How do you say, “Yes, you look terrible in that dress?”
It’s hard to tell someone something you know they won’t like to hear, or that they at least don’t want to have you tell them. Criticism, complaints, orders, and even requests can be threatening.
In fact, it’s called face threat. Generally, people want to save face.
Orders and requests are what’s called negative face threat. They threaten someone’s freedom to act autonomously. Things that are disrespectful or don’t show proper deference are positive face threat. They threaten someone’s image or status.
A lot of conversations never happen because they’re too threatening. Entire relationships break off because someone couldn’t have a hard conversation with someone else. People feel uncomfortable when their face is threatened, and people feel uncomfortable threatening someone else.
The issue, though, is that whether something is threatening depends on context. It’s only a threat if the person receiving it thinks it is, and a lot of that comes from what they think the other person’s intentions are. If it’s someone who sincerely wants the best for you, it’s less likely to be threatening. It’s easier to take the hard truth from a friend than an acquaintance.
You can change what someone thinks about your intentions through facework. Facework is things you do or say that relieve some of the threat. Asking if it’s a bad time respects their negative face, and sandwiching criticism (good feedback, bad feedback, good feedback) respects their positive face.
But some facework can make things worse. Never saying it is the most obvious way to avoid face threat, but it doesn’t solve the problem. Apologizing profusely for saying something makes what you say seem less important, and harms your own social status as an equal.
When you want to say something and you’re not sure how they’ll take it:
- Make sure it’s a good time,
- Stay calm,
- Tell them why you want to say it so they don’t misinterpret your intentions, and
- After you’ve said it, reassure them that you respect and value them.
Google Politeness Theory if you’re interested in more on face.