The Connection of Culture and Face and the Role of Intercultural Competence

A Case Study of Germany and Japan

Seminar Paper, 2020

33 Pages, Grade: 1,3





1 Introduction

2 Culture and Cultural Difference

3. Politeness and Face

3.1 The Concept of Face

3.2 Face-Threatening Acts (FTAs) and Politeness Strategies

4 Face in the German and Japanese Culture

4.1 Power Distance Index

4.2 Individualism versus Collectivism

4.3 Masculinity versus Femininity

4.4 Uncertainty Avoidance Index

4.5 Long-Term Orientation versus Short-Term Orientation

5 Developing Intercultural Competence

6 Conclusion

7 References

1 Introduction


In today’s globalised world we commonly get in touch with people from different cultural backgrounds. May it be at one’s workplace, on a holiday or interacting with friends – intercultural communication is an important part of most people’s everyday lives. While we might not take our interlocutor’s cultural background into consideration when talking with them, it is important to be aware that our culture affects the way we communicate. One of the various concepts underlying culture is face, a sociological concept which is linked to a person’s prestige (Oetzel & Ting-Toomey 2003). Throughout the years, “face has become firmly established as a key concept not only in pragmatics but also in anthropology, sociolinguistics, communication studies, sociology, psychology, and other related fields” (Haugh, 2010, p. 2073), which makes it a central feature of human communication. Consequently, a lack of background knowledge about our interlocutor’s culture and their concept of face can easily cause intercultural misunderstandings. Janney and Arndt (1992) observed that “a fundamental preoccupation of people around the world is maintaining or protecting their face” (p. 27).


Therefore, it is very important to be aware of other culture’s concepts of face to make sure one acts appropriately in intercultural encounters. This is why this paper is going to analyse the different concepts of face in Germany and Japan in order to point out different sources of miscommunication.


Firstly, the meaning of culture as well as cultural difference will be elaborated on in order to point out how one culture can be differentiated from another. Following this, the concept of face including face-related actions such as saving face, losing face a well as face-threatening acts will be presented. Based on this, the concepts of face in the German and Japanese culture will be analysed according to the five dimensions of culture introduced by Hofstede in 1991, which will demonstrate the impact a person’s culture has on their concept of face. The last chapter is going to deal with the theory of the “Human GPS” in order to point out methods that help foster a person’s intercultural competence. Thus, this paper aims to answer the question to what extent the German and Japanese cultures and concepts of face differ and how these intercultural differences can be overcome in order to prevent intercultural misunderstandings.

2 Culture and Cultural Difference


Culture, according to Edward Burnett Tylor (1871), can be defined as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of a society” (p. 1). Hence, culture consists of all external influences a person is exposed to and is not innate but “learned”. A more recent definition of culture was provided by Scollon, Scollon and Jones (2012) who state that “[…] culture is any of the customs, worldview, language, kinship system, social organization, and other taken-for-granted day-to-day practices of people which set that group apart as a distinctive group” (p. 126). Consequently, it becomes clear that culture consists of cognitive as well as practical aspects that each person, being a member of a certain culture, might not even notice.


However, individuals are not restricted to only one cultural membership but can be members of various cultures and sub-cultures. This is why generalisations of cultures and their customs, worldviews, languages, kinship systems, social organisations and other day-to-day practices (Scollon et al, 2012) are necessary in order to define a culture, yet overgeneralisations should be avoided as one culture can usually not be clearly differentiated from another.


In order to allow differentiations from one culture to another, Geert Hofstede conducted several studies that were based on information taken from studies of a multinational corporation (IBM) in 64 countries. As a result, he created five dimensions that can be used to describe cultural differences. Even though Hofstede added a sixth dimension, which deals with the indulgence and restraint of a culture, in 2013, it has not gained a lot of academic attention and will therefore not be dealt with in this essay.


The first dimension is “Power distance”. This is “the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally” (Hofstede, 1991, p. 28). Thus, the power distance of a culture describes the extent to which a cultural member accepts the power of organisations or institutions, like e.g. workplaces.


Secondly, uncertainty avoidance plays a crucial role when analysing a culture. Cultures with a high uncertainty avoidance tend to establish a large number of rules and regulations as they consider uncertainty a potential threat to their well-being (Hofstede, 2001). Cultures with a low uncertainty avoidance, on the other hand, tend to only implement rules and regulations if they are necessary as they do not fear the occurrence of unexpected events (ibid.). This is why members of a culture with a high uncertainty avoidance are more inclined to directly say what they mean.


Thirdly, he compares individualist and collectivist cultures. In individualistic cultures, the individual is more important than the group. In collectivist cultures, the well-being of the group is considered more important than the individual’s own needs.


Fourthly, Hofstede looks at the Masculinity as well as the Femininity of a culture. Masculine cultures prefer competition and assertiveness whereas feminine cultures tend to cooperate and bond in order to reach a consensus. Consequently, masculine cultures are considered more aggressive in the way they act in conflicts and feminine cultures highlight negotiations as well as human relations.


Finally, some cultures have a long-term and other cultures have a short-term orientation. Cultures that score low on this dimension prefer to keep traditions alive and are not as open to changes within society. On the contrary, cultures that score high make an effort to improve for example educational institutions as they always consider the future development of their nation.


Even though this model has been criticised for offering two extremes as points of comparison (Wierzbicka, 1991) or using the labels “masculinity” and “femininity” (Clyne, 1994), it is still one of the most commonly used models when it comes to differentiating one culture from another.


Another approach was taken by Edward T. Hall (1966) who developed the concepts of high- and low-context cultures. When members of high-context cultures communicate, the interpretation of what has been said highly depends on the given context, i.e. who says what where, when and how. Thus, only few words are needed to convey a message, which is why nonverbal communication is more important than verbal communication in high-context cultures. High-context cultures include several Asian cultures as well as African American and Native American cultures (Bowe et al., 2014, p. 6).


In contrast to this, communication between members of low-context cultures depends less on context but rather on detailed messages. As members of low-context cultures are less likely to share private information with one another, verbal communication is more important than nonverbal communication. Examples of such are North American, German and Scandinavian cultures (Bowe et al., 2014, p.6).


Consequently, it can easily come to misunderstandings between members of high-context and low-context cultures as their characteristics and behaviours differ. Thus, they have different ways of communicating and interpreting messages which can eventually lead to miscommunication. Although Hall’s model has gained a lot of academic attention, it needs to be noted that this approach, like Hofstede’s dimensions, has been criticised as the cultural distance Hall describes has not been academically scrutinised but simply been adopted by researchers (Cardon, 2008), which is why further studies dealing with the accuracy of Hall’s model need to be conducted. In addition to that, no culture is completely high-context or low-context, which is why Hall’s model can only serve as a framework for analysing different cultures.


Scollon et al (2012) moreover state that there are four aspects that define a culture, namely their ideology, socialisation, form of discourse as well as their face systems and social organisation. The ideology of a culture refers to its history and worldview, including their beliefs, values and the role of religion among society. The socialisation can be split into primary and secondary socialisation. The primary socialisation is also referred to as “enculturation” (Scollon et al, 2012, p. 164) as children are taught how to be an adequate member of society. They for example learn how to dress, how to behave towards people who are older, younger, their own age, those of higher or lower status or how to be a “boy” or a “girl” according to their cultural mindset. During the secondary socialisation, members of a culture learn how to behave appropriately in specific groups.


Thus, it becomes clear that each culture varies from one another and that different approaches have been found that help to distinguish them. Consequently, there are different notions of what is acceptable and what is not in different cultural contexts. This is due to cultural scripts as their key idea is “that widely shared and widely known ways of thinking can be identified in terms of the same empirically established universal human concepts, with their universal grammar (Wierzbicka, 2002, p. 1168). Hence, the term cultural scripts refers to “a powerful new technique for articulating cultural norms, values, and practices in terms which are clear, precise, and accessible to cultural insiders and to cultural outsiders alike“ ( Goddard & Wierzbicka 2004, 153). In order to underline the difference between cross-cultural and intercultural communication, Spencer-Oatey (2008) states that


[…] the term ‘cross-cultural’ is used to refer to comparative data – in other words, data obtained independently from different cultural groups; the term ‘intercultural’ is used to refer to interactional data – in other words, data obtained when people from different cultural groups interact with each other. (p. 4)


Face plays a crucial role in intercultural communication, which is emphasised by Bert Brown (1977) who states that


[a]mong the most troublesome kinds of problems that arise in negotiation are the intangible issues related to loss of face. In some instances, protecting against loss of face becomes so central an issue that it swamps the importance of the tangible issues at stake and generates intense conflicts that can impede progress toward agreement and increase substantially the costs of conflict resolution. (p. 275)


Thus, he points out that face is particularly important in intercultural negotiations as the interlocutors often tend to concentrate on not losing face and causing an additional conflict instead of focussing on their negotiation. Consequently, one’s concept of face matters in work environments and can have a major impact on the success of intercultural communication, as the following chapters are going to explain.

3. Politeness and Face


The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines being polite as “having or showing good manners and respect for the feelings of others” (p. 1186). Yet, it also becomes clear that the English, German and Spanish expressions “courtesy”, “Höflichkeit” or “cortesía” cannot be used interchangeably as the previous chapter has shown that every culture is unique and has their own values that are considered polite.


The most commonly known concept of politeness was introduced by Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson (1978) who state that politeness involves showing awareness of other people’s face needs. This concept consists of face, face-threatening acts (FTAs) and politeness strategies, which are going to be elaborate on in the following chapters.


3.1 The Concept of Face


Face is a sociological and, according to Neuliep (2018), a universal concept that can be described as “[a] person’s sense of favorable self-worth or self-image experienced during communicative situations” (p. 437), which is why it can be seen as “an emotional extension of the self-concept” (p. 437). The notion of “face” has Chinese origins and is a literal translation of míanzi and liân (Ho, 1975; Mao, 1994). It first appeared in the English language among the English community in China as “to save one’s face” (Mao, 1994). This expression refers to the ways or strategies the Chinese commonly adopted in order to avoid incurring shame or disgrace (Mao, 1994). According to Goffman (1972), “[t]he term face may be defined as the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact. Face is an image of self-delineated in terms of approved social attributes” (p. 5). Furthermore. Oetzel & Ting-Toomey (2003) expanded this theory stating that there are three types of face. The self-face, which solely concentrates on one’s own image, the other-face, which focuses on other people’s images and the mutual-face, which combines the previous notions and concerns both parties’ images (p. 603). These notions of face are important when conflicts arise in intercultural communication as they require a resolution and people from different cultures concentrate on saving either their own prestige, their interlocutor’s face, or both. This process is affected by cultural, individual and situational variables, as the following chapter is going to demonstrate.


3.2 Face-Threatening Acts (FTAs) and Politeness Strategies


In their work “Politeness: some universals in language usage”, published in 1987, Brown and Levinson worked out a politeness theory in order to describe the strategies that interlocutors use to save the hearer’s face when face-threatening acts might be inevitable or are desired.



Fig. 1. Possible Politeness Strategies (Brown & Levinson, 1987, pp. 69-70 cited in Bowe et al, 2014, p. 56)


According to Brown and Levinson (1987), a person first has to decide whether they want to do or avoid the face-threatening act. If they decide not to do it, nothing further is going to happen. When doing the FTA, a person can either go on-record or off-record. If a person clearly states their intention, their utterance is considered on-record. Accordingly, the avoidance of such clear statements is regarded as off-record as the speaker does not directly convey a message but leaves the interpretation of their message to the hearer. After having stayed on-record in a conversation, one has the option to either convey their message baldly and without redress or with redress. Without redress, in this case, means that the speaker does the act as unambiguously and directly as possible, like e.g. making a demand. As this act could be considered quite impolite, people are only likely to do this FTA if they do not expect the hearer to punish them for it. If a person does an FTA using redress, they aim to rectify damages to face that might have occurred throughout the conversation by making use of politeness strategies, which will be further explained in the following chapter. In general, the speaker tends to use the upper options of handling a face-threatening act (see fig. 1) when there is a low risk of losing face and the lower options when there is a high risk of face loss.


The desire to maintain face as well as the fear of losing it can be seen as universal which transcend all cultural, social, ethnic, economic, sexual, geographical and historical boundaries, even though the concepts themselves may differ from one culture to another (Janney & Arndt, 1992). Based on this concept of saving and losing face, Stella Ting-Toomey developed the face-negotiation theory in 1985, which claims that people in all cultures always try to maintain and negotiate face in all communication situations (Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 2003, p. 600). These acts of communicate behaviour are used to either save or restore their face, which is why Ting-Toomey (1985) named them “facework”.


This is emphasised by research conducted by Ting-Toomey et al. in 1991 who found out that individualists care more about self-face and show self-honouring face behaviour in in competitive situations. Collectivists, on the other hand, see themselves as part of a group and are more likely to put the collectivist group’s needs over their personal goals (Triandis, 1995), which influence a person’s facework during face-threatening situations. These are occasions in which a person has to maintain or uphold face when they have to avoid conflict, protect one’s own or someone other’s prestige or challenge another person. In addition to that, individualists show more independence than collectivists, who focus on involvement strategies and therefore work towards achieving a communal goal (pp. 23-23). Finally, people from individualistic cultures tend to use more verbally direct strategies like direct questioning than those from collectivistic cultures as those prefer to use verbally indirect facework strategies like indirect questioning or using nonverbal cues (pp. 22-23). This comparison emphasises the different face negotiation strategies of individualists and collectivists and makes clear that the culture one grew up in has a major impact on one’s communicative behaviour.


To sum it up, it can be said that the face negotiation of individualistic and collectivistic cultures differs profoundly as individualistic cultures rather use self-face approval-seeking as well as self-oriented face-saving strategies whereas collectivistic cultures concentrate on other-face approval-enhancement interaction and other-oriented face-saving strategies (Ting-Toomey & Kuroai, 1998 cited in Gudykunst & Lee, 2003, pp. 22-23).


The power distance refers to “the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed un-equally” (Hofstede, 1991, p. 28). In low-power distance cultures, there is no hierarchical structure amongst bosses and their employees at workplaces. This means that employees in a low-power distance environment expect their bosses to consult them for important decision makings as it makes them feel like meaningful members of the company (Hofstede, 2001). Moreover, it is easy for those employee approach leaders to discuss issues or to criticise them, which is why Sekkal (2013) describes the ideal boss as a resourceful democrat.


In high-power distance cultures, however, there is a strong hierarchical structure, which means that employees are unable to call out their bosses on mistakes as this would end up in a face loss of the higher-ranked person. Hence, it is harder to approach leaders and subordinates expect to be told what to do and likely to do what they are told. Sekkal (2013) therefore sees a benevolent autocrat as the ideal leader of high-power distance organisations.


Consequently, it becomes clear that hierarchy in low-power distance cultures is rather seen as an obstacle as it means inequality of roles whereas hierarchy in high-power distance cultures means exercising inequality (Sekkal, 2013).


The variables on the individual level are based on the relationship between cultural-level variables and one’s facework during conflict situations (Gudykunst et al., 1996).


Since face-threatening acts can occur at any point during a conversation, one must always be prepared to soften the threatening to face. Consequently, different politeness strategies have been developed in order to cope with a face-threatening act.


Brown and Levinson (1987) differentiate between positive and negative face when it comes to politeness. According to them, positive face describes “the positive consistent self-image or ‘personality’ (crucially including the desire that this self-image be appreciated and approved of) claimed by interactants” (p. 61). Consequently, people using this strategy, which is also known as solidarity, put emphasis on being liked and socially accepted. Possible realisations of solidarity politeness could be seeking agreement and avoiding disagreement, using identity markers of a specific group or raising the common ground with the interlocutor through small talk.


 Negative face, on the other hand, is “the basic claim to territories, personal preserves, rights to non-distraction – i.e. to freedom of action and freedom from imposition” (p. 61). People using negative face as a communicative strategy, which is also known as deference, highly respect people’s freedoms and want to make sure that they do not invade somebody’s personal space. Therefore, being conventionally indirect, not coercing the interlocutor as well as impersonalising them could be possible realisations of deference politeness. If a person decides to do the face-threatening act, this act can either affect the speaker themselves or the hearer. There are various ways to possibly threaten the hearer’s negative face. Firstly, there are acts that predicate some future acts of the hearer like reminders, threats or requests (Brown & Levinson, 1987). Secondly, acts that predicate acts by the speaker toward the hearer and pressure them to accept, reject or incur a debt to the speaker like promises or offers could harm the hearer’s negative face as the hearer is obliged to act in the future even though they might not want to do this as they appreciate their freedom (ibid.). Finally, compliments or expressions of admiration of negative emotion could threaten the hearer’s negative face as they predicate desire of the speaker towards the hearer and hence force the hearer to take some kind of action to protect the object of desire, like e.g. new shows, a new car or a new haircut, which would also impact the hearer’s freedom (ibid.). As all of these examples have in common that they require the hearer to act in a specific way in the future, their desire to be left alone is threatened. Thus, if a speaker wants to do the face-threatening act, they need to do it politely in order to not threaten the hearer’s negative face.


In contrast to this, there are also multiple ways to threaten the hearer’s positive face, i.e. their desire to be liked approved of. There are acts that express the speaker’s negative evaluation of the hearer’s positive face like criticism, complaints or disagreements (ibid.). In addition to that, acts that show that the speaker does not care about the hearer’s positive face could also have a negative impact on the hearer’s need to be liked (ibid.). Examples for this would be mistaken forms of addressing the hearer, mentioning taboo subjects or simply non-cooperation. All of these acts make clear that the speaker does not consider the hearer’s concept of face when doing the face-threatening act.


However, there are also ways to threaten the speaker’s negative face, i.e. their desire to be left alone as for example having to express, give or accept thanks, having to make excuses accepting an offer (ibid.). In contrast to this, face-threatening action can also be used to threaten the speaker’s positive face, like apologies, self-humiliation or an emotional breakdown. As people trying to maintain positive face want to keep a “clean” image upright in order to be approved of, these actions could possibly harm the speaker’s ego when they e.g. admit they did something wrong and hence threaten their positive face.


Therefore, it becomes clear that face-threatening acts are very common in almost everybody’s day-to-day life. In every interaction, either the desire to be liked and approved of or to be left alone are present. This also emphasises the importance of politeness as we need to be sensitive and show respect towards other people’s face needs in order to uphold everybody’s face.


Based on this idea, Brown and Levinson (1987) also point out that during conversations, face-threatening acts, which are mentioned above, can occur which challenge the face of the interlocutor. These can either threaten the speaker’s or the hearer’s face and refer to both the positive or the negative face.


Fialova (2010) states that “if [the interlocutor] is threatened, and tries to maintain his/her face during the social interaction, consequently; each member of the conversation tries to soften the face-threatening act to a minimum” (p. 17). Thus, one has the option to avoid the face-threatening act or to minimise it by choosing an appropriate linguistic strategy (ibid.). With regards to Brown and Levinson’s politeness strategy, Wilamova (2005) claims that “negative politeness enables the speaker to go on-record, but with redress, which means that the speaker makes an effort to minimize the imposition, authoritativeness or directness of his/her utterance” (p. 85). Hence, this person would employ redressive action using positive or negative politeness to stay on-record but to also avoid a loss of face.


Therefore, face can be seen as a mechanism that is rooted in one’s culture and explains the way people act in conflict situations (Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 2003, p. 613).

Excerpt out of 33 pages


The Connection of Culture and Face and the Role of Intercultural Competence
A Case Study of Germany and Japan
University of Kassel
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
connection, culture, face, role, intercultural, competence, case, study, germany, japan
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2020, The Connection of Culture and Face and the Role of Intercultural Competence, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Connection of Culture and Face and the Role of Intercultural Competence

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free