Friday, February 10, 2012

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Everyone wants to give a good impression to the others. There are two ways an individual can express oneself; one is verbal communication and another is non-verbal communication. Among the two communication styles, nonverbal communication plays a critical role in forming one’s own impression. Then, how we can manage our impression through non-verbal communication?

Erving Goffman gives us some implications through his book, “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”, in which he gives us the implication on how the character of the situation and self image is made, using metaphor of dramaturgy.

In a drama, a performer plays a role of someone who is not him/herself in the fictional situation. Let’s say a performer plays Caesar in Rome. The performer is not Caesar in reality, and it’s been 2000 years since Rome era, but audiences feel that the performer is Caesar and the stage is Rome. Why? It is because in the drama, all factors collectively create coherent images of the role and the situation. Performers, attires, teams, stages etc are all harmonized and create consistent image of the world.

This dramaturgical approach gives us some important implications.

First, an image in the society is composed of various but coherent factors, and if even one of the factors is disruptively damaged, it would be very difficult to fix the images. For instance, if you pick up a cellphone while you play the role of Caesar, everything in the drama is destroyed, because existence of the cellphone cannot be consistent with coherent images of the situation and the roles.

The coherence also represents the cultures and values of specific era. It is historical, social, political and cultural product, and that is why prof. Goffman limits his discussion in the realm of western society.

Second implication is about the situation. Situation has significant influence toward the people in it, as once the situation is defined, all performers will follow it. For instance, you cannot wear jeans in Rome era to keep your image as a civil in Rome. Moreover, once the situation is defined, individuals in it, as a team, collaborate to maintain the situation. The team works as if it is a secret society to keep the situation unchanged, Goffman mentioned:

“A team, then may be defined as a set of individuals whose intimate co-operation is required if a given projected definition of the situation is to be maintained. A team is a grouping, but it is a grouping not in relation to a social structure or social organization but rather in relation to an interaction or series of interactions in which the relevant definition of the situation is maintained.

We have seen, and will see further, that if a performance is to be effective, it will be likely that the extent and character of the co-operation that makes this possible will be concealed and kept secret. A team, then, has something of the character of a secret society. … Thus a team, as used herein, is the kind of secret society whose members may be known by non-members to constitute a society, even an exclusive one, but the society these individuals are known to constitute is not the one they constitute by virtue of acting as a team.” (page 104)

This implies that in any social interactions, when you want to give favorable impressions to others, the first thing you have to do is to define the situation and let every participant accept it. Prof. Goffman says that that exactly is the social technique that we usually use to maintain one’s own impression.

From the different perspective, the fact explains why dress codes are critical in some situations. Attire is one of the tools to preserve the situation.

Third is the role of the back stage. No one shows the back stage of a drama to the audience, because it should not belong to the situation. Instead, the front stage belongs to the situation. This implies that the front stage is where one plays his or her social life, and the back stage is where one leads his or her private life. This may explain why we often differentiate “on” and “off” in our everyday life.


I was surprised to see that this book covers the idea of atmosphere, since the Japanese often talk of the atmosphere and often misunderstand as if the atmosphere is unique to them. It is not. Wherever society exists, there could be the atmosphere (the “situation”) which force the participants to follow, regardless of the intensiveness of it.

The second thing I found interesting is the requirements to give the intended impression. If you want to be like someone else, you need to keep consistency in every action you take. It is a hard task, as only one dissonance will ruin the whole image.

The third is the methodology. The author used a drama to analyze our social interaction. I don’t know deeply why he came up with the idea, but, to me, implication is clear: analyze gimmicks or fictions to analyze our society. Gimmicks, fictions, or something work, because there are fundamental rule or common sense of the society behind the gimmicks and fictions. That is, as prof. Goffman did, when you analyze a currently popular gimmick very deeply (maybe facebook?), you may be able to find out fundamental social values dominant in this era.

Finally, the book showed us the power of metaphor. As "Metaphor We Live by" argued, our conception is in many cases metaphorical.


Erving Goffman, "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life", Anchor Books, 1959

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, "Metaphors We Live by", University of Chicago Press (2nd edition)

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