Fixing the Problem of Face

by Christopher Flanders

Missionaries and national leaders can make face a subject of theological investigation, working together to develop a biblically-specific, biblically-informed understanding of face and face practices.

There is an enduring and pressing problem where missionaries work in cross-cultural settings. It has to do with the issue of face. Let me illustrate. Several years ago, I spoke with a friend who was a long-term missionary in Hong Kong and was pursuing an advanced degree in missiology. When I asked him about his experience with face, he reacted passionately: “For me, face is simply a lie!” Proceeding to narrate what he termed a “black” area of Chinese culture, he eventually admitted that he had begrudgingly acquiesced to the issue of face since he otherwise could not do ministry in the Chinese context. Ministry pragmatics kept him in the face “game”; however, he clearly thought that face was not consistent with Christian faith. Similarly, when a Thai Christian leader learned about the focus of my doctoral research, she expressed to me her hope that I could help the Thai Church “fix the problem of face”; that is, find a way to rid the Church of what she perceived to be a negative force in the life of the Thai Church.

This view sees face primarily as a façade. It is a mask behind which we hide from our sin. Face, in this perspective, leads to an inability to engage in face-to-face confrontation and typically involves appropriately flattering language, posturing, and other people-pleasing strategies. Face amounts to a social technique for egocentric ends, a way of hiding personal motives. As Arthur H. Smith, Congregationalist missionary to China for fifty-four years and the most prolific writer on China at the turn of the twentieth century, noted regarding face in Chinese culture, “The question is never of facts, but always of form.” One veteran missionary in Thailand commented, “Face in the U.S. is called posing. Face is a major sin worldwide, and it hinders people from becoming truly free in heart from the bondage of evil.”

Starting to Understand Face
I believe, however, that the problem lies not where Arthur Smith or my friend from Hong Kong thought. Contrary to what some might expect, I think the problem is this—we have lost face. Or maybe we never had it in the first place. What do I mean? Many missionaries and nationals trained by missionaries have misconstrued issues regarding the significant cultural issue of face. This happens in two ways. First, there is what I describe above, which I term “face aversion.” It makes little, if any, room for seeing anything positive with face and assumes that the way to “fix” face is to get rid of it. The second dimension of this problem is what I term “face oblivion.” It is apparent in two respects. First, many have too narrow a view of face. Almost without exception, when I explain to people about my dissertation project on face, they say something like, “Oh, you mean like losing and saving face, right?” That is, these two dimensions, which for many are decidedly negative, represent the sum total of face.

Second, there is a tendency to undervalue or, as is often the case, be completely unaware of the critical role face occupies in social contexts. When I ask missionaries to reflect upon face, many confess they are aware it is important for the Thai people but had not given it much thought. I am guilty of this face oblivion as well. Working in Thailand for eleven years, I engaged in incarnational ministry and achieved a sufficient level of language proficiency and cultural awareness. Yet as I began my doctoral research on face in Thai culture, I was astounded to learn how face was much more central to Thai culture than I had even known. My previous awareness of the importance of Thai face had only scratched the surface. Such lack of thoughtful attention to this central Thai cultural issue would be akin to a Chinese missionary working in the U.S. and confessing he or she had not thought deeply about individualism or Western notions of libertarian freedom.

This lack of attention to face as a Christian issue exists even among Thai Christians. A researcher friend recently conducted a meeting of national-level Thai Christian leaders in Thailand. The meeting was to discuss from a Christian perspective the issue of face in Thai culture. Yet, as it turns out, most of these significant leaders had never before discussed the topic. Although it continues to be a deeply influential cultural force both in and outside the Thai Christian community, there is a troubling disregard of issues concerning face.

Is this face aversion and face oblivion a problem? Many would surely be content to view face as negative and sinful, an issue that warrants only enough attention to understand how we might rid the Church of it. I want to make the case that both face aversion and face oblivion are improper. Face certainly contains a “dark side,” if you will. Like any social resource, people can misuse and manipulate it. Yet there is much to appreciate in face. Indeed, we must understand face to be truly incarnational witnesses in cultural contexts different from our own.

Face and Facework
What is face and how does it work? Face is the projection and management of our positive social identities. It is “the claimed sense of self-respect or self-dignity in an interactive situation” (Ting-Toomey 1994, 3). Face involves a continual commentary on who we think we are, who we think others are, and the relative value we assign to people and to our relationships with them. In a sense, every social interaction involves an “application” for face and either a “ratification,” a “denial,” or a temporary “hold” of the face “application.” Because of this, face is truly ubiquitous. That is, we all do face and we do it all the time. Face is a fact of all social relations.

Face is an identity issue that leads to various types of face-related practices. “Facework” is the term designating these various strategies we enact in our social relations. One area where we see facework quite easily is linguistic politeness. What many non-Western languages explicitly reference as face, those in the West variously label as politeness, tact, savoir-faire, diplomacy, social skill, or grace. Examples in English include phrases such as: “Thank you,” “Please,” “No trouble at all,” and semi-formulaic phrases such as: “Close the door, will you?” and “May I have another piece of cake?” Face is also behind the use of all honorifics (e.g., “Mr. President,” “Reverend,” “Your Honor,” “Officer”). Think of the different face commentary implied by these four different ways of addressing a female—“Hey you!” “Lady,” “Ma’am,” and “Your Highness.” When we use any of these terms, we are making face claims, both for ourselves and for the one whom we are addressing.

Face also plays a part in making requests. Do we use straightforward language (“I’m opening the window, okay?”), nuanced politeness (“Pardon me, sir. Would it bother you if I opened the window?”), indirectness (“Boy, it sure is hot in here, isn’t it?”), or mediation (“Would you mind going over there and asking him whether it’s all right to open that window?”)? Face and facework are also essential to granting and responding to compliments (whether I accept, equivocate, or reject the compliment), and it is fundamental to giving accounts, making apologies, showing aggression, and demonstrating humor.

This is true not only in cultures more socially stratified or hierarchical. In every social situation we are sending and receiving symbolic information about others and ourselves.Sometimes this occurs somewhat automatically and feels quite natural. Other times we are consciously aware of deliberate facework, sometimes even to the point of contriving or deceiving. Yet whether automatic or contrived, face and facework exist at the root of all our relationships and are involved in all interpersonal communication. Indeed, face and facework are so basic to all human relationships that face theorist Robyn Penman notes that facework “provides a shared basis for a social order. We could not have a social order without something like the mechanism [of] facework” (1994, 25). Indeed, facework represents the “traffic rules” of our social relations. Understand face and facework in any place and you understand relationships in that culture.

Although face is everywhere in our relationships, it involves more than just politeness or a single dimension (e.g., losing face, saving face). Facework can be both positive and negative. Positive facework includes various forms of granting face, maintaining face, and recovering face. In Thai, such positive facework would include terms such as: “giving face” (hâi nâ), “maintaining face” (rák-sa nâ), and “redeeming face” (kû nâ). In the modern West, this would include activities such as: giving credit, recognizing positive achievement (applause, awards), and offering encouragement. Negative facework involves disrupting, challenging, or depleting face. In Thai, examples of negative facework include: “selling face” (khai nâ), “snapping off face” (hàk nâ), and “tearing off face” (chìk nâ). In modern Western contexts, disagreeing, contradicting, criticizing, or assigning blame all involve this type of facework.

Face has multiple social functions. It is a form of “social capital,” a valuable resource that people “trade” in everyday relations. To have a positive face standing and to know how to respond properly to others’ face needs allows a person to function competently in society. Face provides a very significant way of enlisting social cooperation. Those who either possess positive face or know how to play by the face “rules” of a particular culture are able to mobilize and potentially motivate others. Although not the stated reason, an advantage of elders having a “good reputation” (1 Tim. 3:7, which is another way of saying they must have positive social face) is that they can navigate social relations more effectively. Face is also “sticky.” Face often works as a type of social glue that bonds people together in relationships. “Do” face well and relationships grow. “Do” face poorly and relationships suffer or even fail.

Face Claim-right
Every culture contains a specific face logic. Face is something we owe others, a sort of claim-right. This face logic—which determines if, when, and how much face people deserve—will differ from culture to culture. Yet there will always be an answer to the question: “By virtue of what is this person due face?” This notion of obligation, or face claim-right, is the most fundamental mechanism of all face dynamics.

What actually constitutes the basis of this claim-right varies widely (e.g., social standing, moral virtue, physical characteristics, wealth). To those who hold high face status (e.g., kings, judges, officials, teachers, parents), our obligations involve linguistic and social respect (“Yes, Principal Anderson,” “No, Your Honor”) and certain social obligations (obedience, deference, gift-giving). To a stranger, these obligations also involve forms of polite language (“No, thank you, I’m fine,” “Excuse me, ma’am, you dropped this”) and what we might call common courtesy and decent behavior. That is, we assume most people deserve a basic level of face respect and polite facework based upon their personhood. In Christian terms, this means we acknowledge the basic face claims of others because of the image of God embedded in every human person.

This notion of claim-right is evident in the New Testament. In Romans 12:9, Paul uses the term opheil (see also Matt. 18:24; Luke 17:10; Rom. 1:14; 8:12), which indicates that which is due another. It is an economic term that implies a debt to be paid, a social obligation or duty. The notion of worthiness (in Greek, axios) carries this same sense—something someone is due based upon certain culturally-established criteria (Matt. 10:37; Luke 10:7; 1 Tim. 5:17; Heb. 3:3). It denotes having a proper claim upon some resource. Most often, this resource is some form of respect or face.

Another important issue involves the different kinds of face. Such is very clear in Mandarin, which uses two common face terms, Mien-tzu and lien. Although similar in some respects, these two types of Chinese face differ considerably. Mien-tzu is not fixed in amount but fluctuates, increasing or decreasing in differing social contexts. In contrast, lien is a universal type of face people possess simply by virtue of being human. Unlike mien-tzu, it is impossible to increase lien. It is static and does not vary in quantity. One may either gain or lose mien-tzu, but one may only lose lien. In the Chinese context, to lose lien is to cease being a legitimate person, a demotion from the human family.

This distinction in Mandarin highlights an important difference between social face and personal face. In the church or in society, all authority, status, role differentiation, and leadership inevitably lead to social face. Yet, each person has face simply because he or she is human. This more basic type of personal face, or lian (in Thai, saksee), is something people possess and respond to as common people. Such personal face is inherent in the Western notion of human dignity (which comes from the Latin term for “worthy”). People are due respect and common decency because they possess this personal face.

If face is everywhere, and not simply the possession of Asian or Eastern cultures, how does face differ from culture to culture? For many westerners, face functions in a transactional way. It is a utilitarian tool guided by individual desires and gained by individual effort and personal success. For many in the non-Western world, face attaches to status and group membership, and thus assumes a moral valence not typical of many Western contexts. Additionally, Western social face tends to be more dynamic and fluid, attaching to persons. Such Western face contrasts sharply with the Chinese, for whom social face generally attaches to status and position. This means that whereas Western face is fluid and is gained by personal achievements, Chinese face is more fixed, linked to and embedded in enduring positions in fixed social networks.

Missions, the Church, and Face
What should be our response to face? Although I want to encourage greater appreciation for face, I cannot underscore enough that the dark side of face can be deadly. Face feels good and some become addicted to the perks of certain forms of face treatment (e.g., constant need for increased levels of praise and recognition, unqualified ambition that ignores others). Some use their surplus of social face as a “free pass” card to hide sin or allow different standards of behavior. Face can also prevent leadership emergence as current leaders thwart or sabotage emerging leaders because of jealousy and face competition. Clearly, face presents many potential problems that can plague the Church.

Yet, face also presents wonderful opportunities. First, understanding face as something we all possess and facework as something in which all of us engage should normalize face. This will move us beyond an unhelpful us/them dichotomy (“Why do they do that?” “Why can’t they be more like us instead of doing that frustrating face thing?”) that often characterizes the way we view face. Instead of attempting to rid a culture of face (which is impossible), we should work at refining face in ways consistent with Christ’s ways. We need a healthy theological and biblical engagement with the issue of face.

A crucial issue to help guide our thinking about face is that of virtue and moral goodness. God rewards with honor those who do what is virtuous and good (Rom. 2:7). For example, we are to honor in special ways elders who both teach and preach (1 Tim. 5:17). We recognize those who have done something valiant, worthy of praise, and excellent. This notion dates back as far as Aristotle, who notes that honor should only be awarded to the truly virtuous. Those who seek to gain honor and face without true virtue should be condemned. Augustine says as much when he notes that “honor …must be the consequence of virtue not its antecedent” (1984, 200).

What this means is that godly face does not come by making face our goal. Rather, true face comes because of righteousness and virtue. To seek after face itself is to get things backward. We seek not face itself, but the good, virtuous, and righteous ways of living that should, or often do, lead to face. When face comes, it comes as the proper reward for a godly and faithful life.

This corresponds with a built-in face critique Thais express through three specific face terms: “want to get face” (yàk dâi nâ), “promote face” (sà-noe nâ), and “take face” (ao nâ). All three designate someone who actively seeks his or her own self-face. Thais often call such people seùak, a vulgar term we might translate “rotten, self-promoting show-off.” This highlights an important element of the Thai notion of face. For Thais, face should ideally rest upon virtue and not simply be taken without proper basis. In this way, Thais think of face as a gift that must be given, not sought after in virtue-less face self-aggrandizement. This Thai critique finds parallels in the life of Jesus, who did not promote his own face but was granted face and honor based upon his righteous life (Heb. 5:4-5). It is a similar self-seeking, self-regarding type of commendation Paul defends himself against in 2 Corinthians (2 Cor. 3:1; 5:12; 10:12, 18).

God is the supreme “court of reputation” and bestows true and ultimate face. Discipleship involves helping believers shift the criteria by which face gain and face loss occur, and understanding the proper locus for true face is God. To belong to the people of the creator God—to find divine favor and grace—is to acquire face of ultimate significance because there is no higher opinion about which humankind must be concerned. The corollary to this is that by seeking true honor and face, the world which does not know God will often revoke or impugn our face. This, as the writer of Hebrews notes, is to stand outside the camp with Jesus, bearing the same disgrace and loss of face he endured (Heb. 13:13).

Although God is the ultimate source of face, when we understand virtue as a proper basis for face, the Church becomes a face-generating community. We do this differently as we follow new face rules other than the scripts the dominant culture provides. But God’s people, who bear his life and follow his ways, becomes a new source of face as it grants recognition, approval, and inclusion based upon the righteousness of God revealed in Jesus. This “new creation,” which is the Church, functions as God’s proxy in granting or removing face based upon the canons of kingdom living.

A Christian Insertion of Face
Missionaries and national leaders can make face a subject of theological investigation, working together to develop a culturally-specific, biblically-informed understanding of face and face practices. By doing so, we seek to discover how to inject Christian difference into face (i.e., how to accept, reject, or transform face norms given by our dominant culture). A way to begin might be to help design scriptural and cultural “case studies” as an opportunity for local believers to process face issues. Below are questions to explore:

• How do we see people try to gain face without proper virtue?

• What face critiques already exist, and how might seeds of God’s truth be present there?

• What is the face logic present in our cultural context? What are the face claim-rights?

• When and how does Jesus protect, support, and enhance the face of others, and when does he cause others to lose face (both directly and indirectly)?

• How does Jesus call into question contemporary face practices, both by direct challenges (e.g., promoting one’s own face [Matt. 6:1-5]; seeking face in order to be seen [Matt. 23:5-12]) and by his own example (e.g., eating with the wrong crowd [Luke 15:2])?

• What are ways God calls us to lose face for the sake of righteousness and his kingdom?

• Is there a face that comes from God? How is it similar to the dominant culture? How does it differ?

• How do leaders use face for good? For ill? How do strong face attachments keep leaders from being responsible, godly leaders?

• How might we view God’s judgment in terms of face? (Note: Matthew 25:31-46 is the ultimate face-loss and face-gain text.)

• How might the ways face loss, gain, and possession occur provide meaningful categories for talking about atonement, the cross, and resurrection?

• How might face constitute an essential aspect of what it means to be created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27; 9:6)?

How can we “fix” the face problem? If we accept that face is a fact, and engage it not as an issue to eliminate but to reorient in cruciform ways, we are well on our way. By orienting face with reference to God, we can help bring about the type of face and facework that are both culturally appropriate and glorify God.

Aristotle. 1934. The Nichomachean Ethics. H. Racham, trans. Loeb Classical Library, 73. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Augustine. 1984. Concerning the City of God against the Pagans. Henry Bettenson, trans. London: Penguin Books.

Penman, Robyn. 1994. “Facework in Communication: Conceptual and Moral Challenges.” In The Challenge of Facework: Cross-Cultural and Interpersonal Issues. Ed. Stella Ting-Toomey, 15-45. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

Ting-Toomey, Stella. 1994. “Face and Facework: An Introduction.” In The Challenge of Facework: Cross-Cultural and Interpersonal Issues. Ed. Stella Ting-Toomey, 1-14. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

Dr. Christopher Flanders directs the graduate program in missions in the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University. He spent ten years as a church-planting missionary in Thailand. His research interests include the areas of face and facework theory and the anthropology of social honor and shame. You may reach him by email at:

Copyright © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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