What is “Saving Face” About?

Erving Goffman’s classic research on how people do mainstream interpersonal vibiness presents an eerily clear model for stuff we do all the time but never talk about openly.

In this short essay summarizing Goffman’s essays collected in Interaction Ritual, I will examine what a face is, how people work to save and build face, and then explain the very off-kilter contrast provided by the book’s final essay on folk notions of character (which are nearly the opposite of how Goffman says face really works).

How to Have a Face

I came to this book sure that I was not into “face.” I don’t care about establishing my reputation or trying to sell people on me and I am very skeptical about what other people try to impress upon me about themselves. In my experience, people who talk a big game do not walk the walk. People who claim they are really amazing at cooking, making art, dancing, or organizing things are usually wrong. My experience. On the other hand, people who don’t toot their own horn are often the ones with all the real abilities. That’s my impression.

I am sometimes “too blunt” and often uninterested in providing the affirmations that other people need to feel alright about themselves. It’s on my list of “product faults” about my self.

So who cares about saving face?

Goffman defines one’s “face” as their claim to social value; a face is “the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line other assume he has taken” (emphasis mine, p.5).

In order to support one’s own face, and that of others, a person takes a “line,” which is how you fight for respect; a line is “a pattern of acts by which he expresses his view of the situation and, through this his evaluation of the participants, especially himself” (p.5 ).

Socialized humans use “face” as a social credit score to get favors, get hired, get married, get permission, get invited to things, and get other people to do things for them. (I try to be very independent, so this social credit is worth less to me than to many.) It’s basic to human social life.

Why So Serious?

You can think of a face as the image of self painted with approved social attributes. Your gassy guts or misshapen chin are probably not part of the face (social worth) you establish and fight to preserve in social interaction. You may be great at understanding how fucked up the world is or painting with surprising compositions, but if this isn’t a socially approved trait (seen as worthwhile) to your audience, it doesn’t count. Brutal.

So people often have a different face for different audiences, as I play the silly one with some friends and the tough one at work and the wise one to colleagues (p. 108). Faces are a bit like masks this way; you put one on and make sense to people, but there is quite a bit more to you. But like a mask, the face you put on is probably more real to that audience than any “true self” you believe lies behind the mask.

People can get emotionally attached to a face, so that having a good face that is well established by your own line and that of others is fun or comfortable or satisfying. Losing face is usually painful, though this also depends how much you care about the theoretical imputations of value that are at stake. Usually someone whose face is that they are always positive, beautiful, and interesting will be quite sad when they are caught looking negative, ugly, or boring. This is a typical problem for people as they mature in life and one face becomes impossible to sustain, so they must find another that might be less to their liking.

Faces are the tip of the iceberg of expectations, really (p. 7). If someone’s face is to be calm, balanced, and experienced then they’ll have to defend a whole world of properties that others assume go along with that face. If any one thing that others assume is present, like experience with a particular type of problem, is lacking, this can cast doubt on their face as a whole.

If someone’s face is cut down or harmed in any way, it’s possible they’ll be quite hurt and perhaps lash out at others, reducing their face too. Because of this, everyone knows to be careful not to diminish anyone else’s face, and so we can spend a lot of time walking on eggshells over a bunch of overinflated claims to self-worth. This is typical in the corporate world, where face is closely correlated with position and compensation; therefore stress is too. Those with little face have less to lose.

In some cultures, it’s common to think ill of those who are too attached to their face. They are “thin-skinned” or “too sensitive.” Yet, it’s really quite reasonable that they might need the social credit and be hurt to lose it.

People hope to have their face supported in every consequential interaction, and so will generally cooperate to make this happen, even though it’s often quite difficult because everyone has learned to overstate their value for maximum credit and discussions of reality will probably call their worth into question.

Of course you could use these to childishly express your personal feelings, but it’s more common to use them to support the line of the original poster and help them continue to establish their face.

How to Save Face Together

Goffman reviews a number of common patterns in social interaction that are worth looking at briefly.

The Corrective Process After an Offense

Faces are fragile; sometimes someone scratches one. So sad. When someone loses a bit of face, and an attempt is made to correct for this, there are a few necessary steps.

  1. Identify explicitly that an incident has occurred
  2. Give opportunity for an apology. The offender can claim it was a joke, perhaps even saying that the person they claims to be in making that joke is also not who they really are. (I probably do this a lot because I’d like to be the person who says the thing that’s funny at the expense of someone’s face, but I know they need their face so I shouldn’t piss on their social capital.) The offender can also be self-deprecating about it and suffer damage to their face, saying the incident was due to some failing such as poor memory. (“How could you forget my birthday, aren’t I important to you?!” — “I’m sorry, I’m such an idiot!”) Goffman also points out that you can offer compensation to the injured: If you do accidentally imply that someone is not smart, maybe you can quickly add in how good-natured and fun they are! Finally, it’s common to establish that if the offense had been intentional (heavens, no!), that would have been really terrible; you are restating your fealty to the expressive order that sustains everyone’s face.
  3. Apology in hand, it’s time for the aggrieved to accept the apology and forgive, if they’re into that sort of thing.
  4. The original asshole in question should now thank the aggrieved for excusing them. Gawd!

Making Points: Intentional Attack

Goffman recognizes that attacks can be intentional, but it sounds like he didn’t really study them. I think he’s right that humans spend very little of their time attacking each other’s face, because this will tend to hurt everyone’s. However, you can sometimes pull off an attack to bolster your own face, or for some other reason.

It’s important to remember that Goffman’s excellent theory of face work is not exhaustive of all human interaction, and often there are other priorities, like making sure the crops grow or the fire is really out or the business makes money this year. So sometimes these are reasons for attacks on face.

Goffman also points out that simply by making an attack the speaker can claim credit for good footwork. What is more, a good comeback reverses the credit for footwork! And, Goffman continues, there’s almost never a good comeback to a good comeback! Which is a topic for a whole other book, I hope. Why people don’t have a comeback ready to a comeback.


This is most of face work. “The individual must rely on others to complete the picture of him of which he himself is allowed to paint only certain parts” (p. 84). We provide deference to support the face of another and demonstrate demeanor that entitles us to our own face.

In the timeless Ethiopian proverb, “When the great lord passes, the peasants bow deeply and silently fart.” Even when we don’t want to play the game, we still usually do it.

Goffman offers a number of fun examples of cooperative face work.

When two people accidentally bump into each other on the street, it’s common for both parties to make an automatic apology, “apologies” — “excuse me.” Why? Goffman claims that each person is really saying “you have a right to be mad and the power to punish me but I hope you will not exercise that right.” However, in most cases, neither party really believes that it’s their fault! Even still, they both pay lip service to the expressive order and honor each other’s face! It’s not important that anyone believe anyone else’s line or in the system of faces at all; they simply act on it anyway! (This, by the way, is also the Marxist definition of ideology.)

On self-deprecation: Those who know they have a weak face in some way often acknowledge it immediately, to make it harder to attack. Self-deprecating humor can work the same way. Neutralize attacks on the topic.

Regarding tact: Tact is an agreement to transact through hints. “Hinted communication, then , is deniable communication” (p. 30). This is pretty helpful advice when it comes to flirting and dating, where establishing one’s line as clear interest in the other ironically reduces ones face. (Kafka’s very short story “Rejection” is on just this topic.) Anyway, I find this idea useful: tact is about communication through hints so that unwelcome implications can be readily defused.

Another interesting notion: in conversation, people are expected to take more or less time talking in proportion to their face. I believe this is the essential root of mansplaining in the original essay on the topic in Men Explain Things To Me. The man was claiming much more face, and so out-talked the expert, who happened to be a woman.

Finally, a really amazing notion adapted from Adam Smith! In the effort to help each other establish and secure face (social credit), we try hard to care about other people’s bullshit, and they, in turn, try hard to make their bullshit seem as relevant to us as possible, even when it’s not!

Thus, as Adam Smith argued in his Theory of the Moral Sentiments, the individual must phrase his own concerns and feelings and interests in such a way as to make these maximally usable by the others as a source of appropriate involvement; and this major obligation of the individual qua interactant is balanced by his right to expect that others present will make some effort to stir up their sympathies and place them at his command. These two tendencies, that of the speaker to scale down his expressions and that of the listeners to scale up their interests, each in the light of the other’s capacities and demands, forms the bridge that people bound to one another, allowing them to meet for a moment of talk in a communion of reciprocally sustained involvement. It is this spark, not the more obvious kinds of love, that lights up the world. (emphasis mine, p. 116–117)

This is an excellent rule of thumb in communication: your audience would probably not be paying attention to you at all except to help you feel like someone is willing to listen to you! Attention must be paid. Anyway, we often extend attention in this kind of way, and it’s quite typical that those who use their face most will be most commanding of attention, in large part because audiences don’t want to let them lose face. Nasty.

Goffman extends this further and explains the common problem of “after you” — “no, after you.” (This passage is hard to read; the whole book is.)

Further, the image of himself the individual owes it to others to maintain through his conduct is a kind of justification and compensation for the image of him that others are obliged to express through their deference to him. Each of the two images in fact may act as guarantee and check upon the other. In an interchange that can be found in many cultures, the individual defers to guests to show how welcome they are and how highly he regards them; they in turn decline the offering at least once, showing through their demeanor that they are not presumptuous, immodest, or over-eager to receive favor. Similarly, a man starts to rise for a lady, showing respect for her sex; she interrupts and halts his gesture, showing she is not greedy of her rights in this capacity but is ready to define the situation as one between equals. In general, then, by treating others deferentially one gives them an opportunity to handle the indulgence with good demeanor. Through this differentiation in symbolizing function the world tends to be bathed in better images than anyone deserves, for it is practical to signify great appreciation of others by offering them deferential indulgences, knowing that some of these indulgences will be declined as an expression of good demeanor. (Emphasis mine, p. 83)

Ignoring Face

Among people who are familiar, sometimes folks chill and shirk the face work.

This can be rocky though, and it’s quite reasonable to try to avoid dealing with face by sticking to conversation at hand or avoidance. One approach is to keep pushing forward, despite any seeming damage done to faces, with some effort to rebalance things again. Goffman refers to someone doing this as an “interaction hero” (p. 41) and I have noticed that many very well socialized former members of fraternities and sororities are masters of face work and its avoidance. Alcohol and marijuana can help too (p. 133). Goffman also mentions a lovely concept from his dissertation work that he calls “safe supplies.”

While engaged in the interaction it will be necessary for them to have subjects at hand to talk about that fit the occasion and yet provide content enough to keep the talk going; in other words, safe supplies are needed. (p.120)

I find this idea very relatable, and notice that everyone keeps around pet topics they can return to just in order to be able to sustain conversations and more easily move away from uncomfortable moments in dialogue.

Goffman also notes that go-betweens can be useful for some situations and that it may be best to avoid topics altogether, skipping over uncouth facts and ambiguity (p. 15). I realize now that I have never asked my boss how much he or she makes. This would be very difficult in terms of face work, though it’s really a very relevant fact for me to know when considering compensation.

Many people can avoid face work by being demure, modest, not taking themselves seriously, or being self-deprecating. It also is easier not to talk to people you are already familiar with, and around whom your face might be damaged more easily.

Within conversation, I’ve noticed that a common way to suspend face work (very temporarily) is to introduce a statement with “to be frank,” “to be perfectly honest,” “I must admit,” “I gotta say, ”or “no offense.” With this clause, the speaker prepares the audience for a likely impropriety against the line of someone present or someone well-known by all. And yet, at the same time, by accepting frankness, members of the audience earn some face for themselves as plain dealers. The speaker, of course, has been proven to be exceptionally earnest and willing to forego charades to make (what they consider to be) an important point. A good transaction? Sometimes.

Specialized Face Work Vocabulary

Given this very fun theory of how people act together, Goffman offers interesting new interpretations of some familiar terms.

Snub: an attack on someone’s face on the ground of class.

Dig: an attack on someone’s face on the ground of moral respectability.

Poise: the “capacity to suppress and conceal any tendency to become shamefaced during encounters with others” (p. 9).

Pride: a person “manifests these compunctions primarily from duty to himself” (p. 9).

Honor: a person defends face on account of a duty to “wider social units” and with their support (p. 9–10).

Dignity: a person maintains and defends face with own physical, bodily, and emotional expressions (p. 10).

Folk Beliefs About Character

It may seem that Goffman’s theories are stark raving mad, though I hope my colorful examples have made his case relatable if not wholly overwhelming. However, Goffman is very clear that no one doing face work believes in what they’re doing. The ritualistic behaviors around faces are lip service and mostly performed unconsciously. Instead, when it comes to belief, what people often believe in is character.

Ernest Hemingway with gun.

This is the topic of the last essay in this book, which I found terribly long and hard to relate to. I guess you’re supposed to think Ernest Hemingway and his associates are really cool. Character is still a thing, and it has to do with being tough and bold and confident and, basically, winning more than makes any sense. Anyway, my summary of this chapter is very short.

  1. People believe that a single expression of character is definitive. If you win big at the roulette wheel, you are a lucky man and can boast about it forever.
  2. After a single good expression, no further evidence will be necessary for your character. However, if you are forced to prove character again, then it is at stake and may be lost. Being brave or bold is great and you can ride on that … until you’re challenged again.
  3. Once you fail in some way that proves you have little character, then you have no character permanently. Everyone will always remember that you are a coward.
  4. It’s always possible to establish character out of nowhere all over again. After years of putting up with someone else’s shit, you can get guts and have real character again.

As a result of this set of beliefs, which establishes an entirely different economy of who is worthwhile and how they win this reputation, Goffman explains that people often seek out contests of character in drinking, gambling, risk-taking, and fighting. These activities easily establish one’s awesome character. (This I find unrelatable).

Further, if you don’t enter into these contests voluntarily, you may get dragged into one, one way or the other, and then be caught with no character. So it’s reasonable to seek out the opportunity to prove your character, then try to win some respect.

Voilà, a totally different system for establishing an outward sense of “who you are” and “what you’re really worth.” Did you like the “face” concept? Suddenly he’s offered you a “character” concept to contrast it with.

Typical twitter.


Pretty interesting paradigm. Goffman’s essays are based on research in 1950s and 1960s America and many examples in the footnotes come from Chinese culture or from the Shetland islands of Scotland. His writing on character summarizes life in bohemian subculture, casinos, and bars from that period and feels, to me, very macho and silly. Still, this is one of the most-read essays of the collection, perhaps because it engages with nightlife, betting, and wild behavior in an era when most would not. (Perhaps to save face?)

I wonder how my own idioculture works with face. Is it much more important than I realized? Does my strategy of proving my self with deeds, not words, constitute just another, much slower and less efficient, approach to establishing face? What is the “face” of the assholes that run this world? Does Donald Trump do face work to establish some social value he offers the world? Am I just missing it? Indeed, are we all making incommensurable offers of social worth that mean nothing to most people most of the time? Is it possible to offer a social worth that is valued by more people, or by the right people?

Many things to think about. It was a good book.