Does ʻFaceʼ Impact On Negotiation?

Is saving ‘face’ as important for negotiators in Western cultures as it is for those in the East?

While ‘face’, or the need for interpersonal recognition, may be more overtly recognized in the East, it is also an important component impacting on negotiation outcomes in the West.

Even though the other side’s proposal is acceptable, we sometimes see negotiators holding unnecessarily strongly to a position because they want to avoid the appearance as well as the feeling of backing down.

Papers released from the 1962 Cuban missile crisis suggest the negotiation came down to one question. How could Kennedy and Khrushchev retreat to more peaceful positions while retaining both personal and national honour in relation to each other and to the international arena?

In Kennedy’s memoirs he wrote that he learned a key lesson: ‘don’t humiliate your opponent’. This included the importance of giving ‘face’ to Kruschev personally AND giving ‘face’ to the Russian people. This piece of history could be an important message for USA President Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.

ʻFaceʼ includes both Saving Face and Giving Face

Interesting research suggests for collectivist cultures (eg. mainland Chinese) that the ‘face’ of the group is more important than the ‘face’ of any individual in that group. Contrast this to individualist cultures (eg. North American, Western European) where the ‘face’ of the individual is generally more important than that of the group.

For Westerners, perhaps a close parallel is the feeling you have when your national or regional sporting team badly loses a game it was considered sure to win. If sport is not your thing, consider a group with whom you feel a strong identification; what situation could lead to a feeling of loss of ‘face’ for you?

So, in such situations, what can be done? Here are some suggestions.

Tips for Managing ʻFaceʼ in Negotiation

Cross-cultural negotiation can be a potential minefield. While it requires the same skills to negotiate in your own backyard, it also requires a keen awareness of the different customs and diversity of cultural experience of opposing negotiators. Consider the following…

  1. Enter the mindset and cultural context of your counter-party. This is always the most important step towards securing your desired outcome. To do this effectively requires a good deal of preparation. What do you NOT currently understand about the other party’s cultural context?
  2. Appreciate that ‘face’ is a major motivator to action. Conflict occurs when individuals or groups have their ‘face’ threatened, and is reduced when their ‘face’ is safe. How can your approach be one that will be perceived as securing and enhancing ‘face’ for all parties? One way is to ask the other party for their views and build on them rather than trying to sell them your views. Another way is to offer them a choice between several options.
  3. Consider the relative importance of ‘face’ at the group and at the individual levels. Which is more likely to motivate the behavior of your immediate counter-party? How will their stakeholders react and influence behaviors?
  4. Think more deeply about how each society sees and evaluates ‘face’ based on their cultural norms and values. Note the distinction between losing ‘face’ and receiving ‘face’.
  5.  Like Kennedy and Kruschev, where national identity is an aspect of the negotiation, consider how you can publically honor and give ‘face’ to the other side AND to the group they represent. This requires having particular regard to its VISIBILITY at the personal, organizational, national and international levels. While it may cost you little to give, you may receive a lot in return. Surprising!

To discuss this article in more depth and explore developing your negotiation capabilities, please contact us via email or call +612 9299 9688.

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ENS Team