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Overview of Face Needs for Unit 3
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Overview of Face Needs for Unit 3


Hello everyone, I hope that you have settled into a good routine for the year and that you have been finding English Language (and your other subjects) stimulating and engaging. With your first assessments probably coming up, I thought that I would write about a concept that has been given greater importance to the course since the study design changed in 2016, face needs.

Face needs are broken into two types, positive and negative, and in both areas of study in unit 3, how informal, (AOS 1), and formal, (AOS 2), language can be used to both maintain and challenge positive and negative face needs.

Although the article goes beyond the scope of the course, and I have not drawn on it substantially for this article, I found a very interesting article on the topic face from Yanrong Chang, an American professor of communication. If you are interested, the article can be found here: You Think I am Stupid? Face Needs in Intercultural Conflicts (immi.se).

She defines positive face as the need to be, “respected, honoured, included, approved, liked, and considered competent and trustworthy,” whereas our negative face needs are our needs for freedom, autonomy, and the right to make decisions for ourselves. Most commonly (although not exclusively), formal language is supportive of negative face, whereas informal language is supportive of positive face needs. Moreover, face needs are also linked to politeness. According to leading scholars on the topic of face, Brown and Levinson, the relationship between participants plays a key role in the level of politeness used, and where there is a greater social distance between the speaker and the hearer, politeness, the desire not to impose on someone’s autonomy and authority grows (AKA, respect for their negative face needs). The example I always like to give is any interview with a politician (a simple trip to any minister’s website will reveal their transcripts), especially a minister, they are usually addressed by their title, such as, “minister,” “treasurer,” or, “Prime Minister.” This negative politeness helps to maintain their negative face needs as it acknowledges their authority and autonomy when it comes to making important decisions, and journalists are not seeking to impose themselves on the minister, whilst trying to keep them accountable. Simultaneously, this also helps to respect their positive face need to be honoured, respected, and considered competent.

A neat little summary of how to deal with potentially threatening face needs can be found here: cmm (oregonstate.edu)

More relevant for most of you though (in the immediate term), will be how informal language is used in terms of face. Primarily, informal language helps to show a closeness and a low social distance between those who use it, meaning that positive face needs are usually what informal language works to support. For example, the use of nicknames, or positively connotated words to address or describe (if they are present) someone, helps to show a listener that the speaker likes them, respects them, and considers them to be part of the group. Think of any conversation you have with a close friend, and you can probably rattle off five or six examples off the top of your head. Similarly, the use of slang, jargon (generally, but not always more formal), or other language of a particular social group also helps to support positive face as they help to promote inclusion and the idea that the listener is close to the speaker.

However, informal language can also be used to promote negative face needs. Using interrogative sentences, as opposed to imperative sentence types when seeking a favour, such as, “ya reckon you could chuck us that pen,” help to respect the need of people not to be imposed upon, even if the positive face needs are being simultaneously upheld by the low social distance shown by the complete absence of formality in the example shown above.

Moreover, negative face can also be challenged by informal language, although in many contexts in which this occurs, the relationship is close enough that negative face needs can be discarded. For example, if someone is close enough to you to say something like, “gimme the f*****g pen,” and for you not to be somewhat aghast, you probably are not too worried about the need for distance and autonomy when speaking to them.

Anyway, I hope that this article has proven to be a helpful overview of the concept of face, and that school is treating you well. You will read more from me, in April.


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