The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life – Extended Summary

An ‘extended summary’ of Erving Goffman’s ‘Presentation of Self in Daily Life’ including his concepts of front and backstage, performers and audiences,  impression management, idealisation, dramatic realisation, manipulation, discrepant roles and tact. 

CHAPTER ONE – PERFORMANCES

Belief in the part one is playing

Goffman distinguishes between two approaches to acting out social roles – sincerity and cynicism. Sincere individuals really believe their act is an expression of their own identity, and truly want others to believe this too (the ‘typical’ case), while cynical individuals do not invest ‘themselves’ in their roles, they are acting with a means to another end, which can either be for self-gain (like a conman) or for the benefit of the people around them (a teacher who acts strict but is not necessarily like this in real life).

To quote Goffman:

‘At one extreme, one finds that the performer can be fully taken in by his own act; and he can be sincerely convinced that the impression of reality which he stages is the real reality. When the audience is also convinced in this way about the show he put one – and this seems to be the typical case – then for the moment at least, only the sociologist or the socially disgruntled will have any doubts about the ‘realness’ of what is presented.

At the other extreme, we find that the performer may not be taken in at all by his own routine… the performer may be moved to guide the conviction of the audience only a means to other ends, having no ultimate concern in the conception they have of him or of the situation.’

Goffman goes on to say that people can oscillate between these two extremes as they move through different stages of their lives. He gives the example of a new recruit to the army who first of all acts out the disciplined training routine and hates it but must go along with it in order to avoid punishment, but after time comes to feel that a disciplined life has real meaning for him personally.

Front

Goffman uses the term ‘performance’ to refer to ‘all the activity of an individual which occurs during a period marked by his continuous presence before a particular set of observers and which has some influence on observers. ‘Front’ is ‘that part of the individuals performance which regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation for those who observe the performance’.

There are three things an individual can use to establish a ‘social front‘ – Setting, Appearance and Manner (the final two Goffman calls ‘personal front’)

‘Setting’ refers to the fixed elements of front – the physical layout of a room and associated background props – someone’s work space or living room is a good example of a ‘setting’.

‘Appearance’ consists of those things we most closely associate with the person themselves – the things which ‘follow them around’ and consists of fixed attributes such as one’s racial background or age, as well as things like clothes and the items one chooses to carry around.

‘Manner’ is the attitude to one’s setting one displays – confidence, humility, authority etc.

We generally expect there to be consistency between setting, appearance and manner, but these don’t always match up.

Goffman also notes that we are constrained by society in terms of the front we can put on. If we adopt certain roles in society, we don’t actually have that much choice over the front which we can adopt – we are required by social norms to put on a certain front, and there is little room for manoeuvre.

He further suggests that the same sorts of front are required in many different roles – so if we successfully learn to project one front in one setting, we can apply that front to many others.

Dramatic Realisation

‘While in the presence of others, the individual typically infuses his activity with signs which dramatically highlight and portray confirmatory facts which might otherwise remain hidden.’

Many social roles and ‘status positions’ require a certain amount of energy to be invested in the performance of the activities associated with them, energy that is in excess to actually performing the tasks associated with the roles themselves.

One of the best illustrations of this is the Aristocracy – who spend an enormous amount of intentional energy on performing day to day tasks with excess decorum in order to distinguish themselves from others. There are rituals associated with dress codes, greetings, eating, body language, speech and so on….

To give a more mundane example, many jobs require people do certain things to convince the customer or client that they are competent.

A problem in social life is that ‘those who have the time and the talent to perform a task well may not, because of this, have the time or talent to make it apparent that they are performing well.’

There are many roles which we are required to fill in social life, and so one finds that people must choose which performances to invest their egos in – some social roles and some routines are deemed to be more important than others.

Idealisation

‘When the individual presents himself before others his performance will tend to incorporate and exemplify officially accredited values of the society, more so, in fact, than does his behaviour as a whole.

To the degree that the performance highlights the common official values, we may look upon it as an expressive reaffirmation of the moral values of the community’ (in a nod to Durkheim).

To go out in the world is to attend a wedding, a celebration, to stay in one’s room is to miss out on the party.

People play up or down their actual status according to how they think others perceive them (without actually buying into it)…. Social Mobility requires a good performance – often conceived of as making sacrifices in order to maintain ‘front’,

People also engage in negative idealisation, which involves concealment – people will, for example, ‘play down’ when they are interacting with people they believe to be of lower status, in order to fit in with them (although this may not be appreciated by that particular audience)

‘a performer tends to conceal or under-play those activities, facts and motives, which are incompatible with an idealized version of himself and his products.’ There are a number of discrepancies between appearance and overall reality:

  1. Hiding the profit which is made from a performance

  2. Hiding the mistakes made during a performance

  3. Hiding the effort that goes into preparing a performance (the back-stage work)

  4. Hiding any illegal activities

  5. Hiding double standards – this happens because we are often expected to maintain multiple values/ standards which are cannot all be maintained – for example a team at a restaurant may have to sacrifice quality for speed of service, but keep quite about the decline in quality and hope this isn’t picked up on by the audience.

  6. Hiding of origins – people tend to hide the fact they were something else before their performance, giving off the impression that they have always been this way.

In addition, a performer often engenders in his audience the belief that he is related to them in a more ideal way than is always the case.’

An important part of keeping aspects a performance hidden involves practising audience segregation – different performances associated with different roles are often meant for different audiences, who ideally won’t see the actor in any of his other performances. This is especially important because something actors do is to make any particular audience feel as if they are special, the most important audience, when in reality they are just one audience amongst many.

Maintenance of expressive control

Performers can reasonably expect minor cues to be read by their audience as signs of something significant. Unfortunately, the opposite is also the case – minor cues which were not intended to be read by the audience may also be taken to be of significance and these may undermine the image the performer is trying to present.

These accidents and unmet gestures are very common and there are three general types:

  1. Losing muscular control – tripping, yawning, belching

  2. Showing too little or too much concern with the interaction

  3. Lacking dramaturgical direction – the setting may be sloppy, or the timing of aspects of a performance wrong.

‘The expressive coherence that is required in performances points out a crucial discrepancy between out all-too-human selves and our socialised selves. As human beings we are presumably creatures of variable impulse with moods and energies that change from one moment to the next. As characters for an audience, however, we must not be subject to ups and downs. A certain bureaucratisation of the spirit expected so that we can be relied upon to give a perfectly homogeneous performance at any given time’.

Misrepresentation

The same tendency of the audience to accept the importance of signs (even if they are not meant to give off any meaning) which leads to the need for expressive control also opens up the opportunity for the performer to manipulate the audience through using signs to signify things which have no basis in reality.

Not all misrepresentation is the same. For example we tend to think more harshly of someone acting up to a higher status than acting down to a lower status. Also, some statuses are ambiguous. We can prove easily that someone is not a legal professional, but it is not so easy to prove someone is not a ‘true friend’.

Most misrepresentation is not about blatant lying, it is about not putting on display everything one has to do fulfil one’s social roles, and there are hardly any roles in society where everyone can be completely open about everything the do without losing face in some way.

Mystification

One of the easiest ways to maintain an idealised image of oneself is to maintain a distance between oneself and one’s audience – The more distance a performer can keep between them and their audience, the more elbow room they have to maintain an idealised image of themselves (Kings should not mix with ordinary people).

Reality and Contrivance

We generally tend to think of performances as being of one or two types – the sincere and the contrived. The former are not acted, they come from the unconscious ‘pure self’ of the individual who really believes in what they are doing, the later is the cynic, acting out a role without really believing in it.

But most performances on the social stage fall somewhere between these two realities. What is required in social life is that the individual learn enough about role-playing to fulfil the basic social roles that are required of him during his life – most of us ‘buy into this’ and act out what is expected of us, so we invest an element of ourselves into our roles, but at the same time we don’t necessarily get into our roles in a gung-ho sort of way…. So most acting is neither fully ‘sincere’ or fully ‘contrived’.

CHAPTER TWO – TEAMS

People don’t just engage in the presentation of the self as single actors, performances (or attempts to define the situation) are often conducted in teams – Goffman uses the term ‘performance team’ to refer to a group of people who collaborate in staging a single performance.

Goffman notes two features of teams engaging in dramaturgical cooperation.

  • Firstly, anyone can one of the team members can mess up a performance, and everyone is dependent on the good conduct of everyone else.

  • Secondly, team members have a degree of ‘familiarity’ with one another – which means that they share a back-stage where they will drop their collective performance.

Teams have to conceal certain aspects of their activity to make their collective performance effective – for example the fact that they have engineered, or practised a ‘party line’ is hidden because a collective front seems more sincere if the audience thinks all the members agreed on the performance independently.

In large organisations the party line can become rather thin because it is difficult to keep everyone happy.

Also in order to be sincere, teams need to hold a united front, and so corrective sanctioning tends to be done backstage.

Teams have a division of labour – they have directors, they have those who are more dramatically dominant than others, and they have those that actually do the tasks (rather than the performance) which the team is expected to do.

CHAPTER THREE – REGIONS AND REGION BEHAVIOUR

‘In our Anglo-American society, a relatively indoor one, when a performance is given it is usually given in a highly bounded region, to which boundaries with respect to time are often added. The impression and understanding fostered by the performance will tend to saturate the region and time span, so that any individual located in this space-time manifold will be in a position to observe the performance and be guided by the definition of the situation which the performance fosters’.

During a performance in a front region, the performer tries to convince the audience that that his activities in the region maintain and embody certain standards. To do this he engages in ‘talk’ with the audience – actual verbal and non-verbal gestural interchanges, and also practices ‘decorum’ – maintaining moral standards and manners but where he just visible to the audience rather than interacting with them gesturally.

One form of decorum is called ‘make work’ – people acting like they are busy even when there is not work to be done when in the presence of a superior. Everyone knows what’s going on but to not act this out would be to show disrespect to one’s superiors.

A backstage region is where the impression fostered by a performance is contradicted as a matter of course. Here a performer can relax, and step out of character.

Backstage is a place where the performer expects the audience not to go, and they are necessary if the worker is to buffer himself from the deterministic demands that go along with a performance.

NB – The ability to control both front and backstage is a fundamental power distinction in society. Some have more power to control both than others.

Some regions are permanently front regions — such as churches or schoolrooms, so much so that people act in them with a certain deference even if they are not members of their congregations. Similarly some other regions are notably backstage. Such areas set the tone for the interaction.

In other regions, they can sometimes be backstage and front stage at different times – the household for example on Sunday morning or while entertaining.

Goffman now provides some examples of where some groups of people lack control over backstage or where the ‘walls’ between front and backstage are too thin to maintain effective boundaries.

He also notes that the boundary between back and front stage is a great place to observe transformation of character.

Where teams are concerned, familiarity backstage may not be total. Three things put paid to this – firstly team members still need to convince other team members that they are worthy players, secondly, they may need to maintain morale for the forthcoming performance, thirdly, where there are differences in age and gender, acts may be put on to differentiate these – it is very rare in cultures that men and women will fully relax backstage with each other for example.

‘In saying that performers act in a relatively informal, familiar, relaxed way while backstage and are on their guard while giving a performance, it should not be assumed that the pleasant interpersonal things of life – courtesy, warmth, generosity are reserved for those backstage and that suspiciousness, snobbishness, and a show of authority are reserved for front region activity.

Often it seems that whatever enthusiasm and lively interest we have at our disposal we reserve for those before whom we are putting on a show and the surest sign of backstage solidarity is to feel that it is safe to lapse into an associable mood of sullen, silent irritability.’

A third area for consideration is the outside, and outsiders – those who are not supposed to witness the performance. Embarrassment can occur when outsiders unexpectedly stumble across a performance meant for others only. Strategies can be employed to overcome this (such as loudly welcoming them or shunning them) but these rarely work to avoid embarrassment.

CHAPTER FOUR – DISCREPANT ROLES

One overall objective of any team is to sustain the definition of the situation that its performance fosters. Given the fragility and the required expressive coherence of the reality that is dramatized by a performance, there are usually facts which, if attention is drawn to them during the performance, would discredit, disrupt, or make useless the impression that the performance fosters. These facts may be said to provide ‘destructive information’. (in order for performances to work) the audience must not require destructive information about the situation that is being defined for them… A team must be able to keep its secrets, and have its secrets kept’.

There are three general types of secret:

  • Dark secrets – these are things which the team would want no one to know because their disclosure would fundamentally undermine the team’s credibility – The fact that Barclay’s Bankers regularly engage in Fraud for example

  • Strategic secrets – These are secrets which give a team a competitive advantage over another team – so their disclosure would harm the team but not discredit them

  • Insider secrets – basically ‘tricks of the trade’ – knowledge which allows teams to put on a good performance but the disclosure of which would not really harm the team in the eyes of the audience.

Goffman also distinguishes between entrusted and free secrets – which are to do with the kind of secrets an individual has in relation to his team. the former are those which if not kept by an individual would discredit both himself and his team if not kept, the later would discredit the team but not the individual if not kept.

Secrets are not the only sources of destructive information – there are also ‘latent secrets’ (harmful facts about which there is no hard evidence about) and unintended gestures – basically accidents and unmeant gestures.

There are three general roles involved in any social situation –

  • The performers who define the situation and have destructive information about the performance

  • The audience who largely accept the definition of the situation but do not have destructive information

  • Outsiders who no little of either of the above.

There, are however, a number of ‘discrepant roles’ which occur on top of the above three major roles:

  • The informer

  • The shill

  • The spotter

  • The shopper

  • The mediator

  • the non person – e.g. the servant, the very young and the very old.

There are also four additional discrepant roles – who are not present in a performance but have information about it (who may be present in our minds of performers while they are acting out roles).

  • The service specialist

  • Confidants

  • Colleagues

  • Renegades

CHAPTER FIVE – COMMUNICATION OUT OF CHARACTER

Discrepant sentiment is nearly always found when we study institutions. There are nearly always occasions when team members make it clear to each other that they are just playing a role, and they communicate with each other out of character – there are four types of communication in which the performer engages which are incompatible with the impression trying to be collectively portrayed to an audience – treatment of the absent, staging talk, team collusion and realigning action

Treatment of the absent – When backstage it is especially common for team members to speak in a derogatory way about the audience, and ritual profanations of the performance are part of this.

Staging talk – refers to discussion about the front stage apparatus and their suitability for impression management.

Team collusion – Performers often use secret signs to signal to each other during a performance. These may be secret messages pertaining to what they think of certain audience members, this may just be ‘catching the eye’ of another member of the team and a sly glance. One notable form of this is ‘derisive collusion’, an example of which is school children in class passing notes to each-other.

Realigning action – these are guarded exchanges between teams which send out feelers and set the tone for interaction where the boundaries are not clear

‘each of these four types of conduct directs attention to the same point: the performance given by a team is not a spontaneous, immediate response to the situation absorbing all of the team’s energy; the performance is something the team members can stand back from, back far enough to imagine or play out simultaneously other kinds of performances attesting to other realities.’

CHAPTER SIX – THE ARTS OF IMPRESSION MANAGEMENT

Unmeant gestures, inopportune interruptions and the like are sources of dissonance and embarrassment, but both performers and audience alike tend to have strategies for ‘saving the show’ and to prevent masks falling off in many performance situations.

Performers engage in defensive attributes and practices

Dramaturgical loyalty – attempts to achieve high levels of in-group solidarity to prevent some members of the team becoming too close to the audience and giving away dark or strategic secrets; regularly changing audience may also be another strategy.

Dramaturgical discipline – simply where each member of the team learns to better control aspects of their performance

Dramaturgical circumspection – basically trying to select the audience that is likely to be the kindest – teachers prefer middle class schools, salesmen prefer to sell to one rather than two people.

Audience members engage in protective practices

Goffman gives various examples – individuals voluntarily stay away from backstage areas, and audiences are careful to pay attention to the right aspects of a performance – when performances go wrong they practice tactful inattention for example.

Goffman finishing off by noting that performers and audiences need to be ‘tactful about tact’ – they need to be sensitive to when each is employing tact lest masks fall off and embarrassment is the result.

CHAPTER SIX – CONCLUSION

It’s worth quoting the first page at length, because it basically summarises the whole book:

‘…. any social establishment may be studied from the perspective of impression management. Within the walls of a social establishment we find a team of performers who cooperate to present to an audience a given definition of the situation. This will will include the conception of own team and of audience and assumptions concerning the ethos that is to be maintained by rules of politeness and decorum. We often find division into back region, where the routine is prepared and front region, where the performance is presented. Access to backstage is controlled to prevent the audience and outsiders from seeing preparations. Among members of the team, we tend to find solidarity, familiarity and secrets being kept.

A tacit agreement is maintained between performers and audience to act as if a given degree of opposition and of accord existed between them. Typically, but not always, agreement is stressed and opposition is underplayed. The resulting working consensus tends to be contradicted by the attitude towards the audience which the performers express backstage and through communication out of character while ‘on stage’. We find that discrepant roles develop which complicate the problems of putting on a show. Sometimes disruptions occur which threaten the definition of the situation which is being maintained. Performers and Audience all utilise techniques for saving the show – teams are careful to select loyal and circumspect members and prefer to play to audiences who are tactful.’

The analytical context

Goffman sees his ‘dramaturgical perspective’ as the fifth perspective among four already existing ones for viewing a social system (technical, political, structural, cultural)

‘The dramaturgical perspective can be employed, like any other, as a final way of ordering facts. This would lead us to describe the techniques of impression management employed in a given establishment, the principal problems of impression management, and the identity and inter-relationships of the several performance teams within the establishment.

Goffman also suggests that we can look at any of the above in relation to technical, cultural aspects of a social system as well.

He further suggests that we can look of all of the above in relation to their impact on the individual personality, the social interactions themselves and the wider society.

MORAL NOTE: THE ROLE OF EXPRESSION IS CONVEYING IMPRESSIONS OF SELF

To uncover fully the factual nature of the situation, it would be necessary for the individual to know all the relevant social data about others. Full information is rarely available; in its absence appearances must be relied upon instead.

The information off is treated as having a moral character – we tend to assume that people shouldn’t mislead us with the information they give off – even though we know full well that this is what we do, and that we also know that much information given off is not done so intentionally.

There is a basic dialectic – ‘In their capacity as performers, individuals will be concerned with maintaining the impression that they are living up to the many standards by which they and their products are judged. Because these standards are so numerous and pervasive, the individuals who are performers dwell more than we might think in a moral world. But, qua performers, individuals are concerned not with the moral issue of realising these standards but with the amoral issue of engineering a convincing impression that these standards are being realised.’… The dialectic is that the more effort we put into managing the impression of being a moral actor, the more distant we come to feel from the standards we are acting out, and the more and higher the standards, the more effort, so the more distant we feel!

‘the key factor in this structure is the maintenance of a single definition of the situation, this definition having to be expressed, and this expression sustained in the face of a multitude of potential disruption. (These are the interactional tasks which all of us share)

Staging and the self

Goffman splits the individual into two –

The character (or characters) – this is what the performer presents to the audience, the social self – which is constructed with the use of various props, a stage as setting and a team as collaborators. THE INDIVIDUAL CANNOT CONSTRUCT A SELF WITHOUT ALL OF THE SOCIAL STAGING THAT GOES ALONG WITH IT.

The performer – the harried actor who is putting on a performance – The performer’s own psychological well-being is fundamentally linked to his social-self.

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2 Responses to The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life – Extended Summary

  1. Pingback: Erving Goffman and Judith Butler’s Perspectives on Identity | ReviseSociology

  2. Pingback: Creating Characters - Cheat Sheet - Writer To Writers

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