Face (sociological concept)

The term face idiomatically refers to one's own sense of dignity or prestige in social contexts. In the English-speaking world, the expression "to save face" describes the lengths that an individual may go to in order to preserve their established position in society, taking action to ensure that one is not thought badly of by his or her peers. It is a fundamental concept in the fields of sociology, sociolinguistics, semantics, politeness theory, psychology, political science, communication, and face negotiation theory, and translates at least somewhat equivalently into many world languages, both Germanic and otherwise.


Although Lin Yutang claimed "Face cannot be translated or defined",[1] compare these definitions:

By country

"The concept of face is, of course, Chinese in origin" (Ho 1975:867), yet many languages have "face" terms that metaphorically mean "prestige; honor; reputation". Marcel Mauss, who sociologically studied the Kwakwaka'wakw (formerly known as Kwakiutl) and Haida nations in British Columbia, interpreted the Kwak'wala word q'elsem (lit. "rotten face") meaning "stingy potlatch-giver; one who gives no feast".

Kwakiutl and Haida noblemen have the same notion of "face" as the Chinese mandarin or officer. It is said of one of the great mythical chiefs who gave no feast that he had a "rotten face". The expression is more apt than it is even in China; for to lose one's face is to lose one's spirit, which is truly the "face", the dancing mask, the right to incarnate a spirit and wear an emblem or totem. It is the veritable persona which is at stake, and it can be lost in the potlatch just as it can be lost in the game of gift-giving, in war, or through some error in ritual. (1954:38)

Michael Carr (1992, 1993) lexicographically investigated "face; prestige" dictionary forms in Chinese, Japanese, and English. Within this sample, Chinese dictionaries include 98 forms, e.g., sipo lian 撕破臉 (lit. "rip up face") "have no consideration for someone's feelings"; Japanese dictionaries list 89, e.g., kao o uru 顔を売る (lit. "sell face") "become popular; gain influence"; and English dictionaries include 5 forms, e.g., lose face (borrowed from Chinese diulian 丟臉 "lose face"). Carr found that the Chinese and Japanese lexicons have roughly equal numbers of words for "losing face" and "saving face", while English has more for "saving face".

Chinese 脸 面 and 面 子

Two influential Chinese authors explained "face". Lu Xun referred to the missionary Arthur Henderson Smith's (1894:16-18) interpretation.

The term "face" keeps cropping up in our conversation, and it seems such a simple expression that I doubt whether many people give it much thought. Recently, however, we have heard this word on the lips of foreigners too, who seem to be studying it. They find it extremely hard to understand, but believe that "face" is the key to the Chinese spirit and that grasping it will be like grabbing a queue twenty-four years ago [when wearing a queue was compulsory] – everything else will follow. (1934, 1959:129)

Lin Yutang considered the psychology of "face".

Interesting as the Chinese physiological face is, the psychological face makes a still more fascinating study. It is not a face that can be washed or shaved, but a face that can be "granted" and "lost" and "fought for" and "presented as a gift". Here we arrive at the most curious point of Chinese social psychology. Abstract and intangible, it is yet the most delicate standard by which Chinese social intercourse is regulated.[1]

Lin refers to liu mianzi 留面子 "grant face; give (someone) a chance to regain lost honor", shī miàn zi 失面子 "lose face", zheng mianzi 爭面子 "fight for face; keeping up with the Joneses", and gei mianzi 給面子 "give face; show respect (for someone's feelings)".

The Chinese language has three common words meaning "face":

Mian 面 "face; personal esteem; countenance; surface; side" occurs in words like:

Mianmu, which occurs in the Shijing, Guanzi, and other Chinese classics, is the oldest Chinese word for figurative "face" (Carr 1992:43). David Yau-fai Ho (1974:241) describes timian as "an expression without an exact equivalent in English", meaning "the social front, the ostensible display of one's social standing to the public. It is both a prerogative and an implicit obligation for the socially prominent to be particular about." Mianzi is a measurable and quantifiable concept of "face". Face, Hsien-chin Hu says,

can be borrowed, struggled for, added to, padded, — all terms indicating a gradual increase in volume. It is built up through initial high position, wealth, power, ability, through cleverly establishing social ties to a number of prominent people, as well as through avoidance of acts that would cause unfavorable comment. (1944:61)

Lian 脸 "face; countenance; respect; reputation; prestige" is seen in several "face" words:

While the use of the word "mian" is more common outside Mainland China, in China PRC , it is the word "lian" 臉that is more commonly used.

Hu (1944:51-52) contrasts meiyou lian 沒有臉 (lit. "without face") "audacious; wanton; shameless" as "the most severe condemnation that can be made of a person" and buyao lian 不要臉 (lit. "don't want face") "shameless; selfishly inconsiderate" as "a serious accusation meaning that ego does not care what society thinks of his character, that he is ready to obtain benefits for himself in defiance of moral standards."

Note that Cantonese uses 面 instead of 臉. However, Chinese people generally use the term 脸 子 more commonly when speaking in Mandarin Chinese (Putonghua).

Yan 顏 "face; prestige; reputation; honor" occurs in the common expression diu yan 丟顏 and the words:

Chinese uses yan less often in expressing "face; prestige" than either mian or lian.

Carr (1992:58-60) summarizes four common Chinese lexical patterns for "face" words. First, the lexicon antithetically modifies all three "face" words with hou 厚 "thick; deep; great" and bao or bo 薄 "thin; slight; weak" to describe "(in)sensitivity to prestige", for example, mianpi hou "thick-skinned; shameless" and mianpi bao "thin-skinned; diffident". Second, owing to the importance of the visible face, kan 看 "see; look" meaning "have consideration for" and buhaokan 不好看 "not good looking" describe "face". Third, several expressions reciprocally describe you 有 "having" or meiyou 沒有 "not having" "face", such as dajia you mianzi "everybody has mutual honor" and meiyou mianzi "lacking prestige". Fourth, "losing face" can be expressed with the common "lose" verb shi 失 and the rarer diu 丟, for instance, shi mianzi and diu mianzi "lose face; lose prestige".

Recent studies of Chinese "face" have principally accepted Hu Hsien-chin's original distinction between a person's mianzi "social status" and lian "moral character". Hu (1944:45) dichotomized mianzi as "a reputation achieved through getting on in life, through success and ostentation" versus lian which "represents the confidence of society in the integrity of ego's moral character, the loss of which makes it impossible for him to function properly within the community". Ho qualified this dichotomy:

although the distinction between the two sets of criteria for judging face – based on judgments of character and, broadly, of the amoral aspects of social performance – is justified, it cannot be anchored to a linguistic distinction between the two terms, lien and mien-tzu, as proposed by Hu. However, we may continue to use these terms in the senses that Hu has defined. (1975:868)

On the basis of experiments showing that Chinese high school students defined losses of mianzi and lian interchangeably, while university students distinguished them, Huang Shuanfan concluded that:

Succinctly, among college subjects, loss of mianzi is more definitely tied to failure to measure up to one's sense of self-esteem or to what is expected by others, whereas loss of lian is closely tied to transgression of social codes. Hu's (1944) forty-year-old distinction between the two Chinese concepts of faces appears to stand very well, even today. (1987:73)

Lian is the confidence of society in a person's moral character, while mianzi represents social perceptions of a person's prestige. For a person to maintain face is important with Chinese social relations because face translates into power and influence and affects goodwill. A loss of lian would result in a loss of trust within a social network, while a loss of mianzi would likely result in a loss of authority.

Two "face"-related concepts in Chinese social relations are guanxi "connections; relationships" and ganqing "feelings".


The English semantic field for "face" words meaning "prestige; honor" is smaller than the corresponding Chinese field, but historical dictionaries more accurately record its history. The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed., 1989) documents how the English community in China originated lose face and save face in the late 19th century, and how morphological variants like face-saver subsequently developed.

Lose face is a linguistic calque from Chinese diulian 丢脸 "lose face". The OED2 Face 10 definition distinguishes meanings between native 10a. "Outward show; assumed or factitious appearance; disguise, pretence; an instance of this; a pretext" (for instance, to put a good face on) and borrowed:

10b. to save one's face: see save v. 8f; also to save face; to lose face [tr. Chinese diu lien]: to be humiliated, lose one's credit, good name, or reputation; similarly, loss of face. Hence face = reputation, good name.

Robert Hart originally translated lose face in a January 23, 1876 Zongli Yamen customs memorandum, "The Inspector General's Memorandum Concerning Commercial Relations" (Appendix II in Hart 1901:182-251).

The country begins to feel that Government consented to arrangements by which China has lost face; the officials have long been conscious that they are becoming ridiculous in the eyes of the people, seeing that where a foreigner is concerned they can neither enforce a Chinese right, nor redress a Chinese grievance, even on Chinese soil. (1901:225)

Loss of face occurs in The Times (August 3, 1929): "Each wishes to concede only what can be conceded without loss of 'face'."

Save face was coined from lose face applying the semantic opposition between lose and save [tr. Chinese 保面子/bao mianzi/guard/save face; when successful, it's called "保住面子/bao zhu mianzi/saved/guarded face "].

OED defines Save 8 "To keep, protect or guard (a thing) from damage, loss, or destruction", and elaborates,

8f. to save one's face: to avoid being disgraced or humiliated. Similarly, to save (another's) face. Hence save-face adj. = face-saving … Originally used by the English community in China, with reference to the continual devices among the Chinese to avoid incurring or inflicting disgrace. The exact phrase appears not to occur in Chinese, but ‘to lose face’ (diu lien), and ‘for the sake of his face’, are common.

For the earliest usage examples, the OED gives the following. Save one's face is recorded in the Westminster Gazette (April 5, 1898): "Unquestionably the process of saving one's face leads to curious results in other countries than China." Save-face is found in Chambers Journal of Literature, Science and Arts (1917): "The civilian native staff had bolted at the first sign of trouble, 'going to report to the authorities' being their 'save face' for it!" Face-saving first appears in Enoch A. Bennett's Lilian (1922): "She had been trapped beyond any chance of a face-saving lie." Face-saver, defined as "something that 'saves one's face', " originated in Edgar Snow's Scorched Earth (1941): "As a face-saver, however, Doihara was given enough support, from the Kwantung Army in Manchuria." Carr (1993:74) notes, "It is significant that the earliest usages for English lose face, save face, save-face and face-saver refer to China, while later ones are more international in application."

By expanding "lose face" into "save face", English developed oppositely from Chinese, which has many "lose face" collocations, but none literally meaning "save face". Yao mianzi 要面子 "eager to gain reputation; be concerned about appearances" is (Hu 1944:58) "the closest Chinese approximation" for "save face".

The underlying reason for this difference is that English "face" lacks the sociological contrast between Chinese lian and mianzi. Since Chinese lian is ethically absolute while mianzi is socially quantitative, losing the former is more significant. According to Huang:

The fact that Chinese lexicalizes losing face (丟臉, 沒面子), but not gaining face is a potent reminder that losing face has far more serious implications for one's sense of self-esteem or decency than gaining face. (1987:71)

Ho explains how "losing" one's "face" is more sociodynamically significant than "saving" it.

Previous writers on face have treated losing face and gaining face simply as if they were opposite outcomes in a social encounter and have thus failed to notice the basic difference between two social processes that are involved. In the first instance, while it is meaningful to speak of both losing and gaining mien-tzu it is meaningful to speak only of losing lien. One does not speak of gaining lien because, regardless of one's station in life, one is expected to behave in accordance with the precepts of the culture; correctly conceptualized, exemplary conduct adds not to one's lien, but to one's mien-tzu. (1975:870)

"Losing face" brings into question one's moral decency and societal adequacy, but not "gaining face".

The lose verb in lose face means "fail to maintain" (cf. lose one's life), while the save in save face means "avoid loss/damage" (cf. save one's honor). "The English creation of save face as the opposite of lose face was arbitrary because lose has other antonyms: win, find, keep, catch, maintain, preserve, gain, and regain", Carr (1993:77) notes, "Speakers occasionally use the last three (esp. gain) regarding face 'prestige', though less frequently than save". Another usage example is give face, which is included in the Wiktionary but not the OED2.

Among the English words of Chinese origin, lose face is an uncommon verb phrase and a unique semantic loan translation. Most Anglo-Chinese borrowings are nouns (Yuan 1981:250), with a few exceptions such as to kowtow, to Shanghai, to brainwash, and lose face. English face meaning "prestige; honor" is the only case of a Chinese semantic loan. Semantic loans extend an indigenous word's meaning in conformity with a foreign model (e.g., French realiser "achieve; create; construct" used in the sense of English realize). The vast majority of English words from Chinese are ordinary loanwords with regular phonemic adaptation (e.g., chop suey < Cantonese tsap-sui 雜碎 "miscellaneous pieces"). A few are calques where a borrowing is blended with native elements (e.g., chopsticks < Pidgin chop "quick, fast" < Cantonese kap "quick" + stick). Face meaning "prestige" is technically a "loan synonym" owing to semantic overlap between the native English meaning "outward semblance; effrontery" and the borrowed Chinese meaning "prestige; dignity".

John Orr (1953) coined the term "invisible exports" to describe how French forme, ouverte, and courir borrowed the sports meanings of English form, open, and run. Chinese lose face is an imperceptible English import because it appears to be a predictable semantic extension of face, and not a noticeable foreign borrowing. This invisible face "prestige; status" loan is, Chan and Kwok (1985:60) explain, "so firmly established in the English vocabulary that the average native speaker is unaware of its Chinese origin."

When face acquired its Chinese sense of "prestige; honor", it filled a lexical gap in the English lexicon. Chan and Kwok write,

The Chinese has supplied a specific "name" for a "thing" embodying qualities not expressed or possibly not fully expressed, by a number of terms in English. The aptness of the figurative extension has probably also played a part (1985:61-62).

Carr concludes,

The nearest English synonyms of the apt figurative face are prestige, honor, respect, dignity, status, reputation, social acceptance, or good name. Ho (1975:874-880) explains how "face" is a more basic meaning than "status", "dignity", or "honor". "Prestige" appears to be semantically closest to "face", however a person can be said to have face but not prestige, or vice versa. Prestige is not necessary; one can easily live without it, but hardly without "face". (1993:87-88)


In Arabic, the expression hafiẓa māʼ al-wajh (حفظ ماء الوجه), which literally translate as save the face's water, is used to mean save face. The entire Arab culture of social and family behavior is based around Islamic concepts of dignity, or "Face", which has its basis in the social and family ranking system found in the Treatise of Rights, Al-Risalah al-Huquq, Islam's primary source for social behaviors.[3]


In Persian , expressions like "Aab ro rizi" (آبروريزی) literally - losing the face's water, is used to mean save face and "Dou roi" (دورويی) (lit. two-facedness) , "Ro seyahi "(روسياهی) (lit. Black-facedness) and "Ro sepidi" (روسپيدی) (lit. White-facedness)are used.

In Iranian culture the meaning of linguistic face is much closer to the meaning of "Personality". So Persian speakers use some strategies in saving the face or personality of each other while they communicate. The most frequent way to express face saving act is the application of first person plural pronoun "شما" instead of first person singular "تو". The other common way of expressing care about the face, is the indirectenss. Instead of saying "نمک را بده به من" (pass me the salt) you can say "می شه ازتون خواهش کنم نمک را به من بدید؟" (Can I ask you to pass me the salt?)

The entire Iranian culture of social and family behavior is based around Islamic concepts of dignity, or "Face", which has its basis in the social and family ranking system found in The Treatise of Rights, Al-Risalah al-Huquq, Islam's primary source for social behaviors.[3] "To Ask, Listen, Know" is how Irani children learn this concept.


Hindu standards of ethics (Nitisastra) are based upon the Upanishads of the Vedas and are from which the ten Yamas & the ten Niyamas (Codes of Behavior) are derived.[4]

In India, a sense of honour (संमान) or "Face" is not based entirely upon adherence to the ethical codes of Nitisastra. Honour is reflected upon the entire family and not the individual per se. Ādara (संमान) standards for women are derived from cultural ideologies of virtue, including standards of modesty, as well as obedience to decisions made for her by her family.[5] Ādara for women forms the primary basis for a sense of family honour (a loss of "Face"; shame or dishonor) in Northen India and Pakistan[6] as reflected by 2000 "honour killings" per year in the Indian subcontinent.[7]

South Slavic

Among South Slavs, especially in Serbo-Croatian and Bulgarian, the word obraz (Cyrillic: образ) is used as a traditional expression for honor and the sociological concept of face. Medieval Slavic documents have shown that the word has been used with various meanings, such as form, image, character, person, symbol, face, figure, statue, idol, guise and mask. The languages also have a derived adjective bezobrazan (Cyrillic: безобразен) "without face", used to associate shame to a person.[8]


The Thai word for face is หน้า,meaning literally face. There are basically two main ways of expressing loss of face. One, เสียหน้า, [sia naa] translates literally as 'lose face.' Another term, ขายหน้า, or [khai naa], means sale of face - actual connotation is that the person who lost face did so through fault of self or through the thoughtless action of another. As in China and other regions where loss of face is important, the Thai version involves sociodynamic status.


The concept of "face" or "chemyon" (Hangul: 체면 hanja: 體面 , Korean: [/t͡ɕʰe̞mjʌ̹n/]) is extremely important in Korean culture.

Academic interpretations

Figurative "face" meaning "prestige; honor; dignity" is applied across many academic disciplines.


"Face" is central to sociology and sociolinguistics. Martin C. Yang analyzed eight sociological factors in losing or gaining face: the kinds of equality between the people involved, their ages, personal sensibilities, inequality in social status, social relationship, consciousness of personal prestige, presence of a witness, and the particular social value/sanction involved.[9]

The sociologist Erving Goffman introduced the concept of "face" into social theory with his (1955) article "On Face-work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements of Social Interaction" and (1967) book Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. According to Goffman's dramaturgical perspective, face is a mask that changes depending on the audience and the variety of social interaction. People strive to maintain the face they have created in social situations. They are emotionally attached to their faces, so they feel good when their faces are maintained; loss of face results in emotional pain, so in social interactions people cooperate by using politeness strategies to maintain each other's faces.

"Face" is sociologically universal. People "are human", Joseph Agassi and I. C. Jarvie (1969:140) believe, "because they have face to care for – without it they lose human dignity." Ho elaborates:

The point is that face is distinctively human. Anyone who does not wish to declare his social bankruptcy must show a regard for face: he must claim for himself, and must extend to others, some degree of compliance, respect, and deference in order to maintain a minimum level of effective social functioning. While it is true that the conceptualization of what constitutes face and the rules governing face behavior vary considerably across cultures, the concern for face is invariant. Defined at a high level of generality, the concept of face is a universal. (1976:881-2)

The sociological concept of face has recently been reanalysed through consideration of the Chinese concepts of face (mianzi and lian) which permits deeper understanding of the various dimensions of experience of face, including moral and social evaluation, and its emotional mechanisms (Qi 2011).

Politeness theory

Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson (1987) expanded Goffman's theory of face in their politeness theory, which differentiated between positive and negative face (Miller 2005).

In human interactions, people are often forced to threaten either an addressee's positive and/or negative face, and so there are various politeness strategies to mitigate those face-threatening acts.

Communication theory

Tae-Seop Lim and John Waite Bowers (1991) claim that face is the public image that a person claims for himself. Within this claim there are three dimensions. "Autonomy face" describes a desire to appear independent, in control, and responsible. "Fellowship face" describes a desire to seem cooperative, accepted, and loved. "Competence face" describes a desire to appear intelligent, accomplished, and capable (Miller 2005).

Masumoto, Oetzel, Takai, Ting-Toomey, & Yokochi (2000) defined "facework" as "the communicative strategies one uses to enact self-face and to uphold, support, or challenge another person's face". In terms of interpersonal communication, Facework refers to an individual’s identity in a social world and how that identity is created, reinforced, diminished, and maintained in communicative interactions.

Intercultural communication

Face is central to intercultural communication or cross-cultural communication. Bert Brown explains the importance of both personal and national face in international negotiations:

Among the most troublesome kinds of problems that arise in negotiation are the intangible issues related to loss of face. In some instances, protecting against loss of face becomes so central an issue that it swamps the importance of the tangible issues at stake and generates intense conflicts that can impede progress toward agreement and increase substantially the costs of conflict resolution. (1977:275)

In terms of Edward T. Hall's dichotomy between high context cultures focused upon in-groups and low context cultures focused upon individuals, face-saving is generally viewed as more important in high context cultures such as China or Japan than in low-context ones such as the United States or Germany (Cohen 1977).

Face-negotiation theory

Stella Ting-Toomey developed Face Negotiation Theory to explain cultural differences in communication and conflict resolution. Ting-Toomey defines face as

the interaction between the degree of threats or considerations one party offers to another party, and the degree of claim for a sense of self-respect (or demand for respect toward one's national image or cultural group) put forth by the other party in a given situation. (1990)


The psychology of "face" is another field of research. Wolfram Eberhard, who analyzed Chinese "guilt" and "sin" in terms of literary psychology, debunked the persistent myth that "face" is peculiar to the Chinese rather than a force in every human society. Eberhard noted

It is mainly in the writings of foreigners that we find the stress upon shame in Chinese society; it is they who stated that the Chinese were typically afraid of "losing their face". It is they who reported many cases of suicide because of loss of face, or of suicide in order to punish another person after one's death as a ghost, or to cause through suicide endless difficulties or even punishment to the other person. But in the Chinese literature used here, including also the short stories, I did not once find the phrase "losing face"; and there was no clear case of suicide because of shame alone. (1967:119-120)

The Chinese University of Hong Kong social psychologist Michael Harris Bond observed that in Hong Kong,

Given the importance of having face and of being related to those who do, there is a plethora of relationship politics in Chinese culture. Name dropping, eagerness to associate with the rich and famous, the use of external status symbols, sensitivity to insult, lavish gift-giving, the use of titles, the sedulous avoidance of criticism, all abound, and require considerable readjustment for someone used to organizing social life by impersonal rules, frankness, and greater equality. (1991:59)

Political science

"Face" has further applications in political science. For instance, Susan Pharr (1989) stressed the importance of "losing face" in Japanese comparative politics.


Linguists have analyzed the semantics of "face". Huang (1985, cited above) used prototype semantics to differentiate lian and mianzi. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's Metaphors We Live By (1980:37) emphasizes "the face for the person" metonymy. Keith Allan (1986) extended "face" into theoretical semantics. He postulated it to be an essential element of all language interchanges, and claimed (1986:10): "A satisfactory theory of linguistic meaning cannot ignore questions of face presentation, nor other politeness phenomena that maintain the co-operative nature of language interchange."

See also


  1. 1 2 Yutang, Lin (1935). My Country and My People (Hardcover). New York: Reynal & Hitchcock. pp. 199–200.
  2. Goffman, Erving (1955). "On Face-work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements of Social Interaction". Psychiatry; Journal for the Study of Interpersonal Processes. 18 (3): 213–231.
  3. 1 2 The Treatise of Rights, see various Chapters https://www.al-islam.org/treatise-rights-risalat-al-huquq-imam-zain-ul-abideen
  4. The Yamas and the Niyamas https://www.hinduismtoday.com/modules/smartsection/item.php?itemid=1659
  5. Abstract, Family Crime in India: Patriarchal Ideology of Honour, by Jyothi Vishwanath, University of Bangalore, Bengaluru, India and Srinivas C. Palakonda , K. L. E. Society’s Law College, Bengaluru, India
  6. Article, Psychology Today https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/out-the-darkness/201205/the-madness-honor-killing
  7. Statistics on Honor Killings http://hbv-awareness.com
  8. Stoianovich, Traian (1994). Balkan Worlds: The First and Last Europe. USA: M.E. Sharpe. pp. 48–49. ISBN 1-56324-032-7.
  9. Yang, Martin C. (1945). A Chinese Village; Taitou, Shantung Province (1967 ed.). Kegan Paul Reprint. pp. 167–179.


External links

Look up face in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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