Cate Malek

Based on a longer essay on Face by Sarah Rosenberg for the Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base Project

Updated May 2013 by Heidi Burgess



The familiar term is "saving face," which means not humiliating others in public, or taking preventive actions so that you, yourself, will not be humiliated.


Anyone trying to negotiate or resolve a conflict, especially one in which the potential for humiliation or embarrassment of one (or more) of the parties is significant.


Face is understood as the image one projects of oneself or one's group or nation in a public forum. Understanding face is vital to any conflict management process. Sometimes disputants want so badly to save face that this overshadows all the other issues in the conflict.  In societies that highly value the concepts of shame and honor, such as Korea, China, and Japan in Asia, Middle-Eastern countries such as Egypt and Iran, and Latin American countries, face and face-saving  is extremely important. People dislike confrontation, and often avoid saying "no." Evasion and inaccuracy are preferred to keep appearances pleasant. Being humiliated before the group can be a fate worse than death (quite literally).

In Western, more individualistic societies, confrontation is seen as acceptable, and does not necessarily reflect badly on the people involved. Conflicts are seen as a natural part of life. If one commits a social blunder, there is no group shame involved, only personal embarrassment. But such embarrassment is still uncomfortable, and people still do not like to admit mistakes, if they don't have to. So trying to find a way to solve a conflict without emphasizing that one side or the other was wrong is often helpful for conflict resolution in almost any setting.

Likewise, face-threatening acts will most likely lead to more of the same in any culture. When face-threatening moves are deemed necessary, the chances for a successful negotiation increase when there is a good balance of face-honoring moves as well.


One perspective on the Cuban missile crisis put forth by a leading researcher on face theories, Stella Ting-Toomey, is that the negotiation came down to how both sides could retreat to peaceful positions without losing face. The correspondence between the two leaders (Kennedy and Khrushchev), shows they were trying to figure out how they could both retain honor with each other and in the international arena. Kennedy wrote about the seven lessons he learned during the crisis, number six being, "Don't humiliate your opponent," which is a central face issue.


Whenever a conflict puts one or more of the parties in danger of humiliation, opponents should consider ways in which their needs can be met while allowing the other side to appear to win as well.  This allows them to save face and makes resolution much more feasible.

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