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The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life by Erving Goffman

Goffman, E. 1990, The Presentation Of Self In Everyday Life, London: Penguin Books. ISBN: 978-0-14-013571-8.

First published in 1959, this book is a little dated in terms of reference to racial circumstances. However, on the whole this is a useful book to read, particularly for visual artists such as actors, and also playwrites, authors, and arguably, photographers in order to have a better understanding of social relationships when particularly, but not exclusively, working in the genre of documentary.

His book talks about how we create a ‘front‘ for ourselves and this front will typically alter depending on who we are presenting ourselves too. Goffman refers to the public that we are presenting or performing to as the audience and he also looks at how we have a stage and backstage. The stage is the place we perform in intentionally to our audience, this could be to customers, friends, etc. On the front stage we project our image as we want others to think we are; so we may not swear, and act on our best behaviour. The backstage is where we relax and alter our performance to close family members and off duty colleagues, here we may talk more loosely and our behaviour becomes much less formal and here our behaviour can be perhaps more rude and uncouth than what would be acceptable in front of strangers and peers. Goffman also looks at how we put on fronts as a group as well as individuals. He also looks at how we may perform when the audience looks backstage both invited and when not. He also looks at our behaviour from the audience point-of-view and even the audience look a themselves or to other audiences. Furthermore he considers our behaviour as part of a team and how a team behaves and presents itself to itself and to other teams and how other teams present and act.

Notes & Quotes:

When individuals enters the presence of others, they commonly seek to acquire information about him or to bring into play information about him already possessed. They will be interested in his general socio-economic status, his conception of self, his attitude towards them, his competence, his trustworthiness, etc….For those present, many sources of information become accessible and many carriers (os ‘sign-vehicles) become available for conveying this information. If unacquainted with the individual, observers can glean clues from his conduct and appearance which allows them to apply their previous experiences with individuals roughly similar to the one before them or more important, to apply untested stereotypes to him. They can also assume from past experience that only individuals of a particular kind are likely to be found in a given social setting…. (pp.13)

The expressiveness of the individual (and therefore his capacity to give impressions) appears to involve two radically different kinds of sign activity: the expression that he gives, and the expression that he gives off. The first involves verbal symbols or their substitutes which he uses admittedly and solely to convey the information that he and the others are known to attach to these symbols. This is communication in the traditional and narrow sense. The second involves a wide range of action that others can treat as symptomatic of the actor, the expectation being that the action was performed for reasons other than the information conveyed in this way….The individual does of course intentionally convey misinformation by means of both of these types of communication, the first involving deceit, the second feigning. (pp.14)

Knowing that the individual is likely to present himself in a light that is favourable to him, the others may divide what they witness into two parts: a part that is relatively verbal assertions, and a part in regard to which he seems to have little concern or control, being chiefly derived from the expressions he gives off. The others may then use what are considered to be the ungovernable aspects of his expressive behaviour as a check upon the validity of what is conveyed by the governable aspects. (pp.18)


When an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them. They are asked to believe that the character they see actually possesses the attributes he appears to possess, that the task he performs will have the consequences that are implicitly claimed for it, and that, in general, matters are what they appear to be. In line with this, there is the popular view that the individual offers his performance and puts on his show ‘for the benefit of other people’….At one extreme, one finds that the performer can be fully taken in by his own act: he can be sincerely convinced that the impression of reality which he stages is the real reality. When his audience is also convinced in this way about the show he puts on – 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, one finds that the performer may not be taken in at all by his own routine. This possibly is understandable, since no one is is in quite as good an observational position to see through the act as the person who puts it on. Coupled with this, the performer may be moved to guide the conviction of his audience only as a means to other ends, having no ultimate concern in the conception that they have of him or of the situation. When the individual has no belief in his own act and no ultimate concern with the beliefs of his audience, we may call him cynical, reserving the term ‘sincere’ for individuals who believe in the impression fostered by their own performance. (pp.28)

FRONT (pp.32-40)

It will be convenient to label as ‘front’ 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. Front then is the expressive equipment of a standard kind intentionally or unwittingly employed by the individual during the performance….For preliminary purposes, it will be convenient to distinguish and label what seems to be the standard parts of front. (pp.32)

First there is the ‘setting’, involving furniture, decor, physical layout, and other background items which supply the scenery and stage props for the spate of human action played out before, within or upon it. A setting tends to stay put, geographically speaking, so that those who would use a particular setting as part of their performance cannot begin their act until they have brought themselves to the appropriate place and must terminate their performance when the leave it. It is only in exceptional circumstances that the setting follows along with the performers; we see this in funeral cortege, the civic parade, and the dream-like procession that kings and queens are made of. (pp.32-33)

If we take the term ‘setting’ to refer to the scenic parts of expressive equipment, one may take the term ‘personal front’ to refer to the other items of expressive equipment, the items that we most intimately identify with a performer wherever he goes. As part of personal front we may include: insignia, of office or rank; clothing; sex, age and racial characteristics; size and looks; posture; speech patterns; facial expressions, bodily gestures; and the like. (pp.34)

It is sometimes convenient to divide the stimuli which make up personal front into ‘appearance’ and ‘manner’, according to the function performed by the information that these stimuli convey. (pp.34)

‘Appearance’ may be taken to refer to those stimuli which function at the time to tell us of the performer’s social statuses. The stimuli also tell us of the individual’s temporary ritual state: that is, whether he is engaging in formal social activity, work, or informal recreation; whether or not he is celebrating a new phase in the season cycle or in his life-cycle. (pp.34)

‘Manner’ may be taken to refer to those stimuli which function at the time to warn us of the interaction role the performer will expect to play in the oncoming situation. (pp.35)

We often expect, of course, a confirmation consistency between appearance and manner; we expect that the difference in social statuses among the interactants will be expressed in some way by congruent differences in the indications that are made of an expected integration role. (pp,35)


While in the presence of others, the individual typically infuses his activity with signs which dramatically highlight and portray confirmatory facts that might otherwise remain unapparent or obscure. For the individual’s activity to become significant to others, he must mobilise his activity so that it will express during the interaction what he wishes to convey. In fact, the performer may be required not only to express his claimed capacities during the interaction but also to do so during a split second in the interaction. Thus, if a baseball umpire is to give the impression that he is sure of his judgement, he must forgo the moment of thought which might make him sure of his judgement; he must give instantaneous decision so that the audience will be sure that he is sure of his judgement. (pp.40)


This constitutes one way in which a performance is ‘socialised’, moulded, and modified to fit into the understanding and expectations of the society in which it is presented….Thus when the individual presents himself to others, his performance will tend to incorporate and exemplify the official 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 of the society in which it occurs, we may look upon it, in the manner of Durkheim and Radcliffe-Brown, as a ceremony – as an expressive rejuvenation and reaffirmation of the moral values of the community. Furthermore, in so far as the expressive bias of performances comes to be accepted as reality, then that which is accepted at the moment as reality will have some of the characteristics of a celebration. To stay in one’s room away from the place where the party is given, or away from where the practitioner attends his client, is to stay away from where reality is being performed. The world in truth is a wedding. (pp.44-45)

Perhaps the most important piece of sign-equipment associated with class consists of the status symbols through which material wealth is expressed. (pp.46)


It has been suggested that the performer can rely upon his audience to accept minor cues as a sign of something important about his performance. This convenient fact has an inconvenient implication. By vitue of the same sign-accepting tendency, the audience may misunderstand the meaning that a cue was designed to convey, or may read an embarrassing meaning into gestures or events that were accidental, inadvertent, or incidental and not meant by the performer to carry any meaning whatsoever….In response to these communication contingencies, performers commonly attempt to exert a kind os synecdochic responsibility, making sure that as many as possible of the minor events in the performance, however instrumentally inconsequential these events may be, will occur in such a way as to convey either no impression or an impression that is compatible and consistent with the over-all definition of the situation that is being fostered. (pp.59)


It was suggested earlier that an audience is able to orient itself in a situation by accepting performed cues on faith, treating these signs as evidence of something greater than different from the sign-vehicle themselves. If this tendency of the audience to accept signs places the performer on a position to be misunderstood and makes it necessary for him to exercise expressive care regarding everything he does when before the audience, so also this sign-accepting tendency puts the audience in a position to be duped and misled, for there are few signs that cannot be used to attest to the presence of something that is not really there. (pp.65)

When we think of those who present a false front or ‘only’ a front, of those who dissemble, deceive, and defraud, we think of a discrepancy between fostered appearances and reality….Sometimes when we ask whether a fostered impression is true or false we really mean to ask whether or not the performer is authorized to give the performance in question, and are not primarily concerned with the actual performance itself…The social definition of impersonation, however, is not itself a very consistent thing. For example, while it is felt to be an inexcusable crime against communication to impersonate someone of sacred status, such as a doctor or a priest, we are often less concerned when someone impersonates a member of a disesteemed, non-crucial, profane status, such as that of a hobo or unskilled worker. (pp.66-67)


If we see perception as a form of contact and communication, then control over what is perceived is control over contact that is made, and the limitation and regulation of what is shown is a limitation and regulation of contact. There is a relation here between informational terms and ritual ones. Failure to regulate the information acquired by the audience involves possible disruption of the projected definition of the situation; failure to regulate contact involves possible ritual contamination of the performer….It is a widely held notion that restrictions placed upon contact, the maintenance of social distance, provide a way in which awe can be generated and sustained in the audience – a way, as Kenneth Burke has said, in which the audience can be lead in a state of mystification in regard to the performer. (pp.74)

Of course, in the matter of keeping social distance, the audience itself will often cooperate by acting in a respectful fashion, in awed regard for the sacred integrity imputed to the performer. (pp.75)

I would like, finally, to add that the matter which the audience leave alone because of their awe of the performer are likely to be the matters about which he would feel shame were a disclosure to occur. As Riezler has suggested, we have, then, a basic social coin, with awe on one side and shame on the other. The audience senses secret mysteries and powers behind the performance, and the performer senses that the 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 this too. (pp.76)


We tend to see real performances as something not purposely put together at all, being an unintentional product of the individual’s unselfconscious response to the facts in his situation. And contrived performers we tend to see as something painstakingly pasted together, one false item on another, since there is no reality to which the items of behaviour could be a direct response…If a performance is to come off, the witnesses by and large must be able to believe that the performers are sincere…Performers may be sincere – or be insincere but sincerely convinced of their own sincerity – but this kind of affection for one’s part is not necessary for its convincing performance….there are not many women who play the part of the wife to one man and mistress to another; but these duplicities do occur, often being sustained for long periods of time. This suggests that while persons usually are what the appear to be, such appearances could be still have been managed. There its then a statistical relation between appearance and reality… (pp.77)

It does take deep skill, long training, and psychological capacity to become a good stage actor. But this fact should not blind us to another one: that almost anyone can quickly learn a script well enough to give a charitable audience some sense of realness in what is being contrived before them. And it seems this is so because ordinary social intercourse is dramatically inflated actions, counteractions, and terminating replies. Scripts even in the hands of unpracticed players can come to life because life itself is a dramatically enacted thing. (pp.78)

CONCLUSION (pp.231-247)

THE FRAMEWORK (pp.231-232)

A SOCIAL establishment is any place surrounded by fixed barriers to perception in which a particular kind of activity regularly takes place…A tacit agreement is maintained between performers and audience to act as if a given degree of opposition and of accord exists between them…Sometimes disruption occur through unmeant gestures, faux pas, and scenes, thus discrediting or contradicting the definition of the situation being maintained.


When an individual appears before others, he knowingly and unwittingly projects a definition of the situation, of which a conception of himself is an important part… (pp.235) …we often find that the individual may deeply involve his ego in his identification with a particular part… (pp.236)


Underlying all social interaction there seems to be a fundamental dialectic. When one individual enters the presence of others, he will want to discover the facts of the situation. Were he to possess this information, he could know, and make allowances for, what will come to happen and could give the others present as much of their due as is consistent with his enlightened self-interest. 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. It would also be necessary for the individual to know the actual outcome or end product of the activity of the others during the interaction, as well as their innermost feelings concerning him. Full information of this order is rarely available; in its absence, the individual tends to employ substitutes – cues, tests, hints, expressive gestures, status symbols, etc. – as predictive devices. In short since the reality that the individual is concerned with is unperceivable at the moment, appearances must be relied upon in its stead. And paradoxically, the more the individual is concerned with the reality that is not available to perception, the more he must concentrate his attention on appearances. (pp241-242)

The individual tends to treat the others present on the basis of impression they give now about the past and the future. It is here that communitive acts are translated into moral ones. The impressions that the others give tend to be treated as claims and promises they have implicitly made, and claim and promises tend to have a moral character. In his mind the individual says: ‘I am using these impressions of you as a way of checking up on you and your activity, and you aught not to lead me astray.’ The peculiar thing about this is that the individual tends to take the stand even though he expects the other to be unconscious of many of their expressive behaviours and even though he may expect to exploit the others on the basis of the information he gleans about them. Since the sources of impression used by the observing individual involve a multitude of standards pertaining to politeness and decorum, pertaining both to social intercourse and task-performance, we can appreciate afresh how daily life is enmeshed in moral lines of discrimination. (pp.242)

Sometimes those who are observed do, of course, employ these proper means of influencing the way in which the observer treats them. But there is another way, a shorter and more efficient way, in which the observed can influence the observer. Instead of allowing an impression of their activity to arise as an incidental by-product of their activity, they can reorient their frame of reference and devote their efforts to the creation of desired impressions. Instead of attempting to achieve certain ends by acceptable means, they can attempt to achieve the impression that they are achieving certain ends by acceptable means. It is always possible to manipulate the impression the observer uses as a substitute for reality because a sign for a presence of a thing, not being that thing, can be employed in the absence of it. The observer’s need to rely on representations of things itself creates the possibility of misrepresentation. (pp.242-243)

We come now to the 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 so 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 realizing these standards, but with the amoral issue of engineering a convincing impression that these standards are being realized. Our activity, then, is largely concerned with moral matters, but as performers we do not have a moral concern with them. As performers we are merchants of morality. Our day is given over to intimate contact with the goods we display and our minds are filled with intimate understandings of them; but it may be that the more attention we give to these goods, then the more distant we feel from them and from those who are believing enough to buy them. To use a different imagery, the very obligation and profitability of appearing always in a steady moral light, of being a socialized character, forces one to be the sort of person who is practised in the ways of the stage. (pp243-244)


First, character. In our society the character one performs and one’s self are somewhat equated, and this self-as-character is usually seen as something housed within the body of its possessor, especially upper parts thereof, being a nodule, somehow, in the psychobiology of personality. I suggest that this view is an implied part of what we are all trying to present, but provides, just because of this, a bad analysis of the presentation. In this report the performed self was seen as some kind of image, usually creditable, which the individual on stage and in character effectively attempts to induce others to hold in regard to him. While this image is entertained concerning the individual, so that a self is imputed to him, this self itself does not derive from its possessor, but from the whole scene of his action, being generated by that attribute of local events which renders them interpretable by witnesses. A correctly staged and performed scene leads the audience to impute a self to a performed character, but this imputation – this self – is a product of a scene that comes off, and is not a cause of it. The self, then, as a performed character, is not an organic thing that has specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature, and to die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented, and the characteristic issue, the crucial concern, is whether it will be credited or discredited. (pp.244-245)

In analysing the self, then, we are drawn from its possessor, from the person who will profit or lose most by it, for he and his body merely provide the peg on which something of collaborative manufacture will be hang for a time. And the means for producing and maintaining selves do not reside inside the peg; in fact these means are often bolted down in social establishments. There will be a 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 and in conjunction with available props will constitute the scene from which the performed character’s self will emerge, and another team, the audience, whose interpretative activity will be necessary for this emergence. The self is a product of all of these arrangements, and in all of its parts bears the marks of this genesis.(pp.245)

The whole machinery of self-production is cumbersome, of course, and sometimes breaks down, exposing its separate components: back region control; team collusion; audience tact; and so forth. But, well oiled, impressions will flow from it fast enough to put us in the grip of one of out types of reality – the performance will come off and the firm self accorded each performed character will appear to emanate intrinsically from its performer. (pp.245)

Let us turn now from the individual as character performed to the individual as performer. He has a capacity to learn, this being exercised in the task of training for a part. He is given to having fantasies and dreams, some that pleasurably unfold a triumphant performance, others full of anxiety and dread that nervously deal with vital discrediting in a public front region. He often manifests a gregarious desire for team-mates and audiences, a tactful considerateness for their concerns; and he has a capacity for deeply felt shame, leading him to minimise the chances he takes of exposure. (pp.245-246)

These attributes of the individual qua performer are not merely a depicted effect of particular performances; they are psychobiological in nature, and yet they seem to arise out of intimate interaction with the contingencies of staging performances. (pp.246)

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