The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman

Goffman, Erving (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. USA: Anchor (Penguin Reprint 1990)
by Emily Ball Cicchini

Goffman’s seminal first sociological work is a lyrical descriptive riff on the “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” metaphor. But where Shakespeare wrote merely in terms of the passing of time, parsing out life’s seven phases in the comedy As You Like It, Goffman explodes the idea across culture and class, boldly attempting to do a dramaturgy of the whole of human society (or at least, the Anglo American society in which he built his impressive academic career).

Despite his efforts to include a diversity of subjects and intellectual scaffolds, it is easy to pick at this delicate work today as sexist, racist, and elitist. It is also still supremely observant and sensitive with wonderful and abundant portraits of people playing at professions from a range of social classes and some geographic scope (Shetland Island crofters, Indian Brahmins, mental asylums, college co-eds, con men and prostitutes, the affluent gentry). His ability to observe, record, recall, reconstruct and reorder dramatic scenarios “in the wild” for illustrative effect is certainly remarkable. Goffman lived in a much more formal, time-and-place bound world than we do now; how sad it is that he did not live to witness the Internet, and comment on how it is or is not changing the “definition of our situation.”

Although, he may not have ever had much interest in the Internet; for he was, somewhat inexplicably, a theatre person, who clearly valued face-to-face, synchronous, “live” interaction, and seemed to decry our “indoor life style.” There is no ready explanation for why he knew so darn much about dramaturgy; but he was as sensitive towards stagecraft as a professional actor, director, or playwright practitioner or teacher might be. He could look at a given experience in dramaturgical terms with complete confidence, never breaking character from his act. For a reader trained extensively in dramaturgy (playwriting and acting, also history and theory) before sociology, psychology, and communication studies, this is both unsettling and terrifically rich territory to mine. Each of his points has a direct correlation to stagecraft as generally practiced in contemporary times.

Repeated often within the report or handbook (as he calls it),“to sustain the definition of the situation” is for Goffman the primary goal of all human interaction, both at an individual and a group level. This spanks a little of a lack of attention to models of transcendence vs. mere survival, but it helps to frame his method, which is exacting and precise. Goffman is a sociologist more than a psychiatrist; he is interested in observable behavior, noting that individuals will have “many motives in trying to control the impression” of a situation (p 26), but not delving too far into motivation, intention, wants, needs, nor stated or implicit goals. This frees him to really look at the structure of the drama; the characters, settings, and common plots that people enact in everyday lives. In doing so, he places himself in the role of the critic or director, the “outsider,” neither performer nor audience, observing the drama play out. This distance affords him a license to judge and evaluate, to pronounce qualities of engagement in ways that support his primary thesis. At times, this in itself feels like a bit of an act; removed and slightly forced; which makes a reader slightly suspicious of his personal motives and unclaimed biases. He is at times himself cynical, “not taken in by his own act” (p 29). He speaks of “enlightened self-interest (p 241)” and dismisses the idea of mystery as a secret that must be kept that “there really is no mystery (p 76).” Occasional comments along these lines belie a secular attitude that places itself above belief, submission and morality, with a smugness meant to be existentially pragmatic and objectively realist but coming off as dark, depressed, or at least, pessimistic of the human condition. But really, these are minor flaws, in a work that by most measures succeeds remarkably well.

He delves into great detail about “Performances.” Moving quickly through the idea of acting is believing and being believed by an audience, he alludes to the shamanistic model; not for its spiritual impact but as an example of cynical deception. In most cases, he describes a world in which performers are perhaps more self-aware of their performances than they might be if not being observed in this way. He describes the “Fronts” that people of many walks of life keep up; particularly those who are rising in or have already achieved high social status; he attributes agency to them, as primarily being selected, and not created (p 38). For Goffman, “setting, appearance, and manner” all contribute to the Fronts we maintain (p 39).

He talks about “dramatic realization” of one’s role, and about the confidence needed to perform, as well as the fulfillment of audience expectation that surround given roles. He talks about how roles are idealized, and how uniqueness, personal touch, and spontaneity enhance performances. He illuminates how all performers must reduce traits that don’t contribute to the role if they want to be convincing and effective; particularly if they have hidden agendas or something secret to attain. He speaks of the need to prepare, relax, and control physical and vocal expressions; eliminating the tics and bad habits like young or inexperienced actors must work to do. He drills down to the importance of very minute actions, the “flicking of a cigarette butt by a hearse driver,” to illustrate his point (p 62-63). He appears himself in awe at the strictness of Anglo American “aptness, fitness, propriety and decorum.” He gives a nod to Santayana in a long passage which basically reiterates that what we act, is truly what we are. The masks cause a certain “bureaucratization of the spirit” (p 84), and with help from Simone de Beauvoir, he comes to understand that (particularly for women) this extends often to the body as well. It is to his credit that he references “The Second Sex” so frequently, although his descriptions of college girls dating behavior still seems a bit too much of the era of “Mad Men” to take very seriously as representative of women’s social experience at the time. And yet, his attempts at understanding do seem sincere.

In addition to acting is believing, he also explores the Platonic influenced construct that acting is lying. He writes in detail about misrepresentation, of frauds, imposters, and merely unconvincing portrayals. He details how professionalism, experts, and even legal concepts are driven in part by covering up deficits of reality. Here again, he leaves the question of “what reality really is to other students,” (p 72-73), while asserting that performances, when studied, can nonetheless be learned from as more or less honest. The problem of who decides what performances are false is also left up for question.

After the lengthy description of performances, he describes in interesting detail the nature of “Teams,” or the whole dramatis personæ of a particular everyday situation. Cooperation and mutual dependance are stressed; and the complex relationships between performers and sets of performers and audiences and non-audiences are well investigated. Creating agreements (“Saying yes,” in the rules of improvisational acting), staying in the loop, and keeping united fronts are are key aspects of peak team performance. Audiences themselves perform a role; and in everyday life, the lines between performers and audiences are often rapidly shifting. Some roles are more minor and passive, some are star-like, directive, dictatorial. Teams are like secret societies, troupes of Rude Mechanicals, who cooperate to maintain a representation of reality. The difference between a team and a group is that a team must cooperate; where a group is externally defined and may not have any interactive relationship at all (p 108).

The chapter on “Regions” is the most vulnerable to a lack of contemporary relevance, because our social, economic, and time/space boundaries have been so altered by the Internet; but the concept itself is still valid. The concept of “making work” (or looking busy) and the shunning of “rate busters” who mess up supervisor expectations by exceeding quotas are explained. Here, Goffman allows himself to delve into morality; into moral and instrumental constructs of performances, guided by social decorum:

“Moral requirements are ends in themselves and presumably refer to rules regarding non-interference and non-molestation of others, rules regarding sexual propriety, rules regarding respect of sacred places, etc. Instrumental requirements are not ends in themselves and presumably refer to duties such as an employer might demand of his employees – care of property, maintenance of work levels, etc.” (p 110)

All social establishments, Goffman explains, have their own standards of decorum. Removing himself from their confines, he describes several different social teams, and then, introduces a key take away concept of front of house/backstage as a commonly repeated construct to deal with the staging of everyday life. The kitchen and dining room of a hotel restaurant; the break-room of a union shop; the bedroom for a young married couple are all explored using this construct. The danger of blurring the front/back divides are described as putting both the audience and the performer in the position of feeling “bewildered and tormented.” The answer, he says, is for the performer to consciously segregate his audiences (p 137). Unfortunately, this is harder to do in world where our digital identities are increasingly disseminated in an open, unrestricted and uncontrollable way, by agencies out of our control.

Further delving into the discomfort that people feel when confronted with breaks in the expected and agreed upon order, the consensus-built “definition of a situation” described throughout, Goffman uses the fourth chapter to dissect “Discrepant Roles.” Here, he further acknowledges the parts that all performers consciously or unconsciously hide; making a distinction between dark, strategic, inside, free, and entrusted secrets, based on both their purpose and their intended audience. Here, he makes the clearest categorization of the roles of performer/audience/outsider: performers have access to front/backstage; audience to front only; and outsiders to neither. Those who do transverse these roles are liminal in quality; they are the informers, shills, spotters, and critics. In more legitimate sounding roles, they are agents, mediators, go-betweens; foremen, chairmen— in other terms, middle managers and servant-leaders. They have special access and information. This is not to be confused with servants, who along with cab drivers and elevator operators, must assume the discordant role of non-persons. Technical personnel, service personnel, consultants, parents, teachers, trainers, and other “special specialists” all fit into this outsider role, although they may also constitute performers and audiences from time to time. It seems, although not explicitly implied, that as a planning function, the playwright would also fall in the outsider role; this has certainly been this playwright’s experience over several years working in the American professional regional theatre. Still, such observations are not meant to be fixed or proscriptive. “A spate of informal conversation can, in fact, be seen as the formation and re-formation of teams, and the creation and re-creation of go-betweens” (p 150). Goffman warns that these discrepant roles can sometimes suffer from mistakes in collegiality or turning renegade and “going native.” He again points to professionalization as a way of maintaining certain boundaries of expectations; and uses mothers as an example of a group who are not held responsible for each others’ conduct, where as lawyers and doctors are. Finally in this chapter, he again speaks to his bias for face-to-face contact over mediated interaction, as he calls audiences who are distant “weak.” Its hard not to wonder if today, these weak audiences, particularly digital, have more influence over the definition of the situation than they might have held before the Internet.

He next covers “Communication Out of Character,” the asides, confidants, and unexpected role boundary crossing between lawyers and other competing teams; unofficial communications; break-room/backstage antics; religious confession and support groups; and the basic human need of being part of team, of belonging. He puts this communication in four baskets: treatment of the absent; staging talk; team collusion, and re-aligning actions in the face of unpredicted change. The crack in practicality is only briefly addressed at the chapter’s end: “Whether the performers feel their official offering is the ‘realest’ reality or not, they will give surreptitious expression to multiple versions of reality, each version tending to be incompatible with the others.”

The Arts of Impression Management goes back to the details of physical and vocal expression (avoiding the “unmeant gesture”), and expands on defensive tactics, such as loyalty, discipline, and circumspection. He includes the audience as part of the pact to “save the show,” even in the face of embarrassing gaffes and disasters. “Knowing that his audiences are capable of forming bad impressions of him, the individual may come to feel ashamed of a well-intentioned honest act merely because the context of its performance provides false impressions that are bad.” For a sociologist not terribly concerned about motivations and intentions, he is quite attentive to feelings, particularly ones of discomfort and particularly shame.

In acting terms, we would call this playing the negative, or working externally rather than internally on a role. These acting teacher comments suggest that one must work toward something, not away from something, to be convincing; and that focusing only on external presentation, not internal motivation as befits a scene will also make performances ring false. Goffman seems to suffer from his own hyper-acute power of awareness; he is perhaps too conscious of his own lack of measuring up, both socially and sexually; one worries that he may at times be driven more by avoiding shame than by seeking a personally pleasurable or at least a socially desirable outcome. Referring again to Simone de Beauvoir describing the self-objectification of a fashion conscious mature woman; and of a study by Mirra Komarovsky of “Cultural Contradictions and Sex Roles” (American Journal of Sociology) which describes a young woman shamed for playing dumb to impress a date, one feels for his confusion about the “shared staging problems” of the “human situation.” The most seemingly mysterious to him, and perhaps still to most of us, remains the fundamental staging problems between women and men (p 230).

However, Goffman is nothing but an elegant wordsmith. He can’t leave the complex tapestry he’s woven on such an ambiguous note. In the conclusion, he both offers the “dramaturgical” perspective as opposed to the technical, political, cultural or structural view of social establishments (read, organizations); as well as apologizes for the limits and even commonplaceness of the model. Still, he advocates for a “gentlemanly” presentation of self, aiming for credibility and honestly, minimizing things that would discredit the performance. He wants performers, the base, ribald, backstage of the self to be controlled and usurped by characters they adopt, and build. He even describes a type of “role enterprise,” where a particular team member “attempts not so much to move into a higher position already established as to create a new position for himself, a position involving duties which suitably express attributes that are congenial to him” (p 240). This is an inspiration image, and one that it seems that Goffman himself might have pursued, slipping as he did between traditional disciplinary and methodological bounds. And it points rather directly, like an intellectual signpost, to the research opportunity of deep dramaturgial analysis of the Internet.

For there is a kind of special joy in Goffman’s writing, something of the pleasure of a good actor; someone who can see and express the world in a particularly unique way, with strength, agility, and confidence, but also, with vulnerability. It is most pleasurable to read when he is authentically experiencing joy himself, as he did quite early on in the report, dancing around the world’s a stage to the beautiful new metaphor, full of hope, decorum, and promising intimacy:

“The world, in truth, is a wedding.” (p 45)