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Identity is the manifestation of values, beliefs, thoughts, feelings, cultural norms and
expectations, personal perceptions, societal memberships, and relationships (Littlejohn & Foss,
2008). People are emotionally attached to their face (Metts and Cupach, 2008). According to
Goffman (1967) face is defined as the identity that an individual claims during interaction.
Although organic and unique to each individual, one’s identity is socially constructed (Littlejohn
& Foss, 2008). Identity theorists, such as Hecht, describe identity as a “joining point between
the individual and the society, and communication is the link that allows this intersection to
occur,” (Littlejohn & Foss, 2008, p. 89). Discourse also plays a role in the social construction of
one’s identity.
Discourse establishes an identity, changes it, and sustains it. A person’s identity and role
dictate an individual’s discourse and behavior (Littlejohn & Foss, 2008). Although an identity is
stable and endures, it is also dynamic. People employ identity anchors, or discursive
descriptions, to explain to themselves and others their actual, perceived, and idyllic self (LutgenSandvik & Sypher, 2009). Moreover, individuals invest an inordinate amount of effort into
constructing, projecting, and protecting their identities, specifically the actual, perceived, or
projected public images of themselves (Goffman, 1967; Brown & Levinson, 1987). The
establishment and maintenance of identity compromises cognitive, affective, and behavioral
dimensions. Goffman’s (1967) facework theory and Brown and Levinson’s (1987) politeness
theory, which extends Goffman’s work, highlight the effort individuals invest in the
establishment and maintenance of image or face. Both facework and politeness play a role in the
social construction of identity.
Below, facework (Goffman, 1967) and politeness (Brown & Levinson, 1987) will be
Goffman (1967) identified face as a socially constructed, public identity which
individuals protect. Face theory informs as to how and why individuals construct and maintain
their images. Goffman (1967), a sociologist who studied social interaction and the coordination
thereof, defined face as “the positive social value a person effectively clams for himself.”
Simply put a person’s face is his or her public image. Metaphorically, Goffman (1967)
described his concepts as traffic rules which provide order to behavior and interaction.
Additionally, he used the term “drama” to illustrate the ideals of facework which includes actors
enacting their roles; performing within scenes, or contexts; and delivering their lines. Goffman
wrote that “Our face is a type of performance, in that we present an image of our ‘self’ through
our appearance, our messages, and our actions that we believe will give the impression that we
are competent and worthy social interactants,” (Metts & Cupach, 2008, p. 206). Metts and
Cupach (2008) wrote individuals either consciously or unconsciously perform their roles to
create a specific impression, “an idealized self that fits appropriately into the requirements of the
context,” (p. 205).
Additionally, as with every performance, the others with whom individuals interact are
the audience who also participate in the routine. To further the theatrical metaphor, Goffman
identified a front region and a back region. A performance occurs in the front region and
includes the context or setting as well as the appearance and mannerisms of the performer. The
back region may be compared to a green room where actors prepare for their performances.
Facework theory allows researchers to understand how and why people construct their
public images as well as the strategies individuals employ to either maintain or restore their own
or another’s face. “When face is accepted and validated, people feel good; when it is called into
question, they feel bad. Thus, the general rules of ‘self-respect’ and ‘considerateness’ lead us to
act in ways that maintain our own face and to cooperate in the maintenance of others,” (Metts &
Cupach, 2008, p. 206). If a face threatening situation occurs interactants may lose face. Goffman
identified two types of loosing face. The first in being in “wrong face”, the second is being “out
of face.” An individual may be in wrong face when information is disclosed or behavior enacted
that is incongruent with a person’s projected public image. Being out of face occurs when an
individual cannot maintain an image that is either expected or required in a given situation.
People engage in facework and communicate and behave in ways to either avoid face dissonance
or restore their public image.
Facework includes myriad strategies, including verbal and nonverbal messages. Excuses,
justifications, remediation, humor, avoidance, and aggressive actions may be incorporated into
face-saving methods as well (Metts and Cupach, 2008). Face is socially constructed; therefore,
the strategy employed will be dictated by the context. These potential situations of face
dissonance propel individuals to communicate and behave in ways that do not threaten their
public image. However, if these situations do occur people engage in facework. Metts and
Cupach (2008) referenced the work of Cavanagh, Dobash, Dobash, & Lewis (2001) who studied
the remedial face-work of men who behaved violently toward their significant female others.
Several of the strategies these perpetrators employed were denial, shifting blame, minimization,
and reduced competence. Additionally some of the men apologies, cried, offered gifts, or vowed
not to repeat the behavior.
Brown and Levinson (1987) extended Goffman’s facework theory, positing that
politeness is one way people protect and maintain their face as well as that of others. This
concept will be further explicated below.
Politeness can be used to predict patterns and interpretations of language use in specific
contexts (Goldsmith, 2008). Additionally, politeness informs how and why messages are created
and interpreted. Politeness creates an impression of the speaker, the hearer, the action and the
relationship, according to Metts and Cupach (20098). “Effective communication entails
choosing the right amount of politeness for the situation,” (Goldsmith, p. 260). Not employing
enough politeness can be interpreted as being rude. Being too polite may compromise
understanding of a person’s message or behavior. According to Goldsmith, Brown and Levinson
(1987) face is defined as “the public self-image that every member wants to claim…” (p. 256).
Their assumptions are congruent with Goffman, (1967) that face is desired, socially constructed;
public; and claimed. Therefore, face can be lost, saved, or sustained during interactions.
In the abstraction of Goffman’s original theory, Brown and Levinson identify both
positive and negative face. Positive face centers around a person’s desire to be approved of and
accepted by those with whom he or she is interacting. Negative face refers to an individual’s
desire to be autonomous and free from restraint. Individuals find themselves in positions where
their identity is challenged; this is referred to as a face threat. Specifically, face-threatening
actions (FTA) are verbal or nonverbal communiqués or behaviors which potentially or actually
compromise a person’s public image. According to politeness theory’s original scholars, five
strategies are possible in the wake of FTAs.
The first is “bald on record”, which allows an interactant to honestly act or react, without
tact or diplomacy. Positive face redress, is the second politeness approach; it capitalizes on any
existing relationship and commonalities between the interactants. Negative face redress employs
respect to mitigate face threats. The fourth approach is referred to as between the lines in that it
implies a verbal or nonverbal face-saving strategy. Finally, not making any statement in light of
an FTA is the fifth approach.
The strategy ultimately employed is dictated by the interactive context. This situational
determinant is defined by three features: power, distance, and rank. Power relates to a relational
hierarchy in which one can impose control or marginalization on another. Distance refers to the
closeness and similarity of the interactants. Rank is culturally defined and refers to actual or
perceived risk involved in enacting an FTA. The aggregate of these factors is known as the
weight, or degree of face threat. A higher degree of threat elicits an more polite approach,
whereas a situation which includes less weight prompts a less polite strategy.
A person’s perceived or projected image will dictate his or her discursive behaviors
regarding specific issues (Goffman, 1967; Brown & Levinson, 1987). At the core of facework
and politeness theories are a person’s identity and the innate need and desire to be appreciated
and honored. Individuals use language and situational and relational contexts to influence
impressions; these employments are predicated on saving both an individual’s and interlocutor’s
face. These discourse/interaction-centered theories of communication are applicable in the study
of the muted male voice of the detached undergraduate relative to sexual assault issues.
Facework and politeness theories can guide the examination of this phenomenon. These
theoretical frameworks allow researchers to understand how and why people create certain
messages and enact certain behaviors.
Detached Muted Males
Detached male undergraduates will most likely claim a particular face, which may be
anchored in some degree of bravado and masculinity. Consistent with identity theorists,
undergraduate males want to be respected, honored, appreciated, and respected. Further, muted
males may deliberately enact behaviors and dialogue congruent with their perceived, actual, or
projected images. Moreover, it is possible that detached men do not believe they have any
significant insight regarding the overarching issue of sexual assault; that sexual assault is
relevant; that they could be victims, whether actual or as part of a third-person effect; or that they
have any frame of reference regarding sexual assault to manage their discourse and behaviors
successfully (Doughtery, 2009). Perhaps detached muted males do see themselves as informed
individuals who could extend education, prevention, and intervention efforts, but they do not
want to engage in associated efforts because they want to avoid communicating or behaving in
ways that could potentially jeopardized their actual or stereotypical identities. In this case,
muted males most likely experience dialectical tension. They want to contribute in significant
ways to informing the issue but are not cognizant of the most effective way to do so. Facework
and politeness strategies can be used to explore disclosure and dialogic practices of detached
males, specifically the nature of what is said about sexual assault and the manner in which it is
said. Additionally, the strategy employed to mitigate face threats can directly or indirectly
impact communication effectiveness (Goldsmith, 2008).
Future Research
In her essay regarding sexual harassment, Dougherty (2009) referenced the benefits of
having change agents, which may include detached males who are not engaging in the relative
dialogue. Establishing a safe dialogic environment that enrolls the detached muted male voice
may be beneficial in creating realistic awareness of sexual assault among undergraduates. The
context of exchanges involving detached muted males will be crucial as context is the
environment in which discourse is situated. Further, context is constitutive, co-constructed and
influenced by status and power (Fairhurst, 2001; Marx, 1967; Weber, 1978), and time, space, and
location (Hopson, M., personal communication, January 19, 2010).
The leadership of George Mason University Sexual Assault Services (SAS) may want to
conduct focus groups which include male undergraduates to gain insight regarding how to
efficiently and effectively develop programs for muted males so that they become confident,
comfortable, and willing to work toward enhancing the effectiveness of sexual assault education,
prevention, and intervention programs. The results of a relative study could include an
interpretive, testimonial performance, much like The Vagina Monologues. Such a performance
could privilege the detached muted male perspective by incorporating narratives which
characterize structure, power, sociopolitical environment, hegemony, discourse typologies,
codes, functions of language, meaning, context, rules, norms, similarities, roles, dialectics,
stereotypes, bullying, emotional tyranny, incivility, metaphor, and cultures.
Interpretive vignettes based in the critical perspective could be presented by males on
behalf of males from myriad cultures and experiences to increase the understanding and
awareness of the muted male perspective. Monologues and dialogues through storytelling can
construct meanings and help the males the actors represent as well as audience members make
sense of the experiences described (Gephart, 1992; Boje, 1991 as cited in Mumby, 2001) while at
the same times providing muted males a mechanism that maintains the integrity of their face.
Through myriad discourse typologies – including humor, sarcasm, or everyday talk – a
complementary version of The Vagina Monologues situated from the muted-male perspective
could be used to educate and raise awareness of this infrequently considered perspective. The
performance could literally and figuratively extend Goffman’s dramaturgical metaphor.
Additionally, the performance could feature and be enacted by male change agents: boyfriends,
husbands, or significant others of survivors; law enforcement officials; medical professionals;
counselors; gay, bisexual, or transgender individuals; and fathers, grandfathers, or uncles.
Furthermore, providing a production situated in the detached male voice may increase
attendance among male students; one evening performance of The Vagina Monologues included
only a few male theater patrons. Further, as with The Vagina Monologues, the naming of the
production would contribute to its overarching effectiveness; one recommendation is The Penis
Perspective. This initiative would not only raise awareness but (hopefully) ultimately elicit
productive and appropriate responses and activism among the members of the male population of
the student body.
On a college campus, attendance at a performance could be mandatory for COMM 100
and COMM 101 classes as well as graduate and undergraduate students majoring in theater,
leadership, international relations, communication, and health-related disciplines. Additionally,
it could provide a unique, dynamic alternative to mandatory sexual harassment training for
faculty and staff. The motivation of the effort is multi-fold: to empower the detached mutedmale perspective and might expand the reach and increase education and understanding among
multiple SAS target audiences.
Dougherty (2009) outlined consequences of sexual harassment and possible steps to take
to raise awareness and ultimately prevent it. Based on the in-class discussion with Connie
Kirkland, SAS director, (personal communication, February 1, 2010) sexual assaults involving
men are under-reported and traditionally there are few men stakeholders involved in SAS.
Dougherty suggested that involving males “may be part of the solution”. Creating a civil,
harmonious environment that reinforces mutual respect and protects the identity, image, and
public face of all parties will be instrumental to the success of sexual assault educational,
prevention, and intervention initiatives which are inclusive of detached muted-male voices. The
application of facework and politeness theories can inform SAS as to how to foster dialogue
among males on campus so they will become motivated to become valuable allies in
accomplishing the SAS education, prevention and intervention missions.
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