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Erving Goffman

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life



The world is a stage and we’re all performers. This is the premise of Goffman’s book in which he goes into detail about all the different aspects of this theatrical performance. It’s since been known as Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis and as performers we’re constantly focusing on impression management.

He firstly distinguishes the two types of communication which are happening constantly, the expressions given and the expressions given off. When a performance is given, Goffman identifies three regions in which the audience could potentially be present. The front region, back region and residual region (also known as the outside). The front region is where the performance is being given and can be likened to the stage of a theatre. The back region therefore represents the backstage where the performer can relax and take off the mask they may have had on whilst performing. The third region, the outside, is essentially everywhere that doesn’t encompass the first two regions.

Goffman goes into detail about the different types of performance we carry out and the way these progress or develop as we enter into new situations. He argues that we are all wearing masks which conceal something about us in order to invite the audience to believe that the presented self is the real and authentic self. These masks eventually become who we are and if presented frequently enough we end up having a strong belief in the part we are playing.

‘This mask represents the conception we have formed of ourselves, this mask is our truer self, the self we would like to be. We come into the world as individuals, achieve character, and become persons.’

The way in which you become your actions is through a cycle of disbelief to belief through which Goffman argues is a transition from cynicism to sincerity. For example, initially in the army you may follow the etiquette in order to avoid punishment, however, eventually you may follow the etiquette so the organisation won’t be shamed. I guess if you do similar actions frequently enough the reasons for those actions begin to change, sometimes without you even realising.

The cycle can also work in reverse as Goffman identifies with medical students. The intensity of their studies may cause them to become disillusioned and forget what their original purpose was for becoming a doctor. He states that during the first two years students find their interest in medicine must be dropped and they give all their time to the task of learning how to get through exams. Then during the next two years they are too busy learning about diseases to show much concern for the persons who are diseased.

I think in the present era medical students are forced to decide on a career in medicine during their teens, and then are expected to commit the majority of their adolescent life on pursuing this career. Given that these are developmental years students become significantly different people and therefore can become disillusioned from the decisions they made in their youth, thus reversing this cycle of cynicism to sincerity.

Some other interesting points Goffman indicates about performance is that of idealisation and mystification. Idealisation refers to the tendency to offer an impression that is idealised in several different ways. When an individual presents himself before others, his performance will tend to incorporate and exemplify the officially accredited values of the society. This can relate to mystification which is the idea of creating a mystery of yourself with social distance in order to create hierarchy or regulating the contact of the audience.

‘The audience sense mysteries and powers behind the performance, and the audience senses that his chief secrets are petty ones. As countless folk tales and initiation rites show, often the real secret behind the mystery is that there really is no mystery; the real problem is to prevent the audience from learning that too’

Goffman then goes on to talk about team behaviour in regards to performance. This relates to the way in which teams work together in order to present themselves in a given way, from restaurant staff to married couples. For example he points out that having control of the setting is a key advantage in an interaction. One example he gives is that if doctors are trying to prevent cancer patients from learning the identity of their disease, it will be useful to scatter the patients throughout the hospital so that they will not be able to learn from the ward the identity of the disorder. He goes on to give quite a lot of examples in regards to controlling the environment from barbers, American sororities and hotel management.

Environments are very key to performances as you can imagine. Goffman expands the scope of this to include the different dynamics that can occur within environments, referring to them as regions. A region is defined as any place that is bounded to some degree by barriers to perception, the main regions being the front and back.

Some interesting examples Goffman highlights are focused on changes in behaviour in the workplace. Firstly, women in the workplace change the dynamic significantly, especially in male-dominated spaces, such as shipyards. When women were present ‘manners were improved, faces were shaven more often and language was toned down’.

Changes in behaviour also occur within different ranks. Persons of high rank tend to operate in small teams and tend to spend much of their day engaged in spoken performances, whereas working-class men tend to be members of large teams and tend to spend much of their day backstage or in unspoken performances.

Goffman spends the rest of the book going into specific examples of additional elements of impression management such as when information between performers differs, mock role-playing and attributes of safe performances.

Not everything in the book is profound or something you’ve never thought about before but Goffman does a good job of laying it out in a sort of concise and coherent way. The book is structured in a way that makes it easy to understand and there’s a lot of material and examples to illustrate his points. It definitely gives you a lot of interesting points to ponder and be more aware of in your own life. I’d highly recommend.

If you like the sound of this book or have already read it I’d also recommend I’m Ok - You’re Ok which is about transactional analysis which goes into detail about the specific ways in which interactions are carried out and focuses on the way we speak to each other.