Our series of cultural touchstones looks at books that have made an impact.
Shakespeare’s adage – “All the world is a stage” – suggests that people are conditioned to perform and have an acute social sense of how they appear to others.
It resonates in the age of social media, where we all show ourselves on our screens and watch each other’s gigs. Those screen representations are increasingly the way we meet people and form relationships: from online dating, to remote work, to keeping in touch with family.
Although the idea that performance is central to social life has been around for centuries, Ervin Goffman was the first to attempt to provide a comprehensive picture of society and everyday life using theater as an analogy.
His influential 1959 book The presentation of the self in everyday life is a kind of ‘bible’ for scientists interested in questions about how we operate in everyday life. It became a surprise American bestseller upon publication and reached a general readership.
Goffman wrote about how we perform different versions of ourselves in different social settings, while keeping our “backstage” essential selves private. He mentioned his idea dramaturgy.
Playwright Alan Bennett wrote admiringly of him: “Individuals knew they behaved this way, but Goffman knew it everyone behaved that way and so did I.”
Read more: Friday essay: changing identities – performing sexual self on social media
Goffman as influencer (and suspected spy)
In a poll of professional sociologistsGoffman’s book was in the top ten publications of the 20th century.
It influenced playwrights like Tom Stoppard and, of course, Bennett, who was interested in depicting and analyzing the role play of everyday life that Goffman identified.
Goffman was born in Mannville, Alberta in 1922 to Ukrainian Jewish parents who migrated to Canada. The sister of the man who would become famous for his theater analogies was an actor, France’s BayIn later life, she would play quirky, relatable roles such as the “marble rye” lady on Seinfeld and a recurring role on Twin Peaks (as Mrs. Tremond/Chalfant).
The road to Goffman’s book was an unusual one. It didn’t come from studying the theater directly, or even asking questions about theatergoers.
During his postgraduate studies at the University of Chicago, Goffman had the opportunity to do fieldwork in the Shetland Islands, an isolated part of northern Scotland, for his thesis.
Goffman pretended to be there studying agricultural techniques. But his real reason was to investigate the daily life of the Shetland Islanders. While observing the daily practices and rituals of the remote island community, he had to negotiate possible suspicions been a spy.
In Goffman’s published book, the ethnography of the Shetland Islands takes a backseat to his dramaturgical theory.
More than a popular manual
The presentation of the self in everyday life soon became a national bestseller. It was picked up by general readers “as a guide to social manners and how to be smart and calculating in social intercourse without being obvious”.
Indeed, this fascinating and complex academic work could be read as a guide to impressing others and reducing negative impressions. But Goffman didn’t mean “performance” literally. Reading the book as a guide to middle-class etiquette lacks some nuances.
One is the refined understanding of how reality and ingenuity relate to each other. A good performance is one that seems “unself-conscious”; a “contrived” performance is one where the fact that the social actor plays a role is “precisely obvious”.
In colloquial language, we tend to describe the latter as trying too hard. But Goffman makes a more general point, about the way we all always perform – whether the effort is visible or not.
If, of course, “the whole world is not a stage”, then “the crucial ways in which it is not are not easy to specify”.
Read more: What is emotional labor – and how do we get it wrong?
Playing roles and having character
Today, we regularly use theatrical terms like “role,” “script,” “props,” “audience,” and “being in and out of character” to describe how people behave in their everyday social lives. But Goffman is the one who introduced these concepts, which have become part of our shared language.
Together they emphasize how social life depends on what Goffman calls a shared definition of certain situations.
Whether we are fulfilling our work roles, dining with someone for whom we have romantic affection, or interacting with strangers in a public setting, we must produce and maintain the correct definition of that reality.
These activities, according to Goffman, are “performances,” because they involve mutual awareness or attention to the information others are broadcasting. This mutual awareness, or concern for others, means that people are constantly performing in front of an audience in their daily lives.
Being in and out of character
It matters who the audience is – and what kind of audience we have for our performances. When thinking about how people adapt their behavior to others, Goffman distinguishes between “front regions” and “back regions.”
In the front regions we have to present what is often called the “best version of ourselves”. In an open office, an employee has to look busy when his supervisor is around. So in the front region they have to look engaged, diligent and generally fulfill the role of a worker. In an open office, an employee must be constantly “in character,” as Goffman puts it.
Back regions are where a social actor can “be wary”. In the context of a workplace, the back regions can refer to the bathroom, the lunchroom, or anywhere else where the employee can relax their performance and possibly resort to “extraordinary” behavior.
If the employee takes a distraction to gossip with a colleague when their supervisor can no longer be heard, they can be said to be engaging in conduct in the region.
Front and back regions are not defined by physical locations. A back region is any situation where the individual can relax and drop their performance. (Of course, this means that regions overlap to some extent with physical locations – people are more likely to be able to relax if they’re in more private settings.)
So, office gardens are often unpopular because employees feel they are constantly being watched. Conversely, the work-from-home arrangements that have become more common since the era of COVID lockdowns are popular because they allow people to relax their work persona.
Renowned writer Jenny Diski reflected in 2004:
Reading Goffman now is alarmingly claustrophobic. He presents a world where you have nowhere to go; seeking a perpetual dinner of status, competing for position and saving face. Any idea of an authentic self becomes nonsense. You may or may not believe in what you are accomplishing; each type of achievement is believed or not.
Read more: From the Moscow stage to Monroe and De Niro: how the method defined acting in the 20th century
Goffman from the 21st century
Dramaturgy has survived the dawn of our new media environment, where the presentation of the self has migrated to platforms as diverse as Facebook and TikTok. In some ways, it’s more relevant than ever.
Goffman’s approach has been applied electronic mediaradio and television studies, mobile phones – and, more recently, social media even AI studies.
The “successful staging” (as Goffman calls it) of our social roles has only become more complex. This is perfectly illustrated by “BBC Dad” Robert Kelly, whose 2017 live television interview his home study was interrupted when his children entered the room. This was before COVID lockdowns, when our personal and work lives (and personas) were increasingly merging.
Everyone understands that now wrote Reena Gupta in 2022. “You or someone in your family or circle of friends has been a BBC Dad.”
Maintaining and maximizing performance remains important. And Goffman too.