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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 15 Numbers 1& 2, 2005



Charlotte N. Gunawardena
Sharon L. Walsh
Ethel M. Gregory
M. Yvonne Lake
Leslie E. Reddinger
The University of New Mexico

Abstract. This exploratory study examined cultural perceptions of face negotiation in an online learning environment by conducting face-to-face or online interviews with participants from six cultural groups. Utilizing a qualitative research design, it addressed the question: How do individuals from different cultural backgrounds negotiate “face” in a non-face-to-face learning environment? Results of interviews conducted with 16 participants representing 6 cultural groups indicated that cultural differences do exist in presentation and negotiation of “face” in the online learning environment. In evaluating responses to the three scenarios presented in this study, we found that regardless of cultural heritage, the majority of participants expressed the importance of establishing positive-face in an online course environment. They wanted to project a positive, knowledgeable image with association to dominating facework behavior. With regard to conflict behavior, responses were mixed and indicated cultural as well as individual differences. We believe that the results of this study can guide us in designing more inclusive online learning environments in the future.

1. Introduction

Understanding how culture influences the communication process in the online learning environment is becoming increasingly important as the Internet spreads and higher education institutions employ the Internet to deliver courses and programs nationally and internationally. The time-delayed, text-based, computer-mediated nature of computer mediated communication (CMC) presents unique challenges to communicators. There is a dearth of research on how culture-related factors influence group interaction when individuals interact through a non face-to-face (non-F2F) communication medium. A previous cross-cultural study by Gunawardena et al. (2001) investigated the influence of cultural factors on group processes and group development in online conferences and identified issues related to face negotiation as impacting cross-cultural/intercultural communication in online discussions. However, we have not found studies that focused on examining culture and face negotiation in the online environment. This indicated a need for studies on how culture influences face negotiation in this unique learning environment.

Culture is a complex and difficult concept to define in a formal sense, although many definitions of culture exist. For our study, we adopted the definition of culture put forward by Matsumoto (1996) who perceived culture as “the set of attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors shared by a group of people, but different for each individual, communicated from one generation to the next” (p.16). As Matsumoto notes, this definition suggests that culture is as much an individual, psychological construct as it is a social construct. “Individual differences in culture can be observed among people in the degree to which they adopt and engage in the attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors that, by consensus constitute their culture” (Matsumoto, 1996, p. 18).

Ting-Toomey (1994) defines face as “the presentation of a civilized front to another individual within the webs of interconnected relationships in a particular culture” (p.1). Face involves the claimed sense of self-respect or self-dignity in an interactive situation. Ting-Toomey observes five themes related to face: it entails both cultural-universal and cultural-specific dimensions; it is an identity phenomenon; it carries both affective and social cognitive implications; it is located in the situated discourse process of interaction, and it operates across everyday situational contexts. Therefore, how do participants negotiate their sense of self-respect and self-dignity via a time-delayed, computer-mediated medium that does not have the ability to convey non-verbal cues during a sequence of interaction?

2. Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this exploratory study was to investigate cultural perceptions in the presentation and negotiation of “face” in the online environment by addressing the following question: How do individuals of different cultures negotiate “face” in a non-F2F learning environment? We begin with a review of the literature that provided the foundation for our study and then explain the method we used to conduct our exploratory study followed by a discussion of results and conclusions. We undertook this study so that the results would have the potential to guide us in designing more inclusive online learning environments in the future.

3. Review of the Literature

In order to address the research question, the review of literature for this study examines research related to three areas: (1) negotiating face, (2) effects of face and facework in conflicts, and (3) face and facework in a computer-mediated environment.

3.1. Negotiating face

One theoretical approach to understanding face, facework, and the conflict process is the face-negotiation theory (Ting-Toomey, 1988). Ting-Toomey and Kurogi (1998) argue that face-negotiation theory offers an explanatory framework for the existence of different conflict management styles in different cultural groups. According to Ting-Toomey (1988), low-context cultures emphasize individual identity, self-face concern, negative-face need, and direct verbal and nonverbal expression. In contrast, high-context cultures emphasize group identity, other-face concern, positive-face need, and indirect verbal and nonverbal expression. An individual’s portrayal of face involves the enactment of face strategies, verbal and non-verbal moves, self-presentation acts, and impression management interaction (Ting-Toomey, 1994).

Further studies discuss definitions and attributes of face and facework. According to Penman (1994), the moral dimension of face is more than self-identity. It also includes the implicit concept of good judgment and good character. Tracy and Baratz (1994) define face as the “identities people claim or attribute to each other in specific social situations, whereas facework refers to the communicative strategies that are the enactment, support, or challenge of those situated identities” (p.1). Cupach and Metts (1994) define face as the “conception of self that each person displays in particular interactions with others. When a person interacts with another, he or she tacitly presents a conception of whom he or she is in that encounter and seeks confirmation for that conception. The individual offers an identity that he or she wants to assume and wants others to accept” (p.3). Oetzel et al. (2000) describe face as the representation of an individual’s claimed sense of positive image in the context of social interaction. They further describe facework as the communicative strategies one uses to enact self-face and to uphold, support, or challenge another person’s face.

For the purpose of this paper, face will be defined as an individual’s claimed conception of his/her positive self image within interpersonal interactions. Facework will be defined as the individual’s intentions to portray his/her self image in a positive manner to others by utilizing verbal, nonverbal, and self-representation acts to support his/her conception of face.

3.2. Effects of face and facework on conflict

3.2.1. Conflict behaviors.

According to Ting-Toomey and Kurogi (1998), conflict styles give insight into a person’s communication orientation toward conflict. Individuals have a tendency toward one particular style, but this can change depending on the conflict situation. Therefore, conflict style is a combination of traits (e.g. cultural background and personality) and states (e.g. situation).

As defined by Oetzel and Ting-Toomey (2003) the face negotiation theory argues that: (a) people from all cultures try to maintain and negotiate face in every communication situation; (b) the idea of face becomes more problematic for communication participants in uncertain situations, such as embarrassment and conflict situations, when the situated identities of the participants are called into question; (c) when the idea of cultural variability including both individual-level variables and situational variables influence cultural members’ selection of one set of face concerns over others, such as self-oriented face saving versus other-oriented face saving; and (d) face concerns influence the use of facework and conflict strategies in intergroup and interpersonal encounters. The findings empirically validated the face negotiation theory.

Oetzel et al. (2000) developed a typology of facework behaviors in the study of conflicts between best friends and relative strangers. The participants of the study were 237 undergraduate students at a large university in the southwestern United States and 49 undergraduate students at a large university in Japan. The participants completed a questionnaire to provide insight into how individuals negotiate face during conflicts with best friends and relative strangers.

According to Oetzel et al. (2000), three distinct factors are consistent with previous categorizations of conflict styles and tactics and face concerns in face negotiation. The factors are: (1) dominating facework behavior; (2) avoiding facework behavior; and (3) integrating facework behavior. The first factor, dominating facework behavior, emphasizes the importance of asserting and defending one’s face or self-interest with the use of direct tactics to threaten the other party’s face in order to defeat the other person for self-gain. This behavior is seen in individuals who are aggressively trying to “win the conflict” and do not care about the other’s face. The second factor, avoiding facework behavior, emphasizes obliging or saving the face of the other party involved in the conflict in order not to embarrass the other person’s face directly. This behavior is seen in individuals who do not want to deal directly with the conflict, or are concerned with maintaining relational harmony. The third factor, integrating facework behavior, emphasizes a mutual concern for both self-face and other-face by compromising or discussing the conflict in private. This behavior is seen in individuals who are interested in maintaining self- and other-face while dealing directly with the conflict in a private setting.

These three factors represent specific moves that take place during conflict (Oetzel et al., 2000). Each of these behaviors may be utilized in different situations to accomplish different goals. Researchers can examine the possible situational, cultural, and relational influences on the use of facework behaviors. Additionally, the typology helps to move beyond substantive to relational and image concerns (Oetzel et al., 2000).

Their findings indicated that Japanese respondents, overall, rated avoiding facework higher and integrating facework lower than did the U.S. respondents. These findings are consistent with prior research supporting face-negotiation theory (Ting-Toomey, 1988). However, the results for dominating facework did not support previous research as the Japanese respondents rated the effectiveness of dominating facework higher than did the U.S. respondents. According to Oetzel et al. (2000), an explanation for this may be that “the Japanese respondents rated dominating facework as more effective because they view assertiveness as desirable in terms of goal achievement but do not employ dominating facework because Japanese cultural values discourage it” (p.414).

3.2.2. Apology and interpersonal forgiveness.

Takaku (2001) discussed several reasons that may explain the effectiveness of apology in resolving conflicts. For example, apology conveys the idea that the transgressor feels guilty and has suffered. Furthermore, an apology indicates the transgressor’s rehabilitation and desire not to repeat the transgression. By breaking the link between the negative act and negative dispositional attributions, apology facilitates the process of interpersonal forgiveness. As a foundation for his study on dissonance reduction and interpersonal forgiveness, Takaku utilized correspondent interference theory and the attributional model of emotion and motivation. He explains correspondent interference theory in which the offense and the intention that produced it are less likely to be perceived as corresponding to some underlying trait of the offender if the transgressor apologizes. He also discusses the attributional model of emotion and motivation by which receiving an apology leads victims to perceive transgressions as less internal, less controllable, and less stable and, as a result, they may hold transgressors less responsible for the transgression.

3.2.3. Ethnic background, sex, and self-construal on conflict styles.

Ting-Toomey, Oetzel, and Yee-jung (2001) explored the effects of ethnic background, sex, and self-construal or self-image on conflict styles among African Americans, Asian Americans, European Americans, and Latin Americans. The findings of this study indicated that self-construal is a better predictor of individual conflict style than ethnic background or sex differences. Specifically, self-construal types accounted for a statistically significant amount of variance in most of the conflict styles, whereas ethnic background did not account for any statistically significant differences in conflict styles and sex only accounted for variance in the dominating conflict style. These findings are consistent with prior research which shows that self-construal is a better explanatory variable than ethnicity or culture for individuals’ communication behavior (Ting-Toomey et al., 2000).

Despite the importance of the findings, there are several limitations to consider. The authors discuss four limitations of their study. First, although the results of this study are meaningful concerning the effect of self-construal types on conflict styles, situational factors may influence both self-construal and conflict styles. Second, the measurement of various conflict style dimensions has been derived primarily from individualistic-based, Western-centric conflict instruments. Third, this study utilized college students, which limits the ability to generalize the findings. Finally, this study focused on perceptions of conflict styles instead of studying actual conflict behaviors. Studying actual conflict interactions may yield a clearer understanding of the relationship of self-construal, facework negotiation behavior, and conflict styles. Use of an individual-level measure of cultural orientation to assess whether the broad differences attributed to culture are indeed associated with preferred ways of communicating or not communicating about conflict may help with establishing further clarification (Cai and Fink, 2002).

3.3. Face and facework in a computer-mediated environment

Not all individuals in a computer-mediated environment will seek out clarification because they are more attuned to their own personal perceptions and less affected by others’ perceptions. Matheson and Zanna (1988) studied the effects of CMC on self-awareness. They divided self-awareness into two distinct categories: private and public self-awareness. Private self-awareness covers the “aspects of self … [one’s] personal feelings, attitudes, values, and beliefs that are enhanced in situations that induce introspection, for example, when striving to reach personal goals” (p.222). Public self-awareness is defined by “aspects of self which are sensitive to attention and evaluation by others” and becomes heightened when “performing for an audience … [or when one is] a minority in a group” (p.222). This study utilized 55 subjects who were involved in either a F2F or a computer-mediated discussion. The subjects were expected to discuss situations and negotiate a solution. The results indicated lower levels of public self-awareness and heightened acute private self-awareness in those who used CMC.

When using the computer as an avenue for communication, lower private self-awareness allows one to feel less inhibited when changing or voicing opinions, which allows one to change opinion without losing face. “Behavior of subjects when using the computer was significantly more uninhibited than during F2F discussions” (Matheson and Zanna, 1988, p.223). This inherently resulted in lowering the subject’s public self-awareness.

Likewise, other researchers (Kiesler, Siegel, and McGuire, 1984; Kiesler, Zubrow, Moses, and Geller, 1985; and Siegel, Dubrovsky, Kiesler, and McGuire, 1986, as cited in Matheson and Zanna, 1988) have suggested, “users of CMC are deindividuated, demonstrating low private and low public self-awareness” (p.229). This suggests that computer-mediated users attach low levels of importance to how they are perceived by themselves and how others perceive them.

Matheson and Zanna (1988) also found that behavior became much more guarded when subjects had to identify to whom they were communicating their thoughts. Therefore, if one had to reveal their “face,” they felt more exposed. The Siegel et al. (1986) study coincides with Matheson and Zanna’s finding, indicating the anonymity available to those using the computer to communicate can be used as a permission slip to be less inhibited. When the physical face is not exposed, it can be a temptation to act irresponsibly. Unfortunately, the argument against this anonymous state suggests that it could “lead to an escalating cycle of conflict and disagreement, and increase the display of affect and uninhibited behavior” (Matheson and Zanna, 1988, p.231). Furthermore, their subjects in the F2F condition relied on social norms for the group decision while the subjects in the computer-mediated condition did not. For example, the elimination of title, gender, and other status cues made for a more neutral atmosphere, allowing discussion to focus on the issue at hand rather than on the social acceptability of challenging someone who distinctly takes on the face of authority.

4. Methods

4.1. Design

We used qualitative and emergent design research paradigms (Guba and Lincoln, 1985) to answer our research question by using both F2F and online interviews with students who had experienced computer conferencing. These participants were asked to respond to the following three scenarios: (1) how the participants would introduce themselves in an online course; (2) how the participant would foster perceptions for the instructor and classmates about themselves in the online course; and (3) how the participant would react to a demeaning, personal attack by a fellow classmate in an online discussion.

4.1.1. Scenario #1: Introductions.

You have enrolled in an online academic course for credit. This is the first week of instruction. You still do not know who else has enrolled in this online course. Participation in online discussions is required as part of the course grade. The instructor has asked students to introduce themselves to the online group by posting answers to the following:

• What are your professional interests?
• What are your personal interests such as hobbies?
• Describe any experience you have had related to the topic of this course?
• Describe one interesting thing you did over the last school break or vacation?
• How would you respond to each of these questions?
• How comfortable would you feel responding to each of these questions?
• Are there any questions you would feel less comfortable answering than others?

4.1.2. Scenario #2: Academic discussions .

You are now participating in an online class discussion related to your course topics. The Instructor has asked you to show evidence of your readings and personal experiences as you participate in this required discussion

• As you post your comments to this discussion, how do you want to be perceived by your Instructor?
• As you post your comments to this discussion, how do you want to be perceived by your classmates?
• What will you do to foster these perceptions?

4.1.3. Scenario # 3: Conflict.

You posted a message online related to the topic based on your own experience. Another participant misunderstood what you said. This participant posted a message to the group discussion quoting you and mentioning your name openly. This participant’s reaction was demeaning to your contribution to the academic discussion. How would you react?

4.2. Data analysis

The data (i.e. the participants’ responses from the three scenarios) were collected in the Spring Semester of 2002 from undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in a southwestern university in the USA. The study participants had identified themselves as belonging to 1 of 6 cultural groups: 3 participants each, representing the East Asian, Indian subcontinent, Hispanic American, and Native American cultures and 2 participants each, representing Anglo American and Middle Eastern cultures. The participants were given the option of doing the interview either F2F or online. Two participants elected to do F2F interviews and 14 participants responded with online interviews. Eight participants were graduate students and 8 were undergraduate students. All participants were adults (19 years of age or older) and all had prior experience with computer-mediated learning. There were 12 women and 4 men.

Most qualitative data analyses begin by developing codes from interview transcripts; then these codes are grouped according to similar processes, patterns, or themes; and finally, a small set of generalizations are made from the consistencies uncovered in the data (Miles and Huberman, 1994). We first examined our interview data to determine underlying themes and categories. The qualitative data were then analyzed using HyperResearch [computer software] version 2.5. This program first asks the user to define codes from interview transcripts that have common themes. The user then selects text and “encodes” the text with these user-defined codes. For example, angry, competitive, friendly, and interested were some of the codes we defined from common themes in our interview transcripts. HyperResearch [computer software] version 2.5. was then used to determine code frequency among the cultural groups. Initially, ninety codes were defined to tease out relationships among the responses of various cultural groups and then these codes were examined to ensure that they accurately reflected participant self-reports. The 27 codes for Scenario 1 were related to the amount of disclosure in the responses about professional and personal interests, course content, and vacation activity and also about the comfort level of participants when they answered the questions. The 36 codes for Scenario 2 were related to the perceptions each participant wanted to project, such as respectful, enthusiastic, and concise, etc. Lastly, 27 codes were defined for Scenario 3, related to terms of conflict, such as angry, calm, apologetic. The codes were then categorized into the following groups: 1) traits indicating domination facework behavior, 2) traits indicating avoidance facework behavior, 3) traits indicating integration facework behavior (Oetzel et al., 2000), and 4) traits indicating public/private awareness (Matheson and Zanna, 1988). Only 71 of the original codes were used for this part of the analysis because some were synonymous with others or were not related to facework.

5. Results

5.1. Scenario

1: Introductions

This scenario was developed to determine how comfortable participants were in disclosing professional and personal information when asked to introduce themselves online. In general, the 2 Middle Eastern and the 3 Native American participants openly responded to all 4 questions in the scenario, but the participants from the Indian subcontinent and the Hispanic Americans were most reticent about responding to these questions. One of the East Asian participants gave detailed answers to all 4 questions whereas the other 2 only gave responses to 1 or 2 questions. Only 1 of the Hispanic American participants gave open responses to these 4 questions. The other 2 did not answer any of them. One Anglo American answered all 4 questions; the other answered 2 of the 4 questions.

Participants from all cultures were comfortable discussing their professional interests. Only 2 participants (1 Anglo American and 1 Middle Easterner) would have felt uncomfortable discussing their professional interests. The Anglo American was not comfortable answering this question because “I am working on changing fields, so I might not be so frank as to my career goals because it would show I am looking to leave the groups and that might effect the way people treat me in my current group.” Likewise, participants from all cultures would have freely discussed their experience with the course material. Only 1 of 2 Middle Eastern participants and 1 of the 3 Hispanic Americans felt uncomfortable discussing this information. The Middle Eastern participant replied, “...maybe it would be harder like if I had personal experience related to the course topic. Then, I’ll feel it’s nobody’s business to know this sort of thing in that case.” The Hispanic American said in reference to not feeling comfortable answering these questions, “Probably the third question, depending a lot on the topic of the course.”

However, only participants from 5 of the 6 cultures felt comfortable discussing personal interests. Twelve of the 17 participants would have divulged this information. Neither of the 2 Middle Eastern participants wanted to discuss their personal interests (see quote above) nor did 2 of the Hispanic Americans.

The question relating to a vacation activity had the most positive responses with all of the participants responding positively. Participants from all 6 cultures seemed equally comfortable answering this question. Only 1 participant from the Indian subcontinent would not want to divulge this information, saying, “I don’t think I would give away any personal things that I did over my vacation.” Therefore, a good icebreaker activity at the beginning of the course for online students when they are encouraged to do introductions may be discussing a non-threatening topic such as vacation activities. Nevertheless, most who did not want to divulge information in responding to any of the questions implied that they perceived the requested information as being too personal.

5.2. Scenario 2: Academic discussions

          5.2.1. Instructor perception. Several underlying themes resulted from the responses for the way one presents themselves. Most commonly, participants wanted the instructor to think they were enthusiastic, honest, and knowledgeable and that they had command of written English, had read the readings, and understood the topic. Additionally, the participants wanted to be thought of as concise, culturally similar, hard working, intelligent, interesting, not pushy, polite, prepared, professional, respectful, responsible, thorough, thoughtful, and team players. By far, most participants wanted the instructor to think they were knowledgeable. This trait was mentioned by both of the Anglo American participants, 1 East Asian, 1 Hispanic American, and 2 of the 3 Native Americans. Also, 5 participants (2 Anglo Americans, 1 East Asian, 1 from the Indian subcontinent, and 1 Middle Easterner) felt that grammatically correct written responses were very important. One East Asian participant wanted to “show that my command of English is really ok, such as not making any grammatical mistakes.”

          5.2.2. Classmate perception. Several participants (5) wanted their classmates to perceive them as knowledgeable. Participants also wanted to be perceived as friendly (3 participants), interesting (1 participant), team players (2 participants), and having a good sense of humor (1 participant). Many (both Anglo Americans, 1 East Asian, 2 Hispanic Americans, 1 Indian subcontinent participant, 1 Native American) stated that they wanted their classmates to perceive them in the same way as their instructor. One Middle Eastern participant did not want classmates to perceive any cultural differences, saying “ I probably don’t want to come off as being too culturally different as I think that makes the situation complicated and hard to explain if you are carrying on conversations online.”

          5.2.3. Fostering perceptions. Most participants would foster these perceptions by the way their responses were written. Many felt that it was important to write in a grammatically correct manner to show that they had read the readings and to make their discussions relevant.

5.3. Scenario 3: Online conflict

The way in which the participants handled the demeaning message reflected cultural differences as well as individual differences. Two participants (Middle Eastern and East Asian) would have apologized for being misunderstood. Four respondents answered that they would have been upset, angry, or offended if they had received this demeaning message and that they would demand an apology. These people represented the Anglo American, East Asian, and Native American cultures. One Anglo American would “probably attempt to undermine that individual’s self-perception of grandeur, through methods just short of flaming him or her.” However, 2 participants from the Indian subcontinent and 1 from Eastern Asia would have reacted in a calm, non-confrontational manner. One Anglo American participant would have thought first before responding. Others (the same Anglo American, 1 Middle Easterner, and 1 Native American) would not have responded and would have just ignored the comment.

Members from all 6 of the cultures represented in our study would have posted a message in reply, saying that they had been misunderstood or that their discussion had been misinterpreted. Then, they would have given further explanations to clarify the message.

Four participants (1 Hispanic American, 1 Native American, 1 Middle Easterner, and 1 from the Indian subcontinent) preferred the attacker not use names and would have further preferred that the message be sent only to the one person rather than to the whole discussion group. As a last resort, if the conflict could not be resolved, an East Asian would have asked the instructor for assistance.

We can draw implications from these results for developing communication protocols for CMC. One protocol would be to encourage participants to clarify and explain their messages if they feel they have been misunderstood or misrepresented in the group’s discussion. The other protocol would be for online participants to direct conflicting points of view of a demeaning nature with names attached to the individual in a private email, thus giving that individual an opportunity to explain the point of view. If the two participants then determine by this private email that the discussion can be handled in a public forum, then it is up to them to move it to the public forum.

5.4. Factors in facework conflict resolution                                                                

5.4.1. Dominating facework behavior. Fifty-nine of the final 71 codes were related to dominating facework behavior (>Table 1) and 12 of the 71 were related to public/private awareness. Fifty-six percent of the responses (14 out of 25) made by the Anglo Americans were related to these traits (Figure 1). Forty-four percent of those responses from Indian subcontinent participants, 40% from East Asians, 40% from Native Americans, 39% from Hispanic Americans, and 26% from Middle Easterners were associated with dominating behavior (Figure 1).

Table 1. Qualitative data analysis codes categorized by facework conflict

Dominating behavior

Avoiding behavior

Integrating behavior




Be self


Clarify Message



Clear misunderstanding



Culturally different

Demand apology


Further explanation

Good written English


Get instructor help

Hard working


Loss of self-confidence


Not attack


Pre-existing impression

Not pushy



Not respond

Not disclose



Not use names


Sense of humor


Know personally

Socially acceptable



Team player

Read readings


Thing before respond



Unacceptable by instructor

Too personal












Undermine individual


Understand topic







Figure 1. Facework behaviors in different cultures


          5.4.2. Avoiding facework behavior. Eighteen of the final 72 codes were related to avoiding facework behavior (Table1) and thereby related to saving the face of the other party. The Anglo American responses included 28% related to these traits, 26% from Middle Easterners, 17% from Hispanic Americans, 16% from East Asians, 14% from Indian subcontinent participants, and 6% from Native Americans (Figure 1).

          5.4.3. Integrating facework behavior. These traits represent a mutual concern for both self-face and other-face and emphasize the private nature of conflict. Eighteen of the 72 final codes were related to these integrating traits (Table 1). Fifty-three percent of the responses from Native Americans fell into this category, along with 48% from Middle Easterners, 43% from Hispanic Americans, 41% from Indian subcontinent participants, 36% from East Asians, and 16% from Anglo Americans (Figure 1).

          5.4.4. Facework in a computer-mediated environment. Twelve of the final 72 codes were associated with the aspects of public and private awareness described by Matheson and Zanna (1988). Only 3 responses by Anglo Americans referred to this aspect of facework. East Asians had 4 responses, Hispanic Americans had 6, Indian subcontinent participants had 2, and Middle Easterners had 1. No Native Americans responded in a way related to public or private awareness. Most of the responses given discussed the limitations or advantages of online communication. Some were positive (e.g., “easier to talk over the Internet”) and some were negative (e.g., “It is hard to show who you truly are over the net.”).

6. Discussion

6.1. Scenarios 1 and 2

The facework involved in the first 2 scenarios represents the establishment of positive-face (Cupach and Metts, 1994) and maintenance of self-face. Cupach and Metts (1994) describe positive-face as “the desire to be liked and respected by significant people in our lives” (p.5). Establishment and maintenance of self-face are reflected in the perceptions that the participants wanted others to have about them.

We thought that cultures with collectivist, high-power distance (Hofstede, 1984), and low-context (Chung, 1992, as cited in Chen and Starosta, 1998) tendencies would exhibit less openness in their responses. The Middle Eastern, East Asian, Hispanic American, Indian subcontinent, and Native American cultures would represent these tendencies. Conversely, the individualistic, low-power distance, high-context cultures would be open in their responses. The Anglo American culture represents these tendencies. As we anticipated, Anglo Americans comfortably disclosed their professional and personal interests and information about the online course. But surprisingly, the Middle Eastern participants were also very open about answering the questions in these scenarios. In fact, this response may be related to self-construal measures. According to Church et al. (2003), self-construal measures involve judgments about one's own behavior, which may elicit social comparisons in relation to cultural norms.

In an extension of the present study, Walsh, Gregory, Lake, and Gunawardena (2003) investigated manifestations of self-construal in these same cultural groups. They found, in general, that most participants exhibited a high degree of independent self-construal (i.e. that view of self not related to others) rather than interdependent self-construal (the view of self related to others) when responding to Scenarios 1 and 2, indicating concerns for self-face rather than mutual- or other-face.

Regarding the questions in these two scenarios, one Indian subcontinent participant said, “I would respond with honesty and truthfulness. To me, these questions don’t seem ‘dangerous’.” This seemed to be a common reaction among the participants. Many of the participants from Eastern Asia, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent had been in North America for a relatively long time (more than 5 years) and this too may have accounted, in part, for these results. This similarly reflects a question that Cai and Fink (2002) propose on the validity of assumptions regarding relationship of culture to conflict style preference. Like the present study, the participants were students from differing countries who resided in the United States. Enculturation may influence the relationship of culture and conflict styles.

Additionally, question 2 of Scenario 2 focused on dominating facework behavior (Oetzel et al., 2000) because participants were trying to project their own image (self-face). Two of the 3 participants from the Indian subcontinent wanted classmates to view them as a threat, as competition. One said, “I don’t want to sound like a tyrant, but again I would want my classmates to see me as their equal or superior, not some lazy, do-nothing parasite. I would want everyone in the class to know that I can ‘get the job done’.” The other said, “I would want them to view me as a threat, as competition, because I am going head-on-head with them as far as the grade in the class is concerned.” No other groups wanted to project this image. Both of these participants had been in the United States for a number of years and probably had been acculturated to the individualistic point of view.

Generally, most groups, including the Indian subcontinent participants, wanted to project an image of competence (e.g., knowledgeable, intelligent, had read readings, prepared, good written English) and personality (e.g., friendly, honest, humorous). The way various groups would foster these perceptions differed little among groups. Members from 4 of the 6 groups indicated that properly written English was a way to foster good impressions. Also, another underlying theme was to ask questions or add comments that showed interest in the course and/or topic.  Members of all 6 cultural groups would do this. This aspect was particularly important for those for whom English was a second language.

One Middle Eastern participant wanted both the instructor and classmates to not view her as “being too culturally different.” This may have resulted because of prejudice and stereotyping she may have experienced.

5.2. Scenario 3

This scenario focused on all 3 conflict behaviors as described by Oetzel et al. (2000): dominating, avoiding, and integrating behavior in facework. Oetzel et al. (2000) found 13 face behaviors in their study. In our study, we found many of the same behaviors: abuse, apologies, compromise, involvement of a third party, private discussion, and many more. These seem to be universal factors in dominating, avoiding, and integrating behaviors in facework.

Evidence from other studies indicate that collectivist and individualistic cultures differ in their use of dominance, avoidance, and integration behaviors in facework. Based on our review of the literature, we thought that: (1) the collectivist, high-power distance, low-context cultures (East Asian, Hispanic American, Indian subcontinent, Middle Eastern, and Native American) would show more avoiding and integrating face behavior than the Anglo Americans; and (2) that Anglo Americans would show more dominating behaviors than these other groups. Oetzel and Ting-Toomey (2003) found that self-face concerns are positively associated with dominating and conflicting styles, whereas other-face concerns are positively associated with avoiding and integrating styles. According to their recent study, members of collectivistic cultures used more avoiding and less integrating behaviors than members of individualistic cultures. Self-construal did not have a direct effect on conflict styles but rather had an indirect effect mediated through face concerns.

Walsh et al. (2003) found that interdependent self-construal was more prevalent than independent self-construal in all cultural groups, contrary to the initial expectation, and attributed this surprising result, in part, to the online learning environment. The need to assert one’s self was unnecessary because the parties involved in the conflict did not know each other personally. Additionally, because the participants were students, this result was logical, given the necessary influence of instructors, advisors, and other university personnel. They suggested that online learning environments may transform the relationship of conflict style and self-construal.

As in the Walsh et al. study, our conjectures were partly supported. Anglo Americans did have the highest percent of responses relating to dominating behavioral traits (56%) and the least percent of integrating behaviors (16%), but they also had the highest percent of avoiding behavioral traits (28%). Also, about 40% of the responses from the other cultural groups were related to dominating facework behavior. The only exceptions were the Middle Eastern respondents with 26% of their responses associated with dominating facework behavior. Most of the respondents in this study were women (12 of 16 participants) and most of these were graduate students. A great deal of self-confidence and self-esteem are necessary to succeed in graduate studies. The dominating behaviors in our study probably reflect this fact.

Interestingly, Native American participants reported the highest number of integrating behavioral traits but the lowest number of responses for traits related to avoiding behaviors. This appears to indicate that they may feel that self-face is not as important as the integration of self- and other-face into a mutual-face. Native Americans have a long history of conflict. Although their society is collectivist (Romero, 1994), they have had to deal with the resolution of these conflicts for the mutual benefit of both their own culture and that of other cultures. This may explain why they had few avoiding and many integrating behavioral traits.

Another interesting result was that the cultures often thought of as most representative of collectivist, high-power distance, and high-context cultures (East Asian, Hispanic American, Indian subcontinent) had relatively few avoiding-face behavioral traits. The influence of Western culture and ideas may explain this result.

The Middle Eastern responses supported our initial assumption that there would be more avoiding and integrating behaviors in this group. This is a collectivist, high-power distance, and high-context culture which would explain the results we found. Historically, they too have had to deal with a great deal of conflict and may have perfected integrating behaviors.

6.3. Public/private awareness

We thought that respondents would feel more open about divulging information in a computer-mediated environment. For the most part, our expectation was supported. This environment can remove status, gender, and language barriers and equalize all aspects of the discussions. This would influence public and private awareness (see Introduction) by increasing private self-awareness, but decreasing public self-awareness (Matheson and Zanna, 1988). Our study supported this assertion. Most participants stated that they would have answered most questions, but they would not answer the questions dealing with personal interests as openly. This theme occurred across cultures and gender.

Thus, a computer-mediated learning environment can act both as a stimulant and as a deterrent to conflict resolution and facework. One participant stated that, “If I do not know anyone, I would actually feel more open in a way since I will not feel there are preconceived notions.” However, another said, “I would feel uncomfortable answering personal questions related to my family and where I live (since it would be difficult for me to feel comfortable sharing that information with people that I can’t see).” Several participants mentioned the lack of nonverbal cues as a limitation to conflict resolution in the online environment. When referring to this, one participant said, “maybe emotions weren’t there and that’s why the person misunderstood what you were trying to say so I think that’s the only problem because you can’t form any interpersonal bonds with the people in the class.” Again, these themes occurred across all 6 cultures.

7. Conclusions and Implications

Our results indicate that cultural differences do exist in presentation and negotiation of “face” in the online environment. Cultural dimensions of individualism/collectivism, low-power distance/ high-power distance, and high-context/low-context communication are not necessarily influential in explaining individuals’ interactions within online communication. In evaluation of the three scenarios presented in this study, both expected and surprising responses were evident. Regardless of cultural heritage, the majority of individuals in this study expressed that the establishment of positive-face in an online course environment is important. Similarly, most groups generally wanted to project a positive, knowledgeable image with association to dominating facework behavior. With regards to conflict behavior, the cultural groups represented in this study varied in their responses. In discussing how culture may influence conflict management styles, Martin and Nakayama (2003) note that conflict management styles are not static across settings and relationships. Therefore, the context and the nature of the relationship with the other online participants may influence the style used in a given situation.

As noted in the methods section, participants in this study represented six cultural groups. Although participants’ origins represented a mixture of cultural characteristics, each individual had been living in the United States for several years. All participants were experienced students in higher education. Therefore, these perceptions relate to a selected academic population.

Future research with participants located in their country of origin and living within their traditional cultural environment would most likely offer a better means of determining cultural influences. This type of study would alleviate acculturation toward one particular host country. Also, further research with a more extensive interview protocol might offer more in-depth responses for evaluation, comparison, and contrast between cultures. Another recommendation for future research would include studying face negotiations in an online course across an entire semester. A more gender balanced subject group would allow the investigation of gender differences among online learning and face negotiations. Finally, since the focus of this study was online learning, subjects should probably be interviewed in an online format rather than F2F. The respondents who took part in online interviews gave more formal and grammatically correct responses. They also had more time to think about their answers compared to the F2F interviews, which were more casual and had more conversational responses. This exploratory study has given us many avenues to explore in future research on face negotiation in the online learning context.


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