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Chapter Five

Face And Ritual Offenses

      In the last chapter I used the term “ritual offense” with very little explanation. A ritual offense is one form of offense against face, but not the only form. Considerations of face are very important in both human life and classroom discipline, but they are often taken for granted and not well understood. Therefore I will first discuss what I mean by face and face work.


      The “face” of a person is his claim to the respect of others, his worth as an individual simply for being human and the status that he claims. The importance of face can be seen by observing the efforts that people put into defending their face, and by the contortions a person will go through to explain or deny even the most obvious facts when those facts reflect badly on him. Further evidence of the importance of face are the observations that a person will seek ways of retaliation when insulted, and will refuse to associate with those who fail to show him what he considers due respect. So strong and so ubiquitous is defense of face that I conclude it is an innate part of the human temperament.

      Face maintenance depends on more than the actions of the individual. Face maintenance depends heavily on the actions of others. I will use the term “acknowledgment” to refer to actions of others that maintain the face of an individual. As ageneral rule, acknowledgment is freely given by others, and is so much taken for granted that it becomes almost invisible.

      Acknowledgment comes in very simple forms, and in more complex forms as well. When I greet a friend by saying, “Hi, Joe. How are you?” I am acknowledging him. I am conveying the message that I will treat him with the respect due a fellow human being. When I tell a student, “Yes, Johnny, that is a good answer,” I am acknowledging him. When we give achievement awards in a special assembly at the end of the school year, we are acknowledging our students. Gifts are acknowledgments, as are thank you cards, birthday greetings, congratulations, and so on. The common courtesies of “please” and “thank you” are acknowledgments. They convey the message that one will not take the other for granted but will treat him as a person worthy of ritual care. The great bulk of acknowledgment comes from face-to-face interaction, from the daily routines of working together, and from casual conversation.

      It is a debatable point whether such things as pay checks are acknowledgments. In the sense that it is an impersonal business transaction, a pay check is not an acknowledgment. But in the sense that a person takes his pay check as a personal expression of his worth to his company and to society at large, it is an acknowledgment. Taxes can work in the same way. To the extent that my income tax is withheld from my salary as a simple business transaction, it is not an acknowledgment. Yet if I take a bit of pride in my country, then my willingness to pay my taxes can be thought of as an acknowledgment of my country and society. Similarly almost anything that people do that involves other people may contain acknowledgment in one form or another. However, this definition of acknowledgment soon gets out of hand and the word begins to lose its meaning. Therefore I prefer to use the term “acknowledgment” to refer only to the more obvious and direct forms of face maintenance.

      The opposite of acknowledgment is profanity. “Face offense” and “profanity” are synonymous in this context. Only face, either individual or collective, can be profaned. An inanimate object may be damaged, but not profaned. Profanity is purely an expressive assault on face, not an offense against the rights, possessions, or affairs of a person. Profanity is most often a verbal thing, but words are not the only medium of profanity. Body language may be used, or events may be manipulated so as to make another person look bad.

      Profanity and material offenses are often combined. I can hardly steal a book for example, without also implying a lack of respect for its owner. This is certainly a profanity. Similarly any offense implies a lack of respect for the victim. But again the word begins to lose its meaning if this line of reasoning is carried too far. Therefore I use the term “profanity” to refer to an offense that is only against face.

      Face can be individual or collective. A group has a collective face. A simple category of people, such as everyone whose first names begin with S, would not have a collective face, but a group of people who share a bond of some sort do have a collective face. A group of people such as the Democratic Party, the U.S. Air Force, a cub scout pack, a religious sect, or a stamp collectors’ club, has a collective face and this face must be given acknowledgment. If I profane a group’s face, I automatically profane the members’ individual faces. A religious person would say that irreverent language is an offense to his god. My observation leads me to think differently, however. It is not his god who strikes me down with his fist. Therefore I conclude that it is the man and not the god whom I have profaned. To profane a group is to profane the individual faces of those who identify with the group.

      Acknowledgment of rank is very important. In some situations, such as in the military, rank must be acknowledged in very formal and obligatory ways. In other situations, rank may be acknowledged in very informal ways or by simply giving credit where credit is due. In practically any situation, rank is acknowledged by the granting of privileges, the higher the rank the more the privileges. A teacher is given higher rank than his students, and the students must acknowledge this fact. This is done by having the students accept the idea that the teacher has some privileges that they do not have. As a teacher I have the privilege of asking a student to be quiet, but he does not have the privilege of asking the same of me. Teachers normally have the privilege of cutting ahead of the students in the lunch line, of having a smoking lounge which is off limits to students, of interrupting the conversation of students, of being permitted to come to class late on occasions, and a thousand other little things that are usually taken for granted.

      Acknowledgment generally, but not invariably, takes the form prescribed by cultural expectations and customs. In one society a strict avoidance of one’s mother-in-law is taken as a sign of respect for her. In another culture it would be a profanity. In one culture, one stands at attention to receive a medal of commendation. In another culture such a stance would be seen as unconscionable gloating, a lack of respect for one’s society, a profanity.

      The means of acknowledgment dictated by a culture may or may not be sensible. In our society a functionally useless bit of cloth tied around the neck of males, a necktie that is, is considered more formal, more “dressy,” than that of not wearing one. Therefore a failure to wear such an odd piece of apparel can easily be taken as a lack of respect for a particular situation or the people involved. It can be a profanity in other words. Similarly, hair length, of very little practical value, had a very strong ritual significance in the nineteen-sixties.

      The customary means of acknowledgment that a society dictates can change. Thus long hair on a boy is no longer taken as a sign of disrespect. A number of years ago the only fashions for women that were considered “dressy” included skirts, not pants. Now pantsuits are considered perfectly proper for many types of semi-formal occasions. A number of years ago it was considered a lack of respect, a profanity, for a child to call his parent by the parent’s first name. Now it is often done.

      Acknowledgment must follow custom, but it must also be individualized. One does not acknowledge his boss in the same way that he acknowledges his friends. A teacher doesn’t acknowledge his colleagues in the same way that he acknowledges his students. There is a great deal of overlap of course. Thecourtesy of “Good morning, how are you?” is used in acknowledgment by just about anyone. Yet that is not all there is to it, for people want to be treated individually. If I say “How’s the family?” to one person, I am giving him simple recognition. If I say the same thing to a widow who just lost her only son in an accident, then I would be guilty of gross insensitivity and that would be a profanity. Acknowledgment must follow both cultural expectations and indhuidual circumstances. One must keep his antenna out, so to speak, to see that his acknowledgments, or profanities, are accepted as such.



      I use the term “ritual” to refer to routine stereotyped acknowledgments. In common use “ritual” often refers to stereotyped actions whether there is any face involved or not, but that is not the type of ritual with which I am concerned here. However, it is also true that many stereotyped actions and ceremonies do have face involved. A religious ritual, for example, is very much concerned with face. It is an acknowledgment of a deity, as well as an acknowledgment of the collective face of its practitioners. Even rituals of an individual person may have some appeasement function. One who “makes a ritual of washing his hands” may in fact be acknowledging some deity manufactured by his paranoia.

      There are large rituals and small ones, simple rituals and elaborate ones. A church service is a large ritual, an elaborate acknowledgment of a deity. A polite tip of the hat is a small ritual, a simple acknowledgment of an associate. Greeting rituals are perhaps the most basic and common type of ritual. Face-to-face interaction customarily begins and ends with ritual acknowledgment. This can be simplified into an exchange of hello’s; or it can be elaborated into the embrace and tears of long lost friends; or it can be formalized into the applause of an audience greeting a performer and into his bow in return; or it can be extended into the elaborate display given when heads of state meet or part.

      “Ritual” usually refers to actions or words, but I will also use the term to refer to behavior that is not quite so direct. Thus the wearing of a tie is a ritual, though it is not quite as direct as a bowing or making a speech. It is a ritual because it is taken, at least in our society, to be a sign of respect for a given occasion. Similarly one’s presence at a funeral is a sign of one’s respect for the deceased and may therefore be called a ritual.

      Considerations of face are very important in any society, but in responsible adult society it is all taken very much for granted. Rituals of acknowledgment are so ingrained in our behavior and so interwoven into our everyday affairs that we hardly notice them. Profanities are of some concern in responsible adult society, but are not a big part of everyday life. Adults fight at arms length so to speak - they’ll fight politically; they’ll compete in business; they’ll try to “one-up” each other socially; they’ll compete in collecting status symbols; and in many other ways, they will be at each other’s throats - but they normally don’t engage in blatant profanities in face-to-face interaction. They do this vicariously by watching soap operas on television, but that’s about all. A teacher expects it to be the same in his classroom. This is not always the case though, for students are not yet adults. They are interested in expanding their egos, not in simply maintaining them. The teacher is accustomed to receiving acknowledgment all day, every day, so he automatically expects acknowledgment from his students. Therefore he is often unprepared when he instead gets profanity of one sort or another.

      I will give some examples of face and ritual offenses that I have observed in the classroom, and try to give some idea of how to deal with them. I will divide face offenses into three general areas. First are simple insults. The most direct way to profane another is to say something bad about him. This method is used extensively among school children and sometimes by school children against their teachers. A second way to profane another is less direct but still important. That is to fail to give the customary courtesy or deference due to a person. Yet a third way to profane another is to give the expected courtesy or deference, but to show by body language, word choice, voice inflection, or by some other means, that the courtesy or deference is not sincere or is not freely given - in other words that it is sarcasm. These last two forms of face offense are ritual offenses because they violate the “ritual order.” Ritual offenses are harder for the teacher to deal with than direct insults.

      Direct insults, whether directed to another student or to the teacher, are basically rule violations and should be treated as such. The rule is that people should be courteous to each other. This is a rule that conscientious parents and teachers agree on and teach to children when they are very young. It’s also a rule that can easily get lost in the shuffle of more immediately pressing circumstances, so it should be kept firmly in mind - and practiced - by the teacher at all times. There is sometimes a problem in deciding just what level of insults to allow in a classroom. Obviously it is an impossible task to monitor all the banter between school children, and certainly school children are going to exchange a prodigious number of insults as they are growing up. Where to draw the line is a matter of the teacher’s values, the local customs, and the circumstances of the moment.

      A teacher’s modesty may sometimes prevent him from correcting an insult directed at him. For example a student may say, “You sure did a lousy job directing the Christmas program,” and the teacher may feel that to reprimand the student would be selfish. I do not agree with this. My view is that modesty should never prevent a teacher from reprimanding a breach of courtesy by a student. If another teacher or a parent were to make such a statement I would consider it of little consequence, for I am not responsible for shaping his behavior. But a student, for whom I do have the responsibility for shaping behavior, should not get away with a discourtesy just because I feel I should be self-effacing. It is important, of course, that the offending student understands that the reprimand is not meant to be a personal retaliation.

      Quite commonly a blatant insult is made by a student with the hedge of, “Well it’s the truth isn’t it?” For example Joe says: “I told Johnny that his old man got fired ‘cause he drank too much. Ain’t that true? I didn’t make that up. Everyone knows that. You can’t punish me for telling the truth.” Of course you can punish him for telling the truth. In this situation many teachers would say something about malicious gossip, about respect for others, about “bad mouthing,” and so on. A few would fall for the hedge and try to get away from the problem by turning to another subject. What the real issue is, of course, is how much courtesy we demand our students to show to each other, and how to balance truth against courtesy.

      It is unfortunate that truth and courtesy should ever be in conflict, but with imperfect human nature they often are. As a result we have “ritual fiction.” We say things because they are polite, not because they are true. One very important ritual fiction is that of approval. When in face-to-face interaction, people pretend they approve of each other whether they actually do or not. A corollary to this ritual fiction of approval is the rule of courtesy which states that one should not speak badly of anyone present, if at all possible. By talking about Johnny’s father, in the above example, Joe has blatantly disregarded this rule. Whether or not he should be chastised by the teacher again depends on local customs and values. In a lower-class school such insults might be so commonplace that they must be accepted as a part of the way the students live. In a strict private school such an insult might well call for a reprimand and a conference with the parents.

      In addition to the ritual fiction of approval, there is also a ritual fiction of trust. This fiction is one that has a very strong hold on many people. It is rather hard for some people to just come out and say, “I don’t trust you.” A con man can make very productive use of this fiction by putting people on the spot so that they must demonstrate their professed trust. They must insult the con man by expressing their distrust if they are to keep from falling in a trap. This can be very hard to do.

      In my teaching I feel a very strong need to show this ritual fiction of trust to my students, and this can be a considerable handicap in some situations. “George, did you throw that spitball?” I ask. George denies it and I then feel guilty for having accused him and of showing my lack of trust. I am then in a quandary as to whether to continue my interrogation or to drop the matter. If I drop the matter, I may be playing right into his manipulating hands. But if I continue to probe, and if George is really innocent, then I am guilty of profaning him, and this is something I very much don’t want to do. Such a dilemma has no easy solution that I know of. It’s best to avoid the whole situation if at all possible. A partial solution is to keep in mind that it is quite proper for a teacher to distrust students, and it is quite proper for a teacher to follow up on a suspicion. However, if a teacher must follow up on a suspicion, he should have the decency to do so as tactfully as possible.

      Another ritual fiction is that of the compatibility, or at least the mutual coexistence, of the values and loyalties of all people present in an interaction. To promote this ritual fiction, it is important that people avoid displaying expressions and symbols of identification. To display identification symbols is to offend those whose identifications lie elsewhere. Ideally this should not be, but again with frail human nature it is. Therefore civilized people take care not to display symbols of identification too blatantly. In the politically oriented 1960s this rule seemed more evident by its violation than by its observance. The prevalence of arm bands, “peace symbols” plastered on every vertical surface, and bumper stickers on every other car kept the political stew brewing. Dress in particular was used to display identification. Long hair on males was used as a symbol of “anti-establishment” values and provoked many people of more conservative views to take violent offense. Dress codes in schools often became the focus of painful controversy as a result. Hopefully we are moving away from such problems.

      Ritual fictions are wide open to abuse by students. A good example of this occurred in my first year of teaching music. The band was going to play for a junior high basketball game. Before the basketball game there was a girls’ volleyball game, and I had several clarinet players who were on this volleyball team. This presented some problems in making arrangements, but nothing insurmountable. Ellen, one of my obstructionist students who was in both of these activities, took the opportunity to inform me, “Well, volleyball is more important than band. That’s the simple truth. I can’t do anything about that.” To be polite she could have omitted this “truth,” for there was no real conflict. She didn’t have to express an allegiance for or against either volleyball or band. By telling me that volleyball was more important than band, she tore down the ritual fiction of approving of each other and of maintaining compatible values. Is this a discourtesy that I should have reprimanded her for? Or is it a deniable offense that I had best let go by? I don’t know. I didn’t reprimand her because in my first year of teaching I was just trying to keep my head above water and had no perspective or skill in dealing with such subleties. My opinion now is that such a ritual offense calls for a word of correction by the teacher, but only if the teacher is experienced and skillful enough to not dig himself in deeper. Had I tried to chastise Ellen in this incident, she would have reacted with more complaints and no benefit would have come from it.

      Another girl in the same school dealt my ego a similar blow. It was the beginning of the next school year, and I was trying to get the band set up. “Susan, do you want to take band this year?” I asked. She gave me the iciest “no” I’d ever been given. Courtesy, as practiced by the middle classes in general and certainly by her parents, would have required a face-saving answer. “No, I can’t take band this year. My folks want me to spend my time on my other subjects.” This answer would have maintained a polite fiction of approval. There were a dozen ways in which Susan could have answered politely in that situation, and she was certainly smart enough to know them. I knew her parents well enough to know that they would have expected this of her. At the moment, though her rude reply was her way of offending me. She was too well brought up to offend in the usual ways, such as by throwing spitballs and so on, but it’s very hard for either parents or teachers to guard against minor ritual offenses like this. Susan’s less than perfect tact was a blow to my ego, but I don’t think there would have been any benefit in my trying to reprimand her. The offense was just too subtle and deniable. Furthermore Susan was not at all an obstructionist like Ellen. Her attitude was motivated by a considerable amount of frustration in band the previous year. I could expect more tact from a saint, but not from the average person.

      There are rituals of body language that can be used by students to cause discipline problems. Body language may be used to show respect or disrespect. It may be used to show attention or disdain. Normally body language is used simply to confirm or emphasize what one is saying. There is always a temptation to think that body language will reveal secrets that the person’s words will not. This may be true at times if one is a good enough observer. However, in everyday life people lie just as well with their body language as with their words. For the teacher, the problem is much more often one of body language being too easy to read. When a student says “Okay, you’re the boss” while smirking and sprawling in his chair, then there is no problem in reading his body language, and the “secrets” it reveals are not welcome to the teacher. The student is giving verbal acknowledgment but taking it back with his body language. The net result, of course, is a profanity to the teacher. Whether or not it calls for a reprimand depends again on the circumstances of the moment.

      The use of body language to indicate attention or lack of attention can sometimes be a problem. When the teacher is speaking to the class and Fred is staring out the window, should the teacher tell him not to? Fred may be actually listening to every word the teacher is saying, or he may not. He may be bored either because he knows it all or because he’s not going to learn anything no matter what the teacher does or says. Should we demand that he should act as though he’s paying attention even though we know he can’t or won’t? My viewpoint is that it is not unreasonable to expect students to act like they’re paying attention. If Fred is staring out the window, it is quite proper to say, “Fred, are you with me?” or even a more abrupt, “Pay attention, Fred!”

      One method that teachers sometimes use in this situation is that of asking the student a question about the subject, expecting him to be taken aback because he hadn’t been listening and therefore can’t answer the question. This method sometimes gets results, but there are problems with it. It is very possible, even likely, that Fred will answer the question perfectly without batting an eye while continually staring out the window. What is the teacher then to do? By asking a pointed question, the teacher has implied that actual attention is more important than that of showing it. Fred has demonstrated that his actual attention is there. If the teacher then informs Fred that he must also put on a show of attention, then the teacher appears inconsistent. I think it is much better to let the class know from the outset that both the actual attention and the showing of it are required. If I tell Fred to pay attention and he replies indignantly, “I’ve been listening to every word you’ve said,” then I would reply something to the effect, “That’s good, Fred. But you’ve also got to look like it. I don’t want you staring out the window all hour.” This will not necessarily solve the problem, but it is certainly better than falling for his game.

      Sloppy posture can be used by students to aggravate the teacher. Teachers don’t like to try to talk to a group of students sprawled halfway in and halfway out of their chairs. But what is wrong with being sprawled in one’s chair? Is not the important thing that the student is listening or applying himself to his studies? The problem is that posture is used, in just about any society, to indicate a differential of rank. Among peers one’s posture may be as relaxed as that of the next person, but, among unequals, the lower ranking person, if he is to be polite, should not be more relaxed than the higher ranking person. An example of posture used as a symbol of deference is seen most strongly in the military where the lower ranking person is to snap to attention to salute the higher ranking person. The higher ranking person then returns the salute and puts the lower ranking person at ease, if he so chooses. The superior has the privilege of being at ease himself while leaving his subordinate at attention. Nothing like this degree of rank order should occur in a classroom, but teachers are only human and they want some respect for their rank. They also want some respect to be shown for the situation. Thus teachers may take it as a ritual offense if students are too relaxed. I have often had occasion to say, “Jackie, sit up straight! You can’t study that way, all slouched down in your chair.” Strictly speaking, of course, he can study that way, but it is not good manners for him to do so.

      There is much more to be said about ritual and courtesy, and about how students can twist ritual and courtesy to their own ends, than I can put into this chapter. I cannot give a complete catalog of the “ritual order” of our society, but hopefully the examples I have given are enough to illustrate the problem. Next I will turn to the general question of what the teacher should do about face and ritual offenses. Is there a basic strategy to use in dealing with such things? Are there any special tricks or techniques available to the teacher? I think the basic strategy in dealing with face and ritual offenses is the same as in dealing with any offense: tell the students what to do; tell them what not to do; and then enforce these dictates by whatever means are required.

      Enforcement is relatively easy in a clear-cut case, a case in which a student has unequivocally violated a well defined rule; but to get a clear-cut case can be very difficult at times. Students, at least some of them, are very talented at having a hedge. In ritual offenses the usual hedge is the teacher’s difficulty in defining the offense. When I charge Ellen or Susan with being impolite, they quite properly demand to know in just what way they were impolite. Fred wants to know what’s wrong with staring out the window, and Jackie wants to know why he can’t get comfortable in his chair. If I cannot tell my students in plain simple English what to do and what not to do, then how can I complain when they fall short of my expectations? I’ve taken quite a number of pages trying to define face and ritual offenses in this chapter, but obviously I can’t do this in the classroom. The students would entangle me in endless hypothetical cases that would lead to nowhere. A teacher should certainly tell his class that courtesy is expected, and I think it should be made plain to the students that they can get into as much trouble for being discourteous as they can for throwing spitballs. But beyond this rule, there are so many possible offenses that it is impossible to cover them all.

      The problem of defining offenses will not go away anymore than the problem of defining limits will go away when a teacher is faced with a hard-core liner. Acknowledging this, there are several approaches one can use. First of all a teacher can decide that he doesn’t have to define every possible offense. It is a long-standing principle in criminal justice that the crimes must be carefully defined before guilt can be found and punishment inflicted, but a classroom is not a courtroom. Parents are not held to standards of perfection that a judge and prosecuting attorney are held to, and neither are teachers. Parents and teachers are given a considerable amount of discretionary authority to do what they believe to be in the interest of the child. They are expected to apply a punishment when a punishnient is needed whether they have an airtight case or not. As a society we are moving away from discretionary authority in many areas, usually in the name of civil rights. Whether this is good or bad remains to be seen, but for the moment it should never be forgotten that discretionary authority is perfectly legitimate. It should not be abused, but it certainly should be used.

      The use of discretionary authority in punishing face and ritual offenses is made easier by the fact that the usual punishment is simply a verbal reprimand by the teacher, or at most a scolding. In my experience, just about the strongest language I ever had to use was something to the effect of: “Charlie, that’s not a very polite thing to say! I expect people to be courteous to each other in my class.” This does not seem like a very strong punishment, and it certainly does not clearly define the offense, yet it is usually adequate. Such a statement tells the student that the hedge of the offense, which is not being defined, will not work. And just as ritual offenses are usually deniable offenses, so is this type of reprimand a deniable punishment. The student may complain, and he may even get the ear of the principal or his parents, but, as long as only a few harsh wordsare involved, there is little possibility of much trouble. The student may also want to start a game of debate. This can be aggravating to the teacher, but usually can be handled if he simply refuses to debate.

      Another approach is to be strict about the rituals that can be specifically defined. Some school officials demand that the students answer the teachers “yes sir” and “no sir” instead of just “yah” and “naw,” thinking this is indicative of respect. Military tradition demands that the students snap to attention when a teacher enters the room. The custom of addressing teachers by their titles of “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Miss” is so entrenched in practically all schools that there is little trouble in enforcing it. I think it is fine to be strict about courtesies that are well accepted by society, but I don’t think it follows that such strictness will make it any easier to deal with more subtle discourtesies, or that it will make students any more courteous in general. In fact, if the students feel that the teacher is being overly pompous, they may go out of their way to make trouble.

      A method of handling ritual and face offenses that many aggressive teachers depend upon is the method of simple overkill. That is, they put on a display of aggression which inhibits the misbehavior of the students. Such teachers don’t worry about analyzing or defining the offenses or of justifying their punishments. They know what they want, and they demand it, even if they can’t verbalize it. Many teachers run a good class this way, though a few, of course, use their aggressiveness indiscriminately. If it would do any good I would say that I do indeed recommend the judicious use of overkill, but aggressiveness is not something that can be easily acquired. I could no more recommend that all teachers use aggressiveness to handle misbehavior than I could recommend running a four-minute mile to catch a train.