The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life by Erving Goffman was published in 1959 and is considered a seminal book in sociology. I found it a stimulating read as it began to answer the question of “what dynamics are at play during social situations?” According to Goffman, our perception of what is going on is created by the interactions we have with each other and the world. Goffman describes these situations as being comparable to an actor being on stage. Essentially, we act in certain ways to convey certain messages.

As a review, I selected the passages I found the most interesting, some of which have my interpretation and thoughts in addition.

“I have said that when an individual appears before others his actions will influence the definition of the situation which they come to have. Sometimes the individual will act in a thoroughly calculating manner, expressing himself in a given way solely in order to give the kind of impression to others that is likely to evoke from them a specific response he is concerned to obtain.”

“If we see perception as a form of contact and communion, 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.”

I think this quote really shows how deeply connected we are to each other. By accepting that our interactions are performances, this means we can control how we contact, communicate, and interact with others.

“The theater of our conduct is composed of two regions: front regions where a particular performance is or may be in progress, and back regions where action occurs that is related to the performance but inconsistent with the appearance fostered by the performance.”

Accepting that our interactions are like performing in a play, the performance can take place in a “front region”, where the actor (us) is being seen by others. Or in the “back region”, where the actor is still performing, but is unseen by the “audience”, and in a manner that contradicts how he/she was acting in the front region.

“The notion that a performance presents an idealized view of the situation is, of course, quite common. Cooley’s view may be taken as illustration: ‘If we never tried to seem a little better than we are, how could we improve or ‘train ourselves from the outside inward?’ And the same impulse to show the world a better or idealized aspect of ourselves finds an organized expression in the various professions and classes, each of which has to some extent a cant or pose, which its members assume unconsciously, for the most part, but which has the effect of a conspiracy to work upon the credulity of the rest of the world There is a cant not only of theology and of philanthropy, but also of law, medicine, teaching, even of science-perhaps especially of science, just now, since the more a particular kind of merit is recognized and admired, the more it is likely to be assumed by the unworthy.'”

“One over-all objective of any team is to sustain the definition of the situation that its performance fosters. This will involve the over-communication of some facts and the undercommunication of others. Given the fragility and the required expressive coherence of the reality that is dramatized by a performance, there are usually facts which, if attention is drawn to them during the performance, would discredit, disrupt, or make useless the impression that the performance fosters. These facts may be said to provide ‘destructive information.’ A basic problem for many performances, then, is that of information control; the audience must not acquire destructive information about the situation that is being defined for them. In other words, a team must be able to keep its secrets and have its secrets kept.”

This is the passage I think is really juicy. There are two types of performances taking place in the front and back regions. One occurs as an individual, and the other as a “team.” A team is more than one person attempting to convey the same performance to the audience. For example, teachers keeping order in their class. The teachers work as a team to deliver the curriculum and to maintain order in the class. If one teacher does not allow gum chewing, but the other does, then the team performance is conflicting. Therefore, teams will work together to convey the same message to the audience.

During a performance, the team may over-communicate some facts and under-communicate others. However, there are facts that, if found out by the audience, would “discredit, disrupt, or make useless the impression that the performance fosters.” Information that is capable of disrupting a performance is considered “destructive information.” To prevent destructive information from coming out, teams will perform in particular ways to prevent its release. “A team must be able to keep its secrets and have its secrets kept.”

This quote not only applies to individuals, but also to institutions. Although it is debatable whether corporations should be legally considered as citizens (Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission), they exhibit human characteristics. If we view the government as having human tendencies, then we can see how its various branches act as a team. Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, COINTELPRO, when Ronald Reagan said:

“A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” (video)

What all those events have in common is that they represent an example of disruptive information. Why is the government keeping secrets? For our benefit?

“When intruders enter the front region … [it] brings at least momentary confusion to the line of action the performers are already engaged in. The performers will find themselves temporarily torn between two possible realities, and until signals can be given and received members of the team may have no guide as to what line they are to follow. Embarrassment is almost certain to result. Under such circumstances it is understandable that the intruder may be accorded neither of the accommodative treatments … treated as if he were not there at all or quite unceremoniously asked to stay out.”

Intruders are people not expected to be in the audience, people not supposed to know about the performance. To me, this sounds a lot like when ‘the people’ start to ask questions of the government, and when they start to demand to be involved in the process.