Our cultural touchstones series looks at books that have made an impact.
Shakespeare’s adage — “All the world’s a stage” — suggests human beings are conditioned to perform, and to possess an acute social awareness of how they appear in front of others.
It resonates in the age of social media, where we’re all performing ourselves on our screens and watching each other’s performances play out. Increasingly, those screen performances are how we meet people, and how we form relationships: from online dating, to remote work, to staying in touch with family.
While the idea of performance as central to social life has been around for centuries, Erving Goffman was the first to attempt a comprehensive account of society and everyday life using theatre as an analogy.
His influential 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is something of a “bible” for scholars interested in questions of how we operate in everyday life. It became a surprise US bestseller on publication, crossing over to a general readership.
Goffman wrote about how we perform different versions of ourselves in different social environments, while keeping our “backstage” essential selves private. He called his idea dramaturgy.
Playwright Alan Bennett wrote admiringly of him, “Individuals knew they behaved in this way, but Goffman knew everybody behaved like this and so did I.”
Goffman as influencer (and suspected spy)
In a poll of professional sociologists, Goffman’s book ranked in the top ten publications of the 20th century.
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 theatre analogies was an actor, Frances Bay: late in life, she would play quirky, recognisable roles such as the “marble rye” lady on Seinfeld and a recurring part on Twin Peaks (as Mrs Tremond/Chalfant).
The path to Goffman’s book was an unusual one. It didn’t come from directly studying the theatre, or even from asking questions about theatregoers.
While completing postgraduate studies at the the University of Chicago, Goffman was given the opportunity to conduct fieldwork in the Shetland Islands, an isolated part of northern Scotland, for his PhD dissertation.
Goffman pretended to be there to study agricultural techniques. But his actual reason was to examine the everyday life of the Shetland Islanders. As he observed the everyday practices and rituals of the remote island community, he had to negotiate suspicions he may have been a spy.
In Goffman’s published book, the ethnography of the Shetland Islands takes a back seat to his dramaturgical theory.
More than a popular how-to manual
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life quickly became a national bestseller. It was picked up by general readers “as a guide to social manners and on how to be clever and calculating in social intercourse without being obvious”.
This fascinating and complex academic work could indeed be read as a “how-to” manual on how to impress others and mitigate negative impressions. But Goffman didn’t mean “performance” literally. Reading the book as a guide to middle-class etiquette misses some of its nuances.
One is the sophisticated understanding of how reality and contrivance relate to each other. A good performance is one that appears “unselfconscious”; a “contrived” performance is one where the fact the social actor is performing a role is “painstakingly evident”.
In everyday language, we tend to describe the latter as trying too hard. But Goffman is making a more general point, about the way we all perform ourselves, all the time – whether the effort is visible or not.
If “All the world is not, of course, a stage”, then “the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify”.
Playing roles and being in 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 life. But Goffman is the one who introduced these concepts, which have become part of our shared language.
Together, they highlight how social life depends on what Goffman terms a shared definition of particular situations.
Whether we are performing our work roles, having dinner with someone for whom we have romantic affections, or dealing with strangers in a public setting, we need to produce and maintain the appropriate definition of that reality.
These activities are “performances”, according to Goffman, because they involve mutual awareness or attentiveness to the information others emit. This mutual awareness, or attention to others, means humans are constantly performing for audiences in their everyday lives.
Being in and out of character
It matters who the audience is – and what type of audience we have for our performances. When thinking about how people adapt their behaviour for others, Goffman differentiates between “front regions” and “back regions”.
Front regions are where we must present what is often referred to as the “best version of ourselves”. In an open-plan office, a worker needs to look busy if their supervisor is about. So, in the front region, they need to look engaged, industrious and generally perform the role of being a worker. In an open-plan office, a worker needs to be constantly “in character”, as Goffman puts it.
Back regions are where a social actor can “let their guard down”. In the context of a workplace, the back regions might refer to the bathroom, the lunchroom or anywhere else where the worker can relax their performance and potentially resort to “out of character” behaviour.
If the worker takes a diversionary break to gossip with a colleague when their supervisor is no longer in earshot, they could be said to be engaging in back region conduct.
Front and back regions are not defined by physical locations. A back region is any situation in which the individual can relax and drop their performance. (Of course, this means regions overlap with physical locations to some extent – people are more likely to be able to relax when they’re in more private settings.)
Thus, open-plan offices are often unpopular because workers feel they are constantly under surveillance. 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 personae.
Renowned writer Jenny Diski reflected in 2004:
Reading Goffman now is alarmingly claustrophobic. He presents a world where there is nowhere to run; a perpetual dinner party of status seeking, jockeying for position and saving face. Any idea of an authentic self becomes a nonsense. You may or may not believe in what you are performing; either type of performance is believed in or it is not.
Dramaturgy has survived the onset 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.
The “successful staging” (as Goffman terms it) of our social roles has only become more complex. This is perfectly illustrated by “BBC Dad” Robert Kelly, whose 2017 live television interview from his home study was interrupted when his children wandered into the room. This was before COVID lockdowns, when our home and work lives (and personae) increasingly merged.
“Everyone understands that now,” wrote Reena Gupta in 2022. “You or someone in your family or circle of friends has been BBC Dad.”
Maintaining and maximising performances still matters. And so does Goffman.