An Overview of Face Needs and Prestige

August 4, 2020joelleva

Hey guys, here is my first article for February. This article relates to two concepts which come up quite often throughout the course. These are face needs (positive and negative), and prestige (overt and covert) and these come up in both units 3 and 4 (although face needs receive more emphasis in unit 3 and prestige in unit 4).


Positive face:

Positive face needs are a person’s need to be liked and accepted and are more commonly (although not exclusively), associated with informal language. Respecting positive face needs entails using language that shows a low social distance (closeness, rapport, solidarity and intimacy), with the listener, reader or other interlocutor. Informal language features such as slang, colloquialisms (it is important to be aware that slang is generational, whereas colloquialisms have stood the test of time and are usually more widely understood), and taboo language can be effective means of maintaining positive face needs.  These features can show closeness and rapport as people (generally) will only use these features around people with whom they feel close to and are thus comfortable with subverting the formality of their language. Additionally, a key aspect of positive face is a feeling of belonging to a group (creating a sense of in-group membership). Jargon (often associated with formal language) is particularly good for this as the use of the jargon helps to promote closeness and strengthen in-group solidarity as most, “outsiders,” would not understand the jargon.

Negative face:

Conversely, negative face needs are more commonly associated with formal language and this is the need to not be imposed upon and to be independent. Negative politeness strategies tend to include giving the other person a choice (as opposed to imposing a task upon them), indicating reluctance (sorry to ask but…), and giving deference by using terms of address (this is commonly seen in interviews with experts such as doctors and with politicians who are senior members of the government such as the Prime Minister, premier, treasurer, etc). Respecting negative face needs tends to entail acknowledging social distance or power in the relationship between the interlocutors. For example, High School students tend to address their teacher as Mr/Ms/Mrs/Miss …, acknowledging the teacher’s status as an authority figure in their relationship with the student.


As prestige is discussed in far greater detail in unit 4, I will keep this section short. Prestige can be broken down into overt prestige (carries prestige throughout the speech community), and covert prestige (carries prestige within a smaller group). Put simply, Standard Australian English is the variety of English which is overtly prestigious in Australia and consequently it is the variety used in most formal situations. Conversely, non-standard variations (non-standard is NOT substandard), such as Aboriginal English, carry covert prestige within the relevant social group and act as a marker of group identity.

Anyway, that is all from me and I will have another article for you in a couple of weeks.

If you loved this article, you will LOVE all of our other articles, such as: What To Expect As A First-Year University StudentSocial Purpose and How it Relates to Informal Language and Formal Language

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