When discussing equivocation it is worth first considering the concepts of face-management and self-presentation. Face management originated with Erving Goffman who described it as “an image of self-delineated in terms of approved social attributes” (Goffman 1967:5). This concept has been adapted by Brown and Levinson to include two sides of face, positive and negative.

“Negative face: the want of every ‘competent adult member’ that his actions be unimpeded by others.

Positive face: the want of every member that his wants to be desirable to at least some others.”

(Brown and Levinson 1987:62)

There are multiple aspects of face that politicians can be seen defending within political discourse. Brown and Levinson’s positive and negative face are part of a politician’s individual face; however, politicians also have to defend the face of others. The three aspects of face politicians have to protect are their individual face, the face of significant others and the face of the party they represent.

Face and Equivocation

Face management is important to the discussion of equivocation as during interactions participants will aim to preserve their face. In political discourse a threat to the face might be an ‘avoidance-avoidance’ conflict also known as a conflictual question. Therefore, when a politician is faced with a conflictual question they will respond with equivocation to avoid any damage to their face. Positive face is particularly central to equivocation as ultimately a politician’s career is decided by the electorate.

Threats to the multiple facets of a politician’s face can influence their choice to equivocate, but can also influence when a politician chooses to directly answer a question. For example, if a politician is asked a question about one of their policies they need to give justification for it, if they don’t then the public may question that politician or the politician’s competence. Another example could be if a politician is questioned on a failure they, or their party, made and they don’t respond to that then the politician’s credibility could be questioned.

There are multiple channels which can provide threats to face and opportunities for equivocation, including televised political interviews and social media sites such as Twitter where the politicians are in contact with the public.

  • For more information of face management see:
    Goffman, E. (1967) Interaction Ritual Essays on Face-to-Face Behaviour. London: Penguin Books
  • Brown, P. and Levinson, S. (1987) Politeness: Some Universals in Language Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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Featured image ‘Faces‘ by Zyada CC BY 2.0