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Notes on: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life - Erving Goffman
The best way for me to really understand whatever it is I read is to take notes. Currently these notes are just sitting in my Notion, so I thought I might as well share it. Hopefully you learn something new and maybe even buy the book.
As a heads up I didn’t finish the book. If I do go back to finish it, and I take more interesting notes I will share it.
If you find this post interesting let me know! I have a bunch of notes on different books, so that will encourage me to share them too.
P.S These are my raw notes. I have tried to tidy up my typos but I probably won’t catch them all. I make no apologies.. they are notes!
The presentation of self in everyday life is a book published by the sociologist Erving Goffman in 1959. In it he likens human social interaction to that of a theatrical performance, to put it simply. For a more in depth summary read here.
Individuals are performers, and they use their appearance, manner and social setting to act
There are two ends of the performance spectrum, "genuine" and "cynical"
Genuine performance is when the individual truly believes what they are performing
Cynical performance is when the individual does not believe what they are performing at all, but they do the performance as a means to an end. Usually to manipulate the "audience".
Manipulation of a cynical performer is not always malicious e.g a doctor providing a placebo (although doctors don't know when something is a placebo so this is false), an air hostess double checking something they know to be fine, just to put a scared customer at ease etc
Individuals can go back and forth between being genuine and cynical, and you see this happening with people who fall in and out of being religious
When performing, individuals also have "preventative" and "defensive" practices.
"preventative" practices are used to prevent an individual steering off course (course being the performance they are meant to do)
"defensive" practices are used to help re-affirm / bring back on track the performance an individual is meant to give
Appearance is about how can individual looks, manner is about how someone behaves
Social setting consists of things like furniture, spacing, tables etc. This setting dictates the sort of performance that will be given
Social settings are used to dictate what types of performances can occur i.e if you are in a professional environment, you are expected to behave a certain type of way
Appearance and manner can drive the value / perception of a performance (e.g a nurse doing anesthesia vs a doctor. Same thing but they get paid differently and the complexity is viewed differently)
When a group is engaging in a performance it becomes the consensus "reality" amongst them. To leave or not participate in the performance is to leave "reality" at that moment in time.
Performances can be dramatised, which can be a good or bad thing.
Good - need to dramatize performance when there is "invisible work". In this instance the visible work is dramatized to help compensate for lack of pay of the invisible work
Bad - E.g Needing to do it in order to fit a stereotype, in order to get help as the "normal" performance does not fit the expected performance the audience is expecting. Example given was black people purposely acting stupid and happy-go-lucky when interacting with white people because that was what was expected of them given their race and class. Another example was keeping a house in a somewhat "bad state" in order to avoid an increase in rent (so the owner doesn't think they are undercharging). People can also exploit this (e.g knowing the stereotype of poverty, and playing the part well in order to deceive the audience. Likewise, the audience expecting the performer to play the part of "poverty" even if their appearance and manner clearly indicates such already)
Performances are often idealized versions of reality e.g an 8 year old saying he doesn't watch shows for 6 year olds, even though he may do so occasionally in private. However it is this idealized performance that forces the individual to improve.
There can be discrepancies and inconsistencies between outside performance and behind the scenes
The performer may be engaged in illegal activities that directly contradict their performance. They do this because they need their audience to believe this performance as they gain from this, which helps them further gain from their illegal activity.
Errors and mistakes are concealed from the audience, and any form of correction is also concealed from the audience. This gives the impression that they are incapable of making mistakes. Which links back to the point that it makes them better because it forces them to catch their mistakes.
Only showing the end product in the performance. This can be a form of dramatizing too as it is easy to conceal (for example) how much effort it actually took.
The performer may be engaged in illegal activities, or profiting from illegal activities in order to give the performance. Such activities will contradict what it i they wish to convey to the outside world, this is known as "dirty work"
Difference between appearance and actual activity. If an appearance is meant to signify several things (activity wise), often certain parts of the appearance will be compromised, as they are not visible to easy to assess, and still provide the same level of performance to the audience.
Individuals foster the impression that they had "ideal" motives for playing their role e.g a priest claiming they are priest because they received the call of God, nothing else (which may not alway be true). Or upper class people giving them impression that they somehow earned the right through pure means (hard work alone).
When an individual performs they often give the impression that this is the only performance they give (or at least the one with most significance in their lives). Because of this, there is segregation in the audience. example, someone speaking in slang, smoking etc will not put on the same performance for their boss. audience dictates performance
Within this, individuals tend to give the impression that the performance given to the audience is very special / they have a special relationsip. This can be seen via doctors and their patients, friends etc.
The individual may rely on a certain set of cues the audience are meant to pick up in order tp reinforce the validity of their performance. In the case an individual messes up on this cue, this may throw their whole performance into question
When the audience is already skeptical of the indivual's performance, they will pay extra attention to these cues and will pounce at the first sign of blunder
If an individual messes us a cue, this can break the illusion of "reality", even if it was a mistake that meant nothing
In extremely important situatuons individuals are not allowed to break character i.e they can not submit to human tendencies. Beauraticsiatoon of the spirit is expected, in order to maintain the perfect act. Such is seen in middle class funerals.
Audience members naturally go back and forth between feelings of doubt and certainty of an individuals performance. To provide clarity for them, they seek cues that are hard to perform, unless the performance is true e.g policemen looking for blood at the scene of the crime
If a symbol of status is the only thing we have, then the audience becomes even more keen to attack at the moment of slip up
Impersonation is not straight forward. Most times audiences don't care about the actual performance the individual gives. What they care about is wether the individual is authorised to give this act
The audiences response to Impersonation is also not consistent. When someone of lower class impersonates someone of upper class it is an abomination, when the reverse is done people are in awe, not hostility. (My own thoughts - this likely feeds into the idea of pure intentions/ deservingness)
When standards of competence are not objective, impersonation push back isn't as harsh (i.e calling your self a genius when you may not be one)
Potency of impersonations can vary from year to year e.g impersonating native americans wasn’t a big deal a few years ago, now it is very disrespectful