Explain Erving Goffman’s ideas on the presentation of self. What are the elements of “presentations?” How, for example, does a college professor engage in a scripted presentation of self to a class? What about a professor’s office? What features of the office are used to convey information to an observer?



Like Shakespeare, Irving Goffman understood that “all the world’s a stage.” He used the concepts of status and role to describe the process of social interaction in terms of a theatrical performance. A person’s status is their “part” in the social interaction while their role is the script. Unlike the role in a play however, the individual’s performance is impromptu. A person continuously adjusts their performance in relation to the actions of the others involved in the social interaction to achieve a desired result. Goffman calls this the presentation of self or impression management which is defined as “a person’s efforts to create specific impressions in the minds of others.” The interaction or performance occurs on a stage or social setting which provides the “actors” with an understanding of the performance which is expected of them. Expected clothing (costumes), objects (props), and gestures and tone of voice (demeanor) support the performance. For example, a classroom environment is constructed with the instructor’s position identified by a desk and podium, whiteboard, and probably a projection screen. Specialized seating with a writing area identifies the students’ positions. Both instructor and students dress in a specific way. In the traditional classroom the instructor who guides the performance stands at the front of the “stage” and uses props such briefcase, textbook, notes, pointer, computer and data projector to “act” out his or her role. The instructor’s tone is informational. Students are seated and are expected to remain engaged but, for the most part, silent except when they have a question and instructor recognizes them or the instructor asks them a question.


People communicate with each other not only by their specific words and tone of voice but nonverbally “using body movements, gestures and facial expressions rather than speech.” Think about how you would interpret the words, “Now you’ve done it,” when stated by someone who is smiling or frowning, with an excited or accusatory tone, while shaking the head up and down horizontally or vertically, with the hands spread and open or with the arms crossed. Also, in non-verbal communication eye contact is used to encourage continued interaction. The same body language means different things in different societies. Crossing your legs during a meeting will have little impact in our society but would be considered insulting in the Middle East where showing the bottom of one’s foot is a sign of contempt. In our society we count on our fingers beginning with the forefinger. In Germany, you count beginning with the thumb. Body movements are internalized and are difficult to control in a deceptive performance. When a person’s words and body language are in conflict, they are usually engaged in a deceptive performance.


A person’s demeanor, “the way they act and carry themselves,” is affected by the degree of power they have in a social interaction. Those with more power act more freely. Think of the behavior of an instructor and students, a military commander and soldiers, a police officer and the driver he or she has pulled over. Personal space, “the surrounding area over which a person makes claim to privacy,” also varies according to the social situation and varies depending not only on the social situation and culture. If you want to test the impact of personal space, slowly step closer to a person with whom you are speaking. Normally, they will unconsciously back up to reestablish the appropriate personal space. Smiling, staring, and touching also have different meanings depending on the specific social situation. When viewed through the lens of gender a woman’s demeanor tends to be more deferential than a man’s. Men enter a woman’s personal space to demonstrate power. When a woman enters a man’s personal space, it is interpreted as a sign of sexual interest. Women use eye contact to encourage continued interaction. Men may stare to show dominance looking for the other person to break eye contact as a sign of submission. Smiling can show either pleasure or be a sign of submission. In our patriarchal society, women tend to smile more than men. A man may also use a touch of the shoulder or arm as a way of asserting his dominance over a woman.


People do not normally attribute their behavior to personal or selfish reasons but rather idealize it citing “ideal cultural standards.” This can include such things as the reasons for entering a career field but can also include behavior in specific social situations. The text cites the example of a doctor making rounds who reads a patient’s chart and uses the information to act as if he or she is personally familiar with the patient’s case during the subsequent interaction. Even when people are aware that a performance is idealized, they will usually overlook mistakes made during a performance in order to help the individual avoid the embarrassment which would result if the mistake is recognized during the performance.


A study by Paul Eckman revealed that globally people convey the same six emotions: “happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise.” In addition, the facial expressions associated with these six emotions are the same. However, while biology determines the type of emotions which we experience and convey, society through culture provides the stimulus sparking emotion; sets the limits on the degree to which emotion is expressed, and the importance that is attached to it. The degree to which emotion is expected and expressed is also directly related to a person’s gender. Emotions can be scripted as illustrated by the welcoming “smile” of the sales associate, or flight attendant, Emotion management is the process by through which emotions are socially constructed.


In addition to providing meaning language when viewed through the lens of gender can convey power and value. Boats, automobiles, airplanes and other possessions are referred to in the feminine. Most women take their husband’s family name at marriage. Words which are masculine in character convey power. Adding the suffix –ette or –ess to a masculine noun or using the feminine equivalent devalues the word. You only need to think of words such as master and mistress, major and majorette, lord and dame.


Humor results when a conventional and an unconventional reality are contrasted. For example in the following joke, the two realities are presented in the use of the word, “revolution.” “Question: How many Marxists to it take to change a light bulb? Answer: None. The seeds of revolution are within it.” It may also be found in self-contradicting statements, repetitive statements or by statements that mix syllables. Examples of these types of jokes are found in the text. In every case the author of the humor must ensure that his audience understands both the conventional and unconventional meaning. Otherwise, they might not “get” the joke (i.e., understand the contradiction). The need to understand both realities is primary reason why jokes do seem to translate well into other languages and cultures. Om sensitive situations people use humor as a way to escape potentially negative outcomes. Have you ever heard someone say, “I was just joking” when their apparently offensive remarks are “misinterpreted.” Humor can also be used to reinforce stereotypes. For example, the joke, “Q: How do you drown a blonde? A: You put a ‘scratch and sniff’ perfume sample at the bottom of your pool” reinforces the stereotype that all blondes are dumb. People in disadvantaged categories use humor to put down those in advantaged categories. For example, I’ve heard this joke from several women:

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