Cross-Cultural Communication

What difficulties in communication do cross-cultural workers face? How can these best be addressed in various settings?

Negotiating Conflict: A Case Study Utilizing Face-Negotiation Theory in a Senegalese Context

Brett D. Molter is a PhD candidate in the Cook School of Intercultural Studies at Biola University. He has been living in Senegal, west Africa for the past 8 years, teaching in international school settings and actively engaging with the surrounding communities.

Brett D. Molter is a PhD candidate in the Cook School of Intercultural Studies at Biola University. He has been living in Senegal, west Africa for the past 8 years, teaching in international school settings and actively engaging with the surrounding communities.

WCIU Journal: Cross-Cultural Communications Topic

August 19, 2019

by Brett Molter

Several years ago, a sojourner to West Africa found himself in the precarious position of having to register his vehicle with the local authorities. Due to his limited knowledge of the language and culture, a man, native to the country, was given to him to help navigate the entire process. During their discussions with the local vehicle-registering agency, they discovered that the vehicle was going to have to be painted a different color in order for them to issue a new registration. In utter surprise, the sojourner was told by the man assisting him in the process that he must now go back into the department office alone and demand that they (local authorities) allow his vehicle to remain its original color. This caused much frustration to the sojourner, since not only was he new to the culture and thus was yet not capable of navigating it successfully, but he knew enough to recognize that the African man helping him was more than likely behaving this way in order to save-face and thus avoid any potential conflict that might arise.

Conflict has always been part of the cultural milieu of societies across the globe. Navigating conflict in light of varying intercultural communication experiences is a learned skill and looks very different depending upon the context in which it is manifested. A growing body of research has emerged concerning how individuals manage and negotiate conflict. For example, one such focus of research has been the study of conflict styles in collectivist and individualist cultures (Cai & Fink 2002). Other research has used face-negotiation theory to help explain interpersonal conflicts (Oetzel, Mears, Myers & Lara 2003). Even more important to intercultural communication, arguably, is the literature concerning face-negotiation in the context of cross-cultural conflicts. Gudykunst (2005) states that while facework is a universal phenomenon, how people interpret its meaning varies from one culture to another. For example, facework situated in American culture will look different than facework in Senegalese culture. But how is the concept of face negotiated in situations of conflict in a Senegalese context?

The purpose of this case study is to unpack and evaluate a specific conflict negotiation situation between a cross-cultural worker and several Senegalese men, while utilizing Face-Negotiation Theory to explain why this specific intercultural interaction may have occurred and what might have contributed to its conflict. Furthermore, this study will offer some implications of Face-Negotiation Theory specific to current cross-cultural workers in Senegal. Lastly, it will endeavor to suggest how Face-Negotiation Theory, in principle, can be applied globally in an attempt to bring about positive intercultural communication experiences that will heighten one’s cultural awareness and sensitivity as he aims to connect with those from different cultures.

Conflict Face-Negotiated Theory

In order to fully grasp the meaning behind Conflict Face-Negotiation Theory, one must acknowledge the presence of cultural differences and their influences on everyday interactions. In fact, culture affects communication, and vice versa (Gudykunst 2005).  Furthermore, conflict is often a result of cultural differences existing between two people or groups of people. Gudykunst (2005) says that conflict is full of emotion and threatens the face of both parties involved. It involves differences that are incompatible between the parties that often results in opposition (Rose, Suppiah, Waitchalla, Uli & Othman 2006). Therefore, since there are cultural differences between people groups, which contribute to face-threatening conflict phenomena, then there must be a way to negotiate such an experience, hence, the development of Conflict Face-Negotiated Theory.

Conflict Face-Negotiated Theory deals with either face-losing or face-saving behaviors, which help explain a desired social self-image in a relational setting (Ting-Toomey 2007). In other words, if one is treated in such a way that he feels like his self-identity is being challenged or threatened or even disregarded, then he is losing face. On the contrary, if one’s self identity is not being threatened in any way, then he is saving self-face. However, it is during those times of repeated face-loss and threat that conflict can appear, thus requiring a negotiation process that will manage the situation and ultimately restore face to those involved. 

Conflict Face-Negotiation Theory is concerned with three areas: (1) self-face; (2) other-face; and (3) mutual-face. Self-face is concerned with one’s own image, while other-face is concerned with another’s face. Mutual-face, is concerned with the images of both parties (Oetzel, Ting-Toomey, Masumoto, Yokochi, Pan, Takai & Wilcox 2001). All of these areas can be utilized in order to manage conflict in varying contexts. For example, Conflict Face-Negotiation Theory helps manage conflict in both individualist and collectivist cultures. In an individualist society such as the United States or Australia, the goals, needs, and rights of the individual are valued above the goals, needs, and rights of the group. Therefore, Conflict Face-Negotiated Theory reveals that individualist societies such as the U.S. tend to be more confrontational than collectivist societies such as China, Korea, or Japan, in their attempt to manage conflict (Cai & Fink 2002). Nevertheless, individualist and collectivist cultures alike experience situations of conflict, and are in need of restoring honor to face in the midst of such trying situations.

One example from the recent literature concerning facework observed how Chinese culture, a collectivist society influenced by Confucianism through its teachings on the importance of interpersonal relationships, negotiates conflict in a role-play situation involving a Chinese father and his son. (Ulijn, Rutkowski, Kumar & Zhu 2005). The results of this study showed that culture carries certain social values (in this study, those values were found in Chinese Confucianism), which influence the emotions in the communicative process. In addition to social values, relationships within culture (i.e. father and son) influence the manner by which conflict can be negotiated, thus avoiding loss of face. Concerning the Chinese father and his son, their familial relationship led them to preserve and honor each other’s face during situations of conflict.

Another example of Conflict Face-Negotiation Theory from the recent literature focuses on conflict situations and response styles of the Karamoja tribe of Uganda. Through careful observation, researchers concluded that much of the conflict within this Ugandan tribe was often provoked by an unequal distribution of desired goods such as food (Jabs 2005). In fact, Jabs (2005) tells of one such incident involving a woman and her mother-in-law. To summarize the incident, the mother-in-law was not given any food from her son and daughter-in-law, and because she misunderstood her daughter-in-law’s message that there was no food to give, the mother-in-law began throwing insults at her, which led to a physical fight between them. Following the incident, the mother-in-law asked for forgiveness for not understanding, and they both were reconciled to each other. This illustrates how something so basic, yet essential, like the distribution of food in a specific cultural context, can result in situations of conflict.

According to researchers, these two Ugandan women were displaying consistent behaviors found in Ugandan culture concerning negotiating conflict. However, this study did uncover a very interesting phenomenon in Ugandan culture, which is contrary to those response styles predicted by face-negotiation theory in a collectivist society, and that was the aggressive and dominating behaviors displayed by Ugandans involved in conflict (Jabs 2005). Nevertheless, current research involving conflict face-negotiated theory amongst collectivist cultures tends to be largely concerned with the restoration of the other’s face rather than aggressive and dominating behaviors that damage the other’s face. The following sections of this article seek to explain and utilize conflict face-negotiated theory in a Senegalese context.

Brief Explanation of Senegalese Context

Senegal is a small, sub-Saharan country located on the west coast of Africa. Approximately 75% of Senegalese are agriculturalists, while the remaining population engages in mining and the cultivation of nuts (U.S. Department of State: Diplomacy in Action 2012). While more than half of the Senegalese inhabit the rural areas of Senegal, the remaining Senegalese, as well as French and Lebanese, live in the main cities. Like other African countries, Senegal is a highly collectivist culture, and its values can be seen in their living arrangements within rural settings. Typical houses are either huts made of interwoven sticks tied together or structures made of concrete blocks constructed with cement and a corrugated aluminum roof. Several family units live together on a “compound” often separated from other similarly structured communities by a block or stick fence. These living arrangements provide financial and social support for the entire community, and help to maintain harmony within relationships (U.S. Department of State: Diplomacy in Action 2012). Interestingly enough, the Senegalese use the term terranga (a Wolof word which translated into English means “hospitality”) to describe the way they interact with fellow Senegalese as well as sojourners to their country.

Members of Senegalese culture form communities where collectivist values are expressed through the discipline of children and through ways in which familial relationships are addressed. For example, any adult (or older sibling) is completely free to discipline a child if the need should arise. Furthermore, children are to respect and obey all adults, even if there is no familial relationship between them. Concerning the addressing of one another in a collectivist community, aunts and uncles are referred to as parents, just as cousins can be referred to as brothers or sisters (U.S. Department of State: Diplomacy in Action 2012).  The Senegalese do not make distinctions in the way they address members of their extended family even though they might be aware of the “true” relationship that exists between them and others. Ultimately, the Senegalese people value relationships, community, and harmony, much like other collectivist, face-saving cultures. However, conflicts do occur within Senegalese culture on a regular basis, increasing one’s need to navigate face-negotiated theory in order to arrive at some sort of resolution. In the following case study, conflict face-negotiated theory will be utilized in order to explain why a specific intercultural interaction may have occurred and what might have contributed to the conflict.

A Case of Intercultural Conflict between an American and Four Senegalese

This case study took place in an international school located in the country of Senegal. The demographics of the student population represented approximately 20 different countries and consisted of approximately 30 staff members who came from all over the world to teach and work in this particular school setting. In addition to these staff members were 20 Senegalese or national staff members who were employed either to cook for the school, clean for the school, or guard the school premises. In many ways, the school was a sub-culture of the larger Senegalese context because of its location as well as its ethnic diversity. Such diversity was the breeding ground for many challenges to intercultural communication—challenges that often evolved into intercultural conflict like an incident that occurred between the director and several of the national guards working at the school.

The school had just recently encountered many food items that had gone missing out of the freezers located in the kitchen and dining room areas. When confronted with this predicament by the director, the international staff as well as the Senegalese staff denied knowing anything about the incident. Interestingly enough, though, at the time when the fish went missing, only a few international staff were on the school premises. Because of this fact, the director presumed that it was highly unlikely that the few international staff present at the time used up a whole bag of 30 fish within a two-day period or so. However, there was no evidence that any of the Senegalese staff working at the school took the fish either. So, although the incident did not go unnoticed, there was really nothing productive to do in the way of reconciling the loss, except to count the loss and move on. Therefore, life at the school carried on like it always had, regardless of the unsolved mystery of the missing fish.

Approximately six months following the incident of the missing fish, another incident concerning missing food in the kitchen was reported to the director by a few international staff members. A staff member had left some food items out on a table in the kitchen late one afternoon. When she returned early the next morning to pick them up, the food items were gone. How could this have happened, one might ponder, since the Senegalese guards were on duty guarding the school premises 24 hours a day?  After asking the international staff if they had any information regarding the lost items, it was determined that not one of the them knew anything about the incident. Therefore, the director felt the need to go a step further in searching for answers to this escalating problem of missing food, since this was not in fact the first incident of its kind. Therefore, he decided to organize a meeting with four of the guards who were on duty the evening when the most recent food items went missing. Moreover, in this meeting, the director had hoped to uncover information that might lead to an explanation concerning why food items were continuing to disappear from the kitchen.

The four guards called into the meeting arrived at the school office early one morning, greeted the director and proceeded to sit down in his office. The director began by briefly explaining his reasoning behind scheduling a private meeting with them. He stated that there had been a full bag of frozen fish in one of the freezers in the kitchen. Yet, the very next day, only two out of thirty were left. He also added that he had spoken with the few international staff members present at that time to see whether or not they bought any of the fish in the bag. None of them present during that holiday time admitted to taking any of the fish. The director then discussed the food items that had recently disappeared from the kitchen table one evening while the guards were on duty. However, he did not get far into his discussion before noticing a complete change in the guards’ demeanor.

The four guards abruptly spoke out in anger and frustration, claiming that the director was being accusatory of them. They argued that because the kitchen was not locked up that particular evening, and because this was the duty of the male international staff (they took turns locking up the kitchen each night), they (the guards) should not be held responsible for anything that might have disappeared from the kitchen that night. Hearing this information about the unlocked kitchen door for the first time, the director quickly acknowledged negligence on the part of his male international staff. However, regardless of this mistake, the director (communicating from a low-context, individualistic culture as largely represented by the United States) explained that failure to lock the kitchen door did not excuse them of their duty to guard and protect the school campus. Furthermore, the director added that one of the guard’s responsibilities in the evening is to check on the kitchen to make sure that if there were people using the facility, it was locked thereafter. However, the lack of evidence of what actually took place that evening unfortunately could not be corroborated by anyone.

After communicating in circles concerning the international staff’s responsibility to lock the kitchen doors and the guard’s responsibility to protect the school, no agreement could be made regarding who was ultimately negligent in this incident. The guards remained steadfast in their belief that because the kitchen was left unlocked, the missing food items were without a doubt the responsibility of the male international staff. Even when the director tried to paint a similar scenario regarding things being taken from the school campus via the entrance gate to the campus, the guards refused to agree that it was the same type of circumstance. Their argument was that they were solely responsible for locking and unlocking the front entrance gate, so if something did leave the premises without them knowing it, then it would indeed be their responsibility. (An incident like this involving a Senegalese painter taking something from the school campus that did not belong to him did occur that same year, leaving the guard on duty responsible for the theft.) However, according to their reasoning, they were not obligated to lock the kitchen doors since it should have already been done by the male international staff.

Towards the end of the meeting, the guards proceeded to tell the director how long they had been working as employees of the school (they had been there much longer than the director at that time). They stated that they had never been treated like this before. They told of an incident when an international staff member accused a Senegalese woman, who was responsible for cleaning his home, of taking a lot of money he had placed on the table inside his home. A few days later though, this staff member realized that he had actually moved the money to a safer spot in the house and thus had to apologize to his house cleaner for the false accusation. The guard who shared this story ended by saying that he and the rest of the Senegalese workers felt like they were always to blame for things that had gone missing on school property. He and the others in the meeting concluded that because of the manner in which this incident was handled, trust between the two parties (the director and the guards) had been severely broken. While they were communicating this, they shook their heads in disgust, as if all hope of building trust again had been lost. The director immediately told them that he could understand why they might think this in light of the entire sequence of events that had transpired. However, the director made great efforts to assure them that he still trusted them and thought of them as good, hard working, faithful employees who were dedicated to the school through their many years of service.

Unfortunately, addressing such an issue brought no one closer to discovering what had happened to the missing food items. The director had done what he set out to do, and that was simply to address the incidents of missing food so that his guards would be aware of this reoccurring problem in order to keep it from becoming an epidemic in the future. Sadly, the guards left the meeting feeling untrustworthy, belittled, and personally reprimanded for their actions or lack thereof. Why did this specific intercultural interaction occur in the manner in which it did, and what might have contributed to its conflict? The following section will strive to unpack and evaluate this intercultural conflict situation utilizing Face-Negotiation Theory.

Application of Face-Negotiated Theory

More than two thirds of the people in the world live in cultures with high collectivist tendencies (Gudykunst 2005). The Senegalese people are amongst this group of collectivist cultures where an emphasis is placed on “we,” rather than “I,” in negotiating face in conflict situations. Regarding the previous case study involving a director of an international school for missionary children and four of his Senegalese guards, there were certain behaviors and reactions of both parties that warrant an explanation utilizing face-negotiation theory.

Face, according to Ting-Toomey, is an image of oneself that is mainly projected in public within some kind of relational situation (DeWitt 2006). The American director who called this meeting with several Senegalese guards was projecting an autonomous, individualist face, or self-face in order to protect and save his own face. As mentioned earlier in this paper, the director’s aim in meeting with his guards was to raise their awareness of a possible on-going concern regarding missing food items and to work towards a solution to the problem. However, in his attempt to merely raise an issue of concern, the director found himself threatening his own self-face by holding a special meeting with his guards in order to address a specific incident that occurred. This strategy clearly proved threatening to the director’s face and might have caused him to lose face with the guards and even with the entire Senegalese staff. In fact, one could argue that he was simply supporting the face-saving literature which states that those from Western countries are more oriented towards self-face than saving the faces of others (Ng 1999).

According to Face-Negotiated Theory, collectivist cultures tend to be interested in the other-face and face-restoration strategies in order to bring resolution to conflict situations. The Senegalese guards implicated in this case study responded very harshly to the director’s message. They were all communicating in a manner that depicted a sense of oneness and mutual agreement amongst themselves. This was their attempt to implement other-face saving strategies. Furthermore, Samovar, Porter & McDaniel (2012) argue that in African collectivism, if what one person says is not in the best interest of the entire community, then the person would more than likely be bound by custom to recant. This was clearly evident in this particular case study. Not once did any one Senegalese guard say something that could have been construed as counter to what they were collectively trying to argue. Again, from their perspective, on an emotional level, their identity (or face) was being both threatened and undermined, resulting in reactions laced with anger and frustration.

On a cognitive level, though, this situation was a face-threatening, or face-disrespecting phenomenon—an experience where the guards’ notions of how they should have been treated failed to match with the reality of how the director was treating them (Gudykunst 2005). For example, they thought that the director should not have brought this incident to their attention because it was not the fault of their own nor did it need to be addressed in such a formal manner. Consequently, in their opinion, the meeting turned out to be a venue by which they could be treated poorly and accused of wrongdoing. Because of this discrepancy between the desired intent of the director and the perceived experience of the guards, conflict was the inevitable result. Even though the director did not perceive calling and conducting a meeting concerning the issue at hand as a conduit for conflict, the Senegalese guards did, and they were very forthright about it. Rose, Suppiah, Uli & Othman (2006) state that when a conflict is perceived by either party (whether one or both), it occurs whether or not the perception is real.

Both parties involved in this case study were utilizing negative facework. This refers to the degree to which both disputing parties protect their own freedom or privacy from any interference (Ng 1999). In his desire to avoid seeing more food disappear from the school kitchen, the director used negative facework in order to autonomously inform his guards of their responsibility to guard the school. Similarly, the guards made their voices heard utilizing negative facework to protect their self-face in order to avoid bringing disharmony to their community. There is, however, one more variable concerning face-negotiated theory that may have contributed to this conflict, and that is power distance.

Power distance describes the “extent to which less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed equally” (Oetzel, Ting-Toomey, Masumoto, Yokochi, Pan, Takai & Wilcox 2001). They go on to suggest that individualistic cultures believe that power should be distributed equally, whereas collectivist cultures believe that power should be distributed unequally, grounded by one’s rank and status. According to this distinction, the Senegalese would adhere to the belief that power should be unequally distributed. However, Americans, like the director of the school, are associated with a culture that believes power should be evenly distributed, giving everyone equal rights.  

In this case study, the American director was in a position of power over his Senegalese guards. The guards normally conducted themselves in a respectful manner towards the director and others in positions of leadership within the school. Furthermore, they acknowledged and honored requests made of them by the director, believing that his rank and status warranted the existence of power distance within their relationship. Yet the differences between American and Senegalese cultures in terms of face-negotiated theory and how they negotiate conflict may have been one of the underlying factors contributing to the conflict situation.

One cannot divorce himself from the culture in which he grew up, therefore he will always, to an extent, be a product of his upbringing. And so it is the same with the acquisition of facework strategies. Facework is learned within the socialization process of one’s own cultural or ethnic group (Oetzel, Ting-Toomey, Masumoto, Yokochi, Pan, Takai & Wilcox 2001). This knowledge of how different cultures construct their own facework has the potential to positively influence how both parties engage in intercultural conflict, as well as serve to negotiate conflict while being sensitive to each other’s perceptions on facework. In light of these differences, what might be some implications of face-negotiated theory to cross-cultural workers in Senegal as well as globally?

Implications of Face-Negotiated Theory for Senegal and Beyond

Conflict is largely connected to the underlying beliefs and values of the culture and the individuals (Gudykunst 2005). When cross-cultural workers travel to Senegal in order to minister to the people, they must become aware of Senegalese values and beliefs if they are to effectively manage conflict. Moreover, face-negotiated theory can play a key role in this process, helping to bring about better intercultural communication between cross-cultural workers and nationals.

One implication of this theory in a Senegalese context could be a mindfulness of how high context, collectivist cultures communicate in conflict situations. However, this raises questions concerning mindfulness like, “Can one be trained to be mindful?” Ting-Toomey (2007) suggests that the area of mindfulness might need to be explored further in order to facilitate better training for cross-cultural workers. In other words, there may be strategies to enhance one’s mindfulness in terms of how to best navigate foreign cultures. Nevertheless, face-negotiated theory can help provide cross-cultural workers with an understanding of how the Senegalese might negotiate conflict in order to save face. This will help facilitate the building of stronger relationships between the two parties, allowing them to foster an atmosphere of respect and trust in which to communicate.

Face-negotiated theory can also provide cross-cultural workers with a more objective outlook on the Senegalese. Realizing that cultures perceive facework differently might help dispel any notion of “we” versus “they,” thus allowing for a more objective perception of how the Senegalese utilize face-saving strategies in episodes of conflict. This objectivity might also lead to higher levels of anxiety within the sojourner if he attempts to resolve conflict in a manner that is contrary to that of the host culture. For example, in the case of the director and the guards, his objectivity of the culture, values, norms, and beliefs of the Senegalese guards created an open and acceptable forum in which to discuss issues of conflict. However, inherent differences concerning face-negotiated theory within American and Senegalese cultures coupled with the inability to compromise and arrive at some sort of resolution, caused the director, as well as his guards, to experience higher levels of anxiety than if a compromise and resolution was reached. This is not at all a desired outcome of face-negotiated theory, yet it is to salient in many cross-cultural experiences involving conflict.

Implications of face-negotiated theory are not only isolated to a Senegalese context. In fact, the general principles, which define this theory, can be applied to cross-cultural workers across the globe. For instance, wherever there are interactions involving people of different cultural backgrounds, it is important to have some knowledge and awareness of a variety of different descriptors of cultures (i.e. collectivism vs. individualism, direct vs. indirect, high context vs. low context, positive face vs. negative face), which bring about understanding to situations of intercultural conflict.

One such case might involve a manager of a toy business trying to solicit help from his employees in an attempt to find out which one of them has been giving discounts on toys to his or her friends. Whether an employee speaks up or not may depend largely on his or her association with either an individualist or collectivist culture in terms of how facework is perceived. Therefore, it might lessen the manager’s anxiety in trying to pinpoint the culprit of this unacceptable behavior by knowing some aspects of face-negotiated theory in order to effectively negotiate conflict within his business.

Another implication of face-negotiated theory outside of a Senegalese context is that it can help communicators of all ethnic groups to understand and be able to explain the communication behavior of another. Oetzel, Ting-Toomey, Masumoto, Yokochi, Pan, Takai & Wilcox (2001) found that self-construals (one’s perception of himself, or his self-image) can help predict face and facework behaviors. One’s culture plays a key role as an influencer of behavior and self-perception. Ultimately, knowing how others view themselves can enhance mutual understanding between cultures and lessen the frequency of intercultural conflict, as both parties become adept in their interpretations of each other’s behaviors.  


The purpose of this case study was to utilize face-negotiated theory to unpack and evaluate a conflict situation in a Senegalese context, including possible implications of face-negotiated theory for cross-cultural workers in Senegal and those working in various other parts of the world. In a world of increasing globalization, it is vital that cultures begin to see face-negotiated theory as a tool in which to facilitate healthy intercultural communication that will result in a better understanding of how and why cultures negotiate conflict.

Culture does carry social values and beliefs, that influence emotions, and behaviors experienced by individuals (Ulijn, Rutkowski, Kumar & Zhu 2005). Thus, in order to facilitate conflict resolution within the communication process, more research is needed to uncover and analyze the different underlying issues influencing facework within cultures. Furthermore, as Ting-Toomey (2007) suggests, there is a need for more research in the area of intercultural training methods. Currently, the overwhelming majority of training for cross-cultural workers occurs within the confines of either missionary organizations or large corporations in the business world. However, the reality is that intercultural communication takes place on a daily basis between all peoples of varying cultural backgrounds. Implementing intercultural training methods will cause one to be more culturally sensitive and empathetic to those from other cultures. Even more dynamic, though, it could help navigate face-negotiated theory in one’s attempt to build relationships and increase understanding in order to live side by side and harmoniously with others. Finally, an acceptance of the diversity existing in the world today could arguably be the first step towards a greater appreciation for the depth and breadth of culture and what it contributes to one’s continuous understanding of himself and others 


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