In the The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life Goffman seeks to show the reader how everyone sets out to present themselves to the world around them, always trying to maintain the role they have selected for themselves, since those whom they meet not only try to decide what role it is you are playing, but also whether or not you are competent to play that role. More significantly, impression management is a function of social setting. Erving Goffman portrays everyday interactions as strategic encounters in which one is attempting to “sell” a particular self-image–and, accordingly, a particular definition of the situation. He refers to these activities as “face-work.” Beginning by taking the perspective of one of the interactants, and he interprets the impact of that person’s performances on the others and on the situation itself. He considers being in wrong face, out of face, and losing face through lack of tact, as well as savoir-faire (diplomacy or social skill), the ways a person can at tempt to save face in order to maintain self-respect, and various ways in which the person may harm the “face” of others through faux pas such as gaffes or insults (209). These conditions occur because of the existence of self presentational rules. These rules, in turn, are determined by how situations are defined. For instance, there is greater latitude in social situations than in task-oriented situations. Situations also dictate available roles and how much self-importance people can sustain. Herewith one will try to analyze two situations that reinforce the desired interpretation of self that one wishes to convey. The first performance takes place in the university environment on the first day of school. The second scene takes place at the formal wedding reception among family and friends.

Both interactions describe the Goffmanian concepts and schemas that the author uses throughout his book.

The first situation is portrayed in the university setting. Among a thousand first year students some will undoubtedly know each other beforehand, but on the whole everyone will be on their own and looking to make friends. Martin is walking proudly to his first class trying to impress everyone. But if Martin was to make a mistake in his self-presentation now, he could take several weeks to recover his credibility. The process of establishing social identity, then, becomes closely allied to the concept of the “front,” which is described as “that part of the individual’s performance which regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation for those who observe the performance” (22). The front acts as a vehicle of standardization, allowing for others to understand the individual on the basis of projected character traits that have normative meanings. As a “collective representation,” the front establishes proper “setting,” “appearance,” and “manner” for the social role assumed by the actor, uniting interactive behavior with the personal front (27).

A student will often act differently when talking to someone in his lecture, than he will with his friends in the bar later that night -the former providing a sense of intimacy, the latter a more public occasion. Goffman discusses the need for belief in the part you are playing, both in terms of the audience, and in terms of the performer himself. For the performance to appear credible the performer himself should believe the performance is genuine; the alternative is have no belief in the performance, to be what Goffman terms a “cynic” -someone who is deliberately seeking to mislead his audience (18). If the student genuinely believes he is an easy going guy who doesn’t worry about work, he may appear sufficiently credible to overcome any of the apparently contradictory evidence of the impression given off.

When there is little or no occasion for ?dramatizing? the performance the student will always appear unconcerned when the subject of work comes up, to show that work isn’t a priority in his life. This process, known as “dramatic realization” (30), is predicated upon the activities of “impression management,” the control (or lack of control) and communication of information through the performance (208). To emphasize this, he may leave files on the floor, or leave books half open to show that work is a something he does when he has time in between partying or talking to friends, and if someone comes round he will show mock concern about going out rather than working, before quickly agreeing to go out, even if he knows he has work to do for the next day, all in order to dramatize the front he his performing, and therefore make the front more credible.

Secondly, the family setting is described as a mother-daughter relationship as ?team? members during a wedding reception. Both mother and daughter co-operate together to avoid any unpleasant surprises. They engage in a discussion with guests but only in a general talk. The ?dark secrets? of the bride have to be well kept from the guests and other family members. Here the author explores nature of group dynamics through a discussion of “teams” and the relationship between performance and audience. He uses the concept of the team to illustrate the work of a group of individuals who “co-operate” in performance, attempting to achieve goals sanctioned by the group (79). Co-operation may manifest itself as unanimity in demeanor and behavior or in the assumption of differing roles for each individual, determined by the desired intent in performance.

The mother engages in a group talk while the daughter is beside her. The mother comments on her daughter?s looks and the audience responds in the positive way. Therefore, the mother performs as a “shill,” a member of the team who “provides a visible model for the audience of the kind of response the performers are seeking,” promoting excitement for the realization of a goal, as an example of a “discrepant role” in the team (146). In each circumstance, the individual assumes a front that is perceived to enhance the group’s performance? mother-daughter performance.

Goffman describes the division between team performance and audience in terms of “region,” describing the role of setting in the differentiation of actions taken by individuals (107). Extending the dramaturgical analysis, he divides region into “front,” “back,” and “outside” the stage, contingent upon the relationship of the audience to the performance. While the “official stance” of the team is visible in their front stage presentation, in the backstage, “the impression fostered by the presentation is knowingly contradicted as a matter of course,” indicating a more “truthful” type of performance (112).

In the back stage, the preparations for the front stage performance are made, the garbage of performances is there taken care of, actors prepare and rehearse their roles, and they can meet there before and after the performance. Note that any physical space can vary between front stage and back stage. For instance, when the mother takes her daughter to the back of a room, where no one can see them, she reminds of the roles that they should play. This can be analyzed as the backstage, the conflict and difference inherent to familiarity is more fully explored, often evolving into a secondary type of presentation, contingent upon the absence of the responsibilities of the team presentation. The performance is more ?cynical? in the front region, perhaps. To be outside the stage involves the inability to gain access to the performance of the team, described as an “audience segregation” in which specific performances are given to specific audiences, allowing the team to contrive the proper front for the demands of each audience (137). This allows the mother-daughter team and audience to preserve proper relationships in interaction and the establishments to which the interactions belong.

Goffman investigated social interaction as though it were a drama, a theatrical performance. He maintained that people use statuses and roles to create impressions. They work with the available tools on their cultural palette. People use a process called the presentation of self to create specific impressions in the minds of others. Performances occur both front stage – in public- and back stage – in privacy or with primary group members.

The author?s language in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is very cold, with sufficient irony on occasion to seem more amused than sympathetic. There is a sense of detachment, not engagement. The very use of the vocabulary of the stage gives the impression of insincerity and contrivance on the part of the participants. So it is no wonder that this work is often characterized as cynical by naive commentators. Few are likely to see it as a celebration of the self; more likely is the view that it is at least neutrally a dissection, or more actively an expos? of social manners. But such reactions are superficial and unjust because in this book Goffman analyzes the ordinary, everyday people in everyday life, circumstances in which personal ruin is more literary than real, in which the price to be paid for failure is not much greater than embarrassment, circumstances in which efforts to sustain creditable selves are largely successful. In contrast, there are circumstances in which the self is profoundly threatened, in which it is attacked and discredited and its actual survival put to doubt. It is in those circumstances that Goffman shifts his stance and creates an eloquent and passionate assertion of the dignity and value of the self and a defense of its right to resist the social world even when, from the observer’s point of view, it resists what may be for its own good.

The performance takes place in the front stage, where different props are used, making possible a specific type of interaction and creating a specific picture of the self. The front stage is generally fixed and defines the situation. It consists of the setting, i.e. the physical scene, and the personal front, i.e. the items of expressive equipment that the audience expects of the performer. The personal front is divided into appearance, i.e. the items that reveal the actor?s social status, and manner, i.e. the role, which the performer expects to play. Public and private lives are sustained by the ritual performances of the everyday. In this interaction process the self is created and manipulated. The self moves between front stage and back stage. On the front stage of publicity, the self uses more props and works harder on the right presentation of self than in the back stage of privacy. In the back stage the front stage performances are prepared, and this space is therefore in a way more “authentic”, more private and less social. Nevertheless, says Goffman, even in these most intimate moments and spaces of social life, some rituality remains (there are no lonely actors).

The self from Goffman?s perspective is not so much private but public; it is built in interaction. People present their selves in a particular way, and in interaction, these definitions of the self are upheld and reinforced, e.g. people are polite to protect their own as well as others? definitions of selves. The presentation of self in the front stage, created in the back stage, can be manipulative. People present a line, a face, and this face, while it is often unrealistic and unreal should always be consistent.

Most of Goffman?s attention goes to the different techniques and processes that are involved with the constitution of the self in interaction. This includes the use of props to present one?s self, the control of the audience, and impression management. The techniques of impression management include: the concealment of the secret pleasures of previous performances, the concealment of errors, concealment of the process of the performance (only showing the end-product), concealment of dirty-work, and mystification, i.e. performers create a social distance so that the audience cannot question the actor. These techniques can be seen as means of self-control, that is, dramaturgical discipline to handle or avoid embarrassment. Note that the audience is also involved in efforts to cover up this “fakeness” of the performance. Usually, all performers have an interest in maintaining the totality, coherence and smoothness of the performance.

Goffman writes, “the self is in part a ceremonial thing, a sacred object, which must be treated with proper ritual care”. Social interaction in modern society (and only in modern society) requires us to act as if we have a self, but it is a myth; the self is the (real) ideology of the modern everyday.

What gives Goffman’s work a value that will endure far longer than most sociology is its intense individual humanity and its style. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life he provides us with an introduction to the nourishment of the self in only normally problematic situations – in the social establishments that are part of everyday life, interaction with people who are reasonably well equipped and well inclined to collaborate in sustaining mutually agreeable definitions of self. Individuals work their performance so as to provide others with the materials by which they infer that a creditable self confronts them. The self is seen as the product of the various means by which it is produced and maintained. In Goffman’s summary words, there are the “back region with its tools for shaping the body, and a front region with its fixed props. ?There will be a team of persons whose activity on stage in conjunction with available props will constitute the scene from which the performed character’s self will emerge, and another team, the audience, whose interpretive activity will be necessary for this enterprise. The self is a product of all of those arrangements, and in all of its parts bears the marks of this genesis.” (p. 253)

An interesting notion derived from Goffman that there are numerous selves. The self can be simply defined as: “the code that makes sense out of almost all the individual?s activities and provides a basis for organizing them”, but this code can differ from situation to situation. The fact that people have different roles to play and different selves to present, and the fact that the audience has different expectations and thus creates different selves, can lead to problems (tensions between different selves), a dynamic shift between roles, or a multiple presentation of selves (as well as coping mechanisms to deal with these discrepancies). Under normal circumstances, however, it turns out that people are quite capable of handling these multiple, fluctuating, situational selves. The multiplicity of selves is also clear from a consideration of role-distance.

Role-distance refers to the degree to which people separate themselves from the role they play (while they?re playing it). People play roles in a double fashion: they enact the role and distance themselves from it. Role-distance is a function of social status: people in low status roles are more defensive in their role-distance (ashamed of their role). For author, there is no real self, only a multiplicity of selves, all of which are real to us (my selves as myself), and which are dynamic: these selves are not pre-determined fractures but emerge in the course of action.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York.: Anchor Books, 1959.

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