Towards an Evolutionary and Naturalistic Approach to the Pragmatic Concept of Face

Monika Pleyer, Michael Pleyer and Sławomir Wacewicz

Starting with Goffman (1967), face has come to be seen as a contested topic in pragmatics. In this paper, we adopt an interdisciplinary, naturalistic, and evolutionary perspective on the pragmatic concept of face. In doing so, our discussion centres around the question why face is so valuable for humans, that is, it focusses on the function of face in human interactions. To investigate this, we ask what the component parts of face are and to which degree these are shared with other primates. In doing so, we integrate face with relevant related concepts from other disciplines, and adopt an evolutionary perspective which has the potential of shedding light on the evolution and functions of face in human interaction. Specifically, we propose a three-pronged analysis of face:
First, we break down face into its lower-level components. Previous pragmatics research suggests that face is closely related to concepts such as reputation (e.g. O’Driscoll 1996), self-image, and identity (e.g. Sifianou 2011).
In cognitive terms, face is reliant on social cognition, including the ability to understand that face is constituted intersubjectively. This is in line with Goffman’s (1967) view, where face is understood as co-constituted in interactions (Arundale 2009) and may be used for rapport management (Spencer-Oatey 2008). We thus see face as concerned with managing self and other (e.g. Ting-Toomey 2005). In this understanding of face, it can be conceptualised as a tool for reputation management in cost-benefit analyses of politeness (Leech 1983; Mühlenbernd et al. 2020: see also Werkhofer 1992).
Second, we survey theoretical concepts from disciplines outside of pragmatics, such as primatology, behavioural economics, and social psychology, to arrive at an understanding of the components of face that is grounded in interdisciplinary research. For example, the concept of reputation is not only used in pragmatics, but is also highly relevant in a number of other disciplines, including research focussing on the evolution of cooperation in social groups (e.g. Tennie et al. 2010).
This brings us to our third and final point, the comparison of which aspects of face are shared with non-human primates and other animals, which allows for an investigation of the evolutionary foundations and functions of face as found in human interactions. Whereas reputation has been described as a “universal currency for human social interactions” (Milinski 2016), concepts such as reputation formation (Herrmann et al. 2013), reputation management (Engelmann et al. 2012), social eavesdropping (Earley 2010), image scoring (Russel et al. 2008), and, more broadly speaking, social evaluation (Abdai & Miklòsi 2016) are relevant to the study of the interactions of many social species (Smith & Harper 2003). As such, many animal behaviours can be mapped on aspects of existing concepts of face (e.g. Davidson 1992; Lim & Bowers 1991).
The approach adopted here indicates that many components of face seem to be shared with other highly social species, especially other primates. However, the explicit management and negotiation of face seems to be uniquely expressed in human interaction, and especially so through the use of language.


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