Cary Beckwith

Anatomy of a “Beatdown”: When Talk Threatens Face


A person’s social worth is subject to evaluation in any interaction, with stakes rising the more onlookers there are. Interaction rituals work to protect a person’s face, but at times face-work takes a competitive, zero-sum turn when one participant attempts to “score points” at the expense of others. This article uses a public embarrassment spectacle to isolate the role of conversational mechanics in face-work. In a televised interview between comedian David Letterman and actor Joaquin Phoenix, Letterman and Phoenix unknowingly collaborate to embarrass Phoenix. Letterman and Phoenix navigate conversational obligations and conventions in ways that threaten Phoenix’s face. These “conversation-mechanical points” facilitate “content-based points” that further damage Phoenix, who afterward described the encounter as a “beatdown.” This analysis highlights the place of conversational mechanics in face-work and shows how the structure of talk works in concert with the content of talk in producing a ritual outcome.


Working paper available by email.