The East-West Divide in Face: A Cross-cultural Study of the Communicative Act of Cancellation of an Obligation

Xia Zhang

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperResearchpeer-review


In linguistic pragmatics the discussions on face have centred on two key debates: (1) its universality vs. cultural-specificity of face; (2) face as identity (Spencer-Oatey, 2013) vs. face as an interpersonal interactional construed phenomenon (Arundale, 2013). The paper contributes to these debates by discussing new and complex cross-cultural empirical data.
In the paper I investigate this particular act role-enacted by Chinese, Danish and British business professionals in their English as a lingua franca and in their mother tongues in social situations involving the imperative frame of cancellation of an obligation (Durst-Andersen, 1995). The communicative act of cancellation of an obligation presupposes a request from the Speaker’s side and a commissive from the Hearer’s side as its meta-interactional context for establishing an obligation.
The data analysis shows cross-cultural differences in the face-work strategies used in the respective mother tongues and the transfer of cultural norms to the ELFs, especially in terms of the strategic use of apologies and gratitude expressions. These different face-work strategies indicate significant differences in face perceptions, especially in terms of the perception of self and the interactional principle between self and others in connection with the notion of obligation in the relevant linguistic community. Drawing on insights on face from sociology and psychology, the paper also illustrates the differences in the role face plays in the meta-interactional process of establishing an obligation and cancelling an obligation. The paper concludes by arguing that the static aspect of face concerning the dominant values of a society is cultural-specific, while the dynamic aspect of face concerning the dominant role it plays in interpersonal interaction is universal.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2017
Publication statusPublished - 2017
EventiMean5 Conference 2017: Language and Change - Bristol, United Kingdom
Duration: 6 Apr 20179 Apr 2017
Conference number: 5


ConferenceiMean5 Conference 2017
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address

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