning to “let go” is not an easy stage--but try to realize that you’re just bracketing one stage of your theorizing or writing effort to an “at rest” stage. Letting go means giving yourself a chance to breathe and exhale in order to enter a new cycle of renewal and rediscovery.  In closing, I hope my points of curiosity-commitment, creativity-collaboration, crystallization-closure can spark some playful symphonic discussion from SIETAR newsletter readers.          


Stella Ting-Toomey, Intercultural Professor/Researcher/Trainer (sting@fullerton.edu)

California State University, Fullerton, USA


      Ting-Toomey, S. (2005).  The matrix of updated face negotiation theory.  In W. B. Gudykunst (Ed.) Theorizing about intercultural communication (pp. 71-92). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

      Ting-Toomey, S. (2015). Facework negotiation theory.  In J. Bennett (Ed.), The Sage encyclopedia of intercultural competence (Vol. 1, pp.  325-330). Los Angeles, CA: Sage. 

      Ting-Toomey, S. (2017).  Conflict face-negotiation theory: Tracking its evolutionary journey. In X. Diao & G.-M. Chen (Eds.), Conflict management and intercultural communication 

(pp. 123-143).  New York: Routledge.

Ting-Toomey, S., & Dorjee, T. (2019).  Communicating Across Cultures, Second Edition.  New York: The Guilford Press.


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