“Healthcare”-Face Negotiation Theory
Michael Scott: “The most sacred thing I do is care. And provide for my workers, my family. I give them money. I give them food. Not directly, but through the money. I heal them. Today I am in charge of picking a great new healthcare plan. Right, that’s what this is all about. Does that make me their doctor? Um… yes. In a way. Yeah, like a specialist.”
There are many episodes that I could use to express the Face Negotiation Theory, partially due to how important “maintaining face” is to Michael. But for these purposes, I chose the classic Season 1 episode “Healthcare.”
To start off, I think it’s important to explain what the Face Negotiation Theory (FNT) is. According to Martin and Nakayama in Intercultural Communication (2010), “Face is the sense of favorable self-worth, and in all cultures people are concerned about saving face.” In other words, face is your reputation, or how you think others view you. There are generally two different approaches when looking at face; you are either individualistic or collectivistic. Individualists are more concerned with their internal perceptions and focus on ego, pride, personal accomplishment or failure, and self-esteem. Collectivists tend to think more about groups and relationships. These different focuses influence your behavior.
In the episode “Healthcare”, Michael is told he has to pick a new health plan for his employees. At first, he chooses the best, most extravagant plan, thinking it will please his employees. His boss, however, tells him that the point of picking a new plan was to cut costs. This is something he definitely does not want to do. He tells his boss, “That is kind of a tough assignment…not going to be a popular decision around the old office…it’s a suicide mission!”
There were many ways that Michael could have responded to his task. He could have avoided, obliged, compromised, dominated, or collaborated (Griffin, 2009). He probably chose the worst option he could have: avoidance. First, he tries to delegate the job to Jim, who, wanting to save his face, tells him to have Dwight do it. Jim knows that the reaction from the office will be an unpleasant one, and since he feels it isn’t his job (which is true), he also chooses not to do it.
Dwight Schrute: “OK, first let’s go over some parameters. How many people can I fire?”
Michael Scott: “Uh, none. You’re picking a healthcare plan.”
Dwight attempts to save face in his own way by trying to build up his ego and reputation. He is extremely individualistic, and constantly tries to showboat his newly-gained “power.” He is given a “temporary workspace” which he repeatedly refers to as his office. He also tells Michael’s boss that he is acting manager for the day because Michael gave the job of picking a plan to him. In these instances, Dwight tries to build his own ego by flaunting around his assignment.
Throughout the episode, Michael constantly makes stupid mistakes in his failed attempts to save face. First, he delegates the job. Then when Dwight comes up with a first draft of his plan and the other employees complain, he acts like he is angry at Dwight and tells him to come up with a new plan that will work for everyone, even though Dwight did what Michael had told him—save money. To dig his hole even deeper, Michael tries to cheer everyone up by saying he will have a big surprise by the end of the day.
He shows up later with some bags of ice cream bars, thinking that it will win over his employees. They respond positively, but when Stanley asks, “This isn’t the big surprise is it?” Michael says no, it was surprising, but not the big surprise.
There is also a point in the episode where Dwight calls everybody in the office into his conference room to see what they need covered. Rather than respecting their confidentiality, he goes through diseases they had written one by one to see who needs it covered. During this session, everybody is embarrassed, trying to save his or her own face. Dwight has no concept of a collectivistic viewpoint of his co-workers. Instead of doing what was best for the group, he tries to serve his own agenda.
In the end, everybody is frustrated by Dwight’s healthcare plan. They end up waiting outside Michael’s office to see what the big surprise was. They tell him that Dwight’s plan was awful, and he acts surprised and says, “Thanks, Dwight, for a crappy plan. I wish I could change it, but Jan needs it by five…What time is it? Oh, it’s after five.” When they ask what the big surprise was, he has absolutely nothing to say. Michael, at the end of his rope, just stands there looking like an idiot, as the employees slowly file out one by one.
This all could have been avoided had Michael chosen a different way of handling the situation. He could have found ways to compromise with Dwight’s plan. He could have formed a team to collaborate and make a plan. He could have just chosen the plan himself, as the boss, and dealt with employees not loving him. These ideas didn’t come to him, though, because he was too concerned with maintaining the approval of his inferiors…which he lost in the process.
Griffin, E. (2009). A first look at communication theory. Boston: McGrawy-Hill Higher Education.
Martin, Judith, & Nakayama, Thomas. (2009). Intercultural communication in contexts. McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Languages.