Face-threatening acts are acts which in some way threaten the 'face' or self-esteem of another person. Some people think that all communicative acts are potentially threatening. In fact, the potential does exist to threaten 'face' with every act of communication. Whether the act is actually a threat depends not so much on the intent of the speaker but on the perception of the listener.
Face-threatening Acts include acts other than spoken or written. Very often we can threaten others' face by a look, an expression or some other non-verbal communication. Staring at someone is often perceived as an FTA for no other reason than it can be so unnerving. The starer's motivation is always questioned. The person who is being stared at must wonder, what is wrong? What don't I know about my appearance or even my presence here? A stare can take place from a relatively distant place but the resulting discomfort is akin to standing too close. A child (or adult) at times can be more expressive and rather than hide an FTA, might express himself or herself openly. Sticking one's tongue out at someone else can be done with no attempt to conceal the act. It can be an FTA 'in your face'.
Below is a sample of speech acts that might threaten the other interlocutor with whom we are communicating. Some of these are unavoidable at times so our expertise at being able to protect someone else's 'face' (and our own) while, at the same time, accomplishing our task is a useful skill. Care must be taken when we brush up against others communicatively. We must be aware of how a single word, phrase or even a look can be misinterpreted.
Making a Request
A very common reason for business communication is to make a request. This request can be for information, a product or service, a change in plans, for clarification or even for money. For example, when we ask for information we are putting the other person in a position where they are expected to provide us with something. As is often the case, the response is expected to be done on our terms rather than those of the object of the request. This is a negative face-threatening act and impedes the hearer's future freedom of choice or action.
Denying a request of any kind can be a very face-threatening act. It tells the requester that what may have been a polite request cannot be honored. It conveys the sense that the requestee does not share the concerns of the requester.
By its very nature, disagreeing with someone tells them that we do not share their opinion or values regarding what may be an important issue. The very act of disagreeing expresses the speaker's indifference toward the addressee's positive face.
When we complain either to or about another person, we are voicing what may be perceived as a disagreement with that person's values or judgment. As in disagreeing (above), this act signals that the speaker has a negative assessment of the addressee's face.
When we demand anything we are forcing the other person to respond on our terms and that in itself, threatens the other's time and place. We are forcing them to comply with our needs at the expense of their own.
Offering Contrasting Ideas
By putting forth a differing idea or offering an opposing point of view, we challenge the other person's personal or emotional investment in what could be a deeply-held opinion.
Stating a Preference
By speaking out and voicing what could be not only an opposing point of view but a different call to action, we make it clear that we are prepared to assert ourselves and these assertions could be at the expense of the other interlocutor's face.
When we suggest something we are stating a preference that may differ from that of the other person. Until we get a response from the other person, whatever threat to the other's face that may exist is unknown. The existence of an FTA depends on whether or not they agree with our suggestion.
What could be further from an FTA than offering to help another person? The fact is though that when we offer anything we are saying that, in this situation at least, we have abilities that are superior to the other person's and their acceptance of our offer could signal their acknowledgement of their 'inferiority'. What may seem to us to be a benign act can in fact be perceived as very hostile.
This speech act is akin to offering help (above) in that the message we send may be that we have superior understanding of the situation or that the acceptance of our approach implies an underlying inferiority of the other's position vis a vis our own.
By their very nature, warning (usually verbal) can call attention to the other person's vulnerability in at least the current situation. Warnings must be needed. If warnings are given unnecessarily they are unwanted intrusions into another person's personal liberty.
Finally, you'd think that paying someone a compliment could hardly threaten anyone's face but this act can be a negative face-threatening act that creates what may be unwelcome attention on either the hearer or the hearer's possessions. Paying a compliment to someone ‘may or may not function to increase solidarity between the interactants, to create or strengthen ties of liking or affection or affiliation’ (Coates, 1998: 146). Indeed, it varies situationally since it all depends on whether the compliment is appropriate or not. The context might not be suited to an evaluative move of this type. Kerbrat-Orecchioni (1987: 15) describes a compliment as ‘un cadeau verbal’ and this characterization of the compliment as a verbal gift implies that the addressee is, in a way, put in the complimenter’s debt (Petit, 2006).
Holmes (1988, 448) also showed that addressees can perceive compliments as a face-threatening act because ‘they imply the complimenter envies the addressee in some way or would like something belonging to the addressee’.
There are more Face-threatening Acts, both verbal and non-verbal that we need to be aware of. These few examples though can give the reader an idea of the range and frequency with which FTAs can occur in our daily interaction with other people.
It's important to realize that regardless of the languages spoken, misunderstandings and the resultant FTAs can occur with surprising regularity. These potential land mines happen far too often between people with common languages. For those of us who are learning a language other than our native language, these examples of FTAs show that there are other obstacles to clear in our pursuit of unambiguous (and safe) communication.
The following page will summarize some strategies and formulaic expressions that can be used to mitigate FTAs.
Last Updated: April 28, 2010