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.