The presentation of self in everyday life, Erving Goffman

Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in EverydayLife. New York: Doubleday, 1956, pp. 22-30, 70-76.


Front

I have been using the term “performance” to refer to all theactivity of an individual which occurs during a period marked by hiscontinuous presence before a particular set of observers and whichhas some influence on the observers. It will be convenient to labelas “front” that part of the individual’s performance which regularlyfunctions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation forthose who observe the performance. Front, then, is the expressiveequipment of a standard kind intentionally or unwittingly employed bythe individual during his performance. For preliminary purposes, itwill be convenient to distinguish and label what seem to be thestandard parts of front.

First, there is the “setting,” involving furniture, decor physicallayout, and other background items which supply the scenery and stageprops for the spate of human action played out before, within, orupon it. A setting tends to stay put, geographically speaking, sothat those who would use a particular setting as part of theirperformance cannot begin their act until they have brought themselvesto the appropriate place and must terminate their performance whenthey leave it. It is only in exceptional circumstances that thesetting follows along with the performers; we see this in the funeralcortege, the civic parade, and the dreamlike processions that kingsand queens are made of. In the main, these exceptions seem to offersome kind of extra protection for performers who are, or who havemomentarily become, highly sacred. These worthies are to bedistinguished, of course, from quite profane performers of thepeddler class who move their place of work between performances,often being forced to do so. In the matter of having one fixed placefor one’s setting, a ruler may be too sacred, a peddler too profane.

In thinking about the scenic aspects of front, we tend to think ofthe living room in a particular house and the small number ofperformers who can thoroughly identify themselves with it. We havegiven insufficient attention to assemblages of sign-equipment whichlarge numbers of performers can call their own for short periods oftime. It is characteristic of Western European countries, and nodoubt a source of stability for them, that a large number ofluxurious settings are available for hire to anyone of the right kindwho can afford them. One illustration of this may be cited from astudy of the higher civil servant in Britain:

The question how far the men who rise to the top inthe Civil Service take on the “tone” or “color” of a class other thanthat to which they belong by birth is delicate and difficult. Theonly definite information bearing on the question is the figuresrelating to the membership of the great London clubs. More thanthree-quarters of our high administrative officials belong to one ormore clubs of high status and considerable luxury, where the entrancefee might be twenty guineas or more, and the annual subscription fromtwelve to twenty guineas. These institutions are of the upper class(not even of the upper-middle) in their premises, their equipment,the style of living practiced there, their whole atmosphere. Thoughmany of the members would not be described as wealthy, only a wealthyman would unaided provide for himself and his family space, food anddrink, service, and other amenities of life to the same standard ashe will find at the Union, the Travellers’, or the Reform. [1]

Another example can be found in the recent development of themedical profession where we find that it is increasingly importantfor a doctor to have access to the elaborate scientific stageprovided by large hospitals, so that fewer and fewer doctors are ableto feel that their setting is a place that they can lock up at night.[2]

If we take the term “setting” to refer to the scenic parts ofexpressive equipment, one may take the term “personal front” to referto the other items of expressive equipment, the items that we mostintimately identify with the performer himself and that we naturallyexpect will follow the performer wherever he goes. As part Ofpersonal front we may include: insignia of office or rank; clothing;sex, age, and racial characteristics; size and looks; posture; speechpatterns; facial expressions; bodily gestures; and the like. Some ofthese vehicles for conveying signs, such as racial characteristics,are relatively fixed and over a span of time do not vary for theindividual from one situation to another. On the other hand, some ofthese sign vehicles are relatively mobile or transitory, such asfacial expression, and can vary ; during a performance from onemoment to the next.

It is sometimes convenient to divide the stimuli which make uppersonal front into “appearance” and “manner,” according to thefunction performed by the information that these stimuli convey.”Appearance” may be taken to refer to those stimuli which functionat the time to tell us of the performer’s social statuses. Thesestimuli also tell us of the individual’s temporary ritual state, thatis, whether he is engaging in formal social activity, work, orinformal recreation, whether or not he is celebrating a new phase inthe season cycle or in his life-cycle. “Manner” may be taken to referto those stimuli which function at the time to warn us of theinteraction role the performer will expect to play in the oncomingsituation. Thus a haughty, aggressive manner may give the impressionthat the performer expects to be the one who will initiate the verbalinteraction and direct its course. A meek, apologetic manner may givethe impression that the performer expects to follow the lead ofothers, or at least that he can be led to do so.

We often expect, of course, a confirming consistency betweenappearance and manner; we expect that the differences in socialstatuses among the interactants will be expressed in some way bycongruent differences in the indications that are made of an expectedinteraction role. This type of coherence of front may be illustratedby the following description of the procession of a mandarin througha Chinese city:

Coming closely behind . . . the luxurious chair of themandarin, carried by eight bearers, fills the vacant space in thestreet. He is mayor of the town, and for all practical purposes thesupreme power in it. He is an ideal-looking official, for he is largeand massive in appearance, whilst he has that stern anduncompromising look that is supposed to be necessary in anymagistrate who would hope to keep his subjects in order. He has astern and forbidding aspect, as though he were on his way to theexecution ground to have some criminal decapitated. This is the kindof air that the mandarins put on when they appear in public. In thecourse of many years’ experience, I have never once seen any of them,from the highest to the lowest, with a smile on his face or a look ofsympathy for the people whilst he was being carried officiallythrough the streets. [3]

But, of course, appearance and manner may tend to contradict eachother, as when a performer who appears to be of higher estate thanhis audience acts in a manner that is unexpectedly equalitarian, orintimate, or apologetic, or when a performer dressed in the garmentsof a high position presents himself to an individual of even higherstatus.

In addition to the expected consistency between appearance andmanner, we expect, of course, some coherence among setting,appearance, and manner. [4] Such coherence represents an ideal typethat provides us with a means of stimulating our attention to andinterest in exceptions. In this the student is assisted by thejournalist, for exceptions to expected consistency among setting,appearance, and manner provide the piquancy and glamor of manycareers and the salable appeal of many magazine articles. Forexample, a New Yorker profile on Roger Stevens (the realestate agent who engineered the sale of the Empire State Building)comments on the startling fact that Stevens has a small house, ameager office, and no letterhead stationery. [5]

In order to explore more fully the relations among the severalparts of social front, it will be convenient to consider here asignificant characteristic of the information conveyed by front,namely, its abstractness and generality.

However specialized and unique a routine is, its social front,with certain exceptions, will tend to claim facts that can be equallyclaimed and asserted of other, somewhat different routines. Forexample, many service occupations offer their clients a performancethat is illuminated with dramatic expressions of cleanliness,modernity, competence, and integrity. While in fact these abstractstandards have a different significance in different occupationalperformances, the observer is encouraged to stress the abstractsimilarities. For the observer this is a wonderful, though sometimesdisastrous, convenience. Instead of having to maintain a differentpattern of expectation and responsive treatment for each slightlydifferent performer and performance, he can place the situation in abroad category around which it is easy for him to mobilize his pastexperience and stereo-typical thinking. Observers then need only befamiliar with a small and hence manageable vocabulary of fronts andknow how to respond to them, in order to orient themselves in a widevariety of situations. Thus in London the current tendency forchimney sweeps [6] and perfume clerks to wear white lab coats tendsto provide the client with an understanding that the delicate tasksperformed by these persons will be performed in what has become astandardized, clinical, confidential manner.

There are grounds for believing that the tendency for a largenumber of different acts to be presented from behind a small numberof fronts is a natural development in social organization.Radcliffe-Brown has suggested this in his claim that a “descriptive”kinship system which gives each person a unique place may work forvery small communities, but, as the number of persons becomes large,clan segmentation becomes necessary as a means of providing a lesscomplicated system of identifications and treatments. [7] We see thistendency illustrated in factories, barracks, and other large socialestablishments. Those who organize these establishments find itimpossible to provide a special cafeteria, special modes of payment,special vacation rights, and special sanitary facilities for everyline and staff status category in the organization, and at the sametime they feel that persons of dissimilar status ought not to beindiscriminately thrown together or classified together. As acompromise, the full range of diversity is cut at a few crucialpoints, and all those within a given bracket are allowed or obligedto maintain the same social front in certain situations.

In addition to the fact that different routines may employ thesame front, it is to be noted that a given social front tends tobecome institutionalized in terms of the abstract stereotypedexpectations to which it gives rise, and tends to take on a meaningand stability apart from the specific tasks which happen at the timeto be performed in its name. The front becomes a “collectiverepresentation” and a fact in its own right.

When an actor takes on an established social role, usually hefinds that a particular front has already been established for it.Whether his acquisition of the role was primarily motivated by adesire to perform the given task or by a desire to maintain thecorresponding front, the actor will find that he must do both.

Further, if the individual takes on a task that is not only new tohim but also unestablished in the society, or if he attempts tochange the light in which his task is viewed, he is likely to findthat there are already several well-established fronts among which hemust choose. Thus, when a task is given a new front we seldom findthat the front it is given is itself new.

Since fronts tend to be selected, not created, we may expecttrouble to arise when those who perform a given task are forced toselect a suitable front for themselves from among several quitedissimilar ones. Thus, in military organizations, tasks are alwaysdeveloping which (it is felt) require too much authority and skill tobe carried out behind the front maintained by one grade of personneland too little authority and skill to be carried out behind the frontmaintained by the next grade in the hierarchy. Since there arerelatively large jumps between grades, the task will come to “carrytoo much rank” or to carry too little.

An interesting illustration of the dilemma of selecting anappropriate front from several not quite fitting ones may be foundtoday in American medical organizations with respect to the task ofadministering anesthesia. [8] In some hospitals anesthesia is stilladministered by nurses behind the front that nurses are allowed tohave in hospitals regardless of the tasks they perform–a frontinvolving ceremonial subordination to doctors and a relatively lowrate of pay. In order to establish anesthesiology as a speciality forgraduate medical doctors, interested practitioners have had toadvocate strongly the idea that administering anesthesia is asufficiently complex and vital task to justify giving to those whoperform it the ceremonial and financial reward given to doctors. Thedifference between the front maintained by a nurse and the frontmaintained by a doctor is great; many things that are acceptable fornurses are infra dignitatem for doctors. Some medical peoplehave felt that a nurse “under-ranked” for the task of administeringanesthesia and that doctors “over-ranked”; were there I anestablished status midway between nurse and doctor, an easiersolution to the problem could perhaps be found. [9] Similarly, hadthe Canadian Army had a rank halfway between lieutenant and captain,two and a half pips instead of two or three, then Dental Corpscaptains, many of them of a low ethnic origin, could have been givena rank that would perhaps have been more suitable in the eyes of theArmy than the captaincies they were actually given.

I do not mean here to stress the point of view of a formalorganization or a society; the individual, as someone who possesses alimited range of sign-equipment, must also make unhappy choices.Thus, in the crofting community studied by the writer, hosts oftenmarked the visit of a friend by offering him a shot of hard liquor, aglass of wine, some home-made brew, or a cup of tea. The higher therank or temporary ceremonial status of the visitor, the more likelyhe was to receive an offering near the liquor end of the continuum.Now one problem associated with this range of sign-equipment was thatsome crofters could not afford to keep a bottle of hard liquor, sothat wine tended to be the most indulgent gesture they could employ.But perhaps a more common difficulty was the fact that certainvisitors, given their permanent and temporary status at the time,outranked one potable and under-ranked the next one in line. Therewas often a danger that the visitor would feel just a littleaffronted or, on the other hand, that the host’s costly and limitedsign-equipment would be misused. In our middle classes a similarsituation arises when a hostess has to decide whether or not to usethe good silver, or which would be the more appropriate to wear, herbest afternoon dress or her plainest evening gown.

I have suggested that social front can be divided into traditionalparts, such as setting, appearance, and manner, and that (sincedifferent routines may be presented from behind the same front) wemay not find a perfect fit between the specific character of aperformance and the general socialized guise in which it appears tous. These two facts, taken together, lead one to appreciate thatitems in the social front of a particular routine are not only foundin the social fronts of a whole range of routines but also that thewhole range of routines in which one item of sign-equipment is foundwill differ from the range of routines in which another item in thesame social front will be found. Thus, a lawyer may talk to a clientin a social setting that he employs only for this purpose (or for astudy), but the suitable clothes he wears on such occasions he willalso employ, with equal suitability, at dinner with colleagues and atthe theater with his wife. Similarly, the prints that hang on hiswall and the carpet on his floor may be found in domestic socialestablishments. Of course, in highly ceremonial occasions, setting,manner, and appearance may all be unique and specific, used only forperformances of a single type of routine, but such exclusive use ofsign-equipment is the exception rather than the rule.


Reality and Contrivance


In our own Anglo-American culture there seems to be twocommon-sense models according to which we formulate our conceptionsof behavior: the real, sincere, or honest performance; and the falseone that thorough fabricators assemble for us, whether meant to betaken unseriously, as in the work of stage actors, or seriously, asin the work of confidence men. We tend to see real performances assomething not purposely put together at all, being an unintentionalproduct of the individuals unself-conscious response to the facts inhis situation. And contrived performances we tend to see as somethingpainstakingly pasted together, one false item on another, since thereis no reality to which the items of behavior could be a directresponse. It will be necessary to see now that these dichotomousconceptions are by way of being the ideology of honest performers,providing strength to the show they put on, but a poor analysis ofit.

First, let it be said that there are many individuals whosincerely believe that the definition of the situation theyhabitually project is the real reality. In this report I do not meanto question their proportion in the population but rather thestructural relation of their sincerity to the performances theyoffer. If a performance is to come off, the witnesses by and largemust be able to believe that the performers are sincere. This is thestructural place of sincerity in the drama of events. Performers maybe sincere–or be insincere but sincerely convinced of their ownsincerity –but this kind of affection for one’s part is notnecessary for its convincing performance. There are not many Frenchcooks who are really Russian spies, and perhaps there are not manywomen who play the part of wife to one man and mistress to another;but these duplicities do occur, often being sustained successfullyfor long periods of time. This suggests that while persons usuallyare what they appear to be, such appearances could still have beenmanaged. There is, then, a statistical relation between appearancesand reality, not an intrinsic or necessary one. In fact, given theunanticipated threats that play upon a performance, and given theneed (later to be discussed) to maintain solidarity with one’s fellowperformers and some distance from the witnesses, we find that a rigidincapacity to depart from one’s inward view of reality may at timesendanger one’s performance. Some performances are carried offsuccessfully with complete dishonesty, others with complete honesty;but for performances in general neither of these extremes isessential and neither, perhaps, is dramaturgically advisable.

The implication here is that an honest, sincere, seriousperformance is less firmly connected with the solid world than onemight first assume. And this implication will be strengthened if welook again at the distance usually placed between quite honestperformances and quite contrived ones. In this connection take, forexample, the remarkable phenomenon of stage acting. It does take deepskill, long training, and psychological capacity to become a goodstage actor. But this fact should not blind us to another one: thatalmost anyone can quickly learn a script well enough to give acharitable audience some sense of realness in what is being contrivedbefore them. And it seems this is so because ordinary socialintercourse is itself put together as a scene is put together, by theexchange of dramatically inflated actions, counteractions, andterminating replies. Scripts even in the hands of unpracticed playerscan come to life because life itself is a dramatically enacted thing.All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways inwhich it isn’t are not easy to specify.

The recent use of “psychodrama” as a therapeutic techniqueillustrates a further point in this regard. In these psychiatricallystaged scenes patients not only act out parts with someeffectiveness, but employ no script in doing so. Their own past isavailable to them in a form which allows them to stage arecapitulation of it. Apparently a part once played honestly and inearnest leaves the performer in a position to contrive a showing ofit later. Further, the parts that significant others played to him inthe past also seem to be available, allowing him to switch from beingthe person that he was to being the persons that others were for him.This capacity to switch enacted roles when obliged to do so couldhave been predicted; everyone apparently can do it. For in learningto perform our parts in real life we guide our own productions by nottoo consciously maintaining an incipient familiarity with the routineof those to whom we will address ourselves. And when we come to beable properly to manage a real routine we are able to do this in partbecause of “anticipatory socialization,” [1] having already beenschooled in the reality that is just coming to be real for us.

When the individual does move into a new position in society andobtains a new part to perform, he is not likely to be told in fulldetail how to conduct himself, nor will the facts of his newsituation press sufficiently on him from the start to determine hisconduct without his further giving thought to it. Ordinarily he willbe given only a few cues, hints, and stage directions, and it will beassumed that he already has in his repertoire a large number of bitsand pieces of performances that will be required in the new setting.The individual will already have a fair idea of what modesty,deference, or righteous indignation looks like, and can make a passat playing these bits when necessary. He may even be able to play outthe part of a hypnotic subject [2] or commit a “compulsive” crime [3]on the basis of models for these activities that he is alreadyfamiliar with.

A theatrical performance or a staged confidence game requires athorough scripting of the spoken content of the routine; but the vastpart involving “expression given off” is often determined by meagerstage directions. It is expected that the performer of illusions willalready know a good deal about how to manage his voice, his face, andhis body, although he–as well as any person who directs him– mayfind it difficult indeed to provide a detailed verbal statement ofthis kind of knowledge. And in this, of course, we approach thesituation of the straightforward man in the street. Socialization maynot so much involve a learning of the many specific details of asingle concrete part–often there could not be enough time or energyfor this. What does seem to be required of the individual is that helearn enough pieces of expression to be able to “fill in” and manage,more or less, any part that he is likely to be given. The legitimateperformances of everyday life are not “acted” or “put on” in thesense that the performer knows in advance just what he is going todo, and does this solely because of the effect it is likely to have.The expressions it is felt he is giving off will be especially”inaccessible” to him. [4] But as in the case of less legitimateperformers, the incapacity of the ordinary individual to formulate inadvance the movements of his eyes and body does not mean that he willnot express himself through these devices in a way that is dramatizedand pre-formed in his repertoire of actions. In short, we all actbetter than we know how.

When we watch a television wrestler gouge, foul, and snarl at hisopponent we are quite ready to see that, in spite of the dust, he is,and knows he is, merely playing at being the “heavy,” and that inanother match he may be given the other role, that of clean-cutwrestler, and perform this with equal verve and proficiency. We seemless ready to see, however, that while such details as the number andcharacter of the falls may be fixed beforehand, the details of theexpressions and movements used do not come from a script but fromcommand of an idiom, a command that is exercised from moment tomoment with little calculation or forethought.

In reading of persons in the West Indies who become the “horse” orthe one possessed of a voodoo spirit, [5] it is enlightening to learnthat the person possessed will be able to provide a correct portrayalof the god that has entered him because of “the knowledge andmemories accumulated in a life spent visiting congregations of thecult”; [6] that the person possessed will be in just the right socialrelation to those who are watching; that possession occurs at justthe right moment in the ceremonial undertakings, the possessed onecarrying out his ritual obligations to the point of participating ina kind of skit with persons possessed at the time with other spirits.But in learning this, it is important to see that this contextualstructuring of the horse’s role still allows participants in the cultto believe that possession is a real thing and that persons arepossessed at random by gods whom they cannot select.

And when we observe a young American middle class girl playingdumb for the benefit of her boy friend, we are ready to point toitems of guile and contrivance in her behavior. But like herself andher boy friend, we accept as an unperformed fact that this performeris a young

American middle-class girl. But surely here we neglect the greaterpart of the performance. It is commonplace to say that differentsocial groupings express in different ways such attributes as age,sex, territory, and class status, and that in each case these bareattributes are elaborated by means of a distinctive complex culturalconfiguration of proper ways of conducting oneself. To be agiven kind of person, then, is not merely to possess the requiredattributes, but also to sustain the standards of conduct andappearance that one’s social grouping attaches thereto. Theunthinking ease with which performers consistently carry off suchstandard-maintaining routines does not deny that a performance hasoccurred, merely that the participants have been aware of it.

A status, a position, a social place is not a material thing, tobe possessed and then displayed; it is a pattern of appropriateconduct, coherent, embellished, and well articulated. Performed withease or clumsiness, awareness or not, guile or good faith, it is nonethe less something that must be enacted and portrayed, something thatmust be realized. Sartre, here, provides a good illustration:

Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movementis quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. Hecomes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bendsforward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interesta little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally therehe returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness ofsome kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessnessof a tightrope-walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable,perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes bya light movement of the arm and hand. All his behavior seems to us agame. He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they weremechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even hisvoice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness andpitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself.But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explainit: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe. There is nothing thereto surprise us. The game is a kind of marking out and investigation.The child plays with his body in order to explore it, to takeinventory of it; the waiter in the cafe plays with his condition inorder to realize it. This obligation is not different fromthat which is imposed on all tradesmen. Their condition is wholly oneof ceremony. The public demands of them that they realize it as aceremony; there is the dance of the grocer, of the tailor, of theauctioneer, by which they endeavor to persuade their clientele thatthey are nothing but a grocer, an auctioneer, a tailor. A grocer whodreams is offensive to the buyer, because such a grocer is not whollya grocer. Society demands that he limit himself to his function as agrocer, just as the soldier at attention makes himself into asoldier-thing with a direct regard which does not see at all, whichis not longer meant to see, since it is the rule and not the interestof the moment which determines the point he must fix his eyes on (thesight “fixed at ten paces”). There are indeed many precautions toimprison a man in what he is, as if we lived in perpetual fear thathe might escape from it, that he might break away and suddenly eludehis condition. [7]


 


ENDNOTES:


1. H. E. Dale, The Higher Civil Service of Great Britain(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1941), p. 50.

2. David Solomon, “Career Contingencies of Chicago Physicians”(unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Sociology, Universityof Chicago, 1952), p. 74.

3. J. Macgowan, Sidelights on Chinese Life (Philadelphia:Lippincott, 1908), p. 187.

4. Cf. Kenneth Burke’s comments on the “scene-act-agent ratio,”A Grammar of Motives (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1945), pp. 6-9

5. E. J. Kahn, Jr., “Closings and Openings,” The NewYorker, February 13 and 20, 1954.

6. See Mervyn Jones, “White as a Sweep,” The New Statesman andNation, December 6, 1952.

7. A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, “The Social Organization of AustralianTribes.” Oceania, I, 440.

8. See the thorough treatment of this problem in Dan C. Lortie,”Doctors without Patients: The Anesthesiologist, a New MedicalSpecialty” (unpublished Master’s thesis, Department of Sociology,University of Chicago, 1950). See also Mark Murphy’s three-partProfile of Dr. Rovenstine, “Anesthesiologist,” The New Yorker,October 25, November 1, and November 8, 1947.

9. In some hospitals the intern and the medical student performtasks that are beneath a doctor and above a nurse. Presumably suchtasks do not require a large amount of experience and practicaltraining, for while this intermediate status of doctor-in-training isa permanent part of hospitals, all those who hold it do sotemporarily.


 

1. See R. K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure(Glencoe: The Free Press, revised and enlarged edition, 1957), p.265ff.

2. This view of hypnosis is neatly presented by T. R Sarbin,”Contributions to Role-Taking Theory. I: Hypnotic Behavior,”Psychological Review, 57, pp. 255-70.

3. See D. R. Cressey “The Differential Association Theory andCompulsive Crimes,” Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology andPolice Science, 45, pp. 29-40.

4. This concept derives from T. R. Sarbin, “Role Theory,” inGardner Lindzey, Handbook of Social Psychology (Cambridge:Addison-Wesley, 1954), Vol. 1, pp. 235-36.

5. See, for example, Alfred Metraux, “Dramatic Elements in RitualPossession,” Diogenes, 11, pp. 18-36.

6. Ibid., p. 24.

7. Sartre, op. cit., p. 59.