Dr Tim Squirrell is a writer, broadcaster and researcher. He focusses on internet culture and extremism, specialising in the far right and misogynist extremists.

"All the world's a stage"? Understanding Goffman's Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life

"All the world's a stage"? Understanding Goffman's Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life

Erving Goffman's Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life is rated as one of the most important sociological texts of the twentieth century, and for good reason. It provides a fairly comprehensive taxonomy of the different ways in which people manage the image and impressions of themselves that they present in their lives. It fits with the trend towards symbolic interactionism in sociology, seeing social life primarily as a function of interactions between people, groups, and institutions in particular contexts, and emphasising the importance of symbols - of language, gestures, appearance - and the ways in which they shape our conceptions of the world around us and the actors in it.

Moreover, it's a book with significant methodological interest: if you read it, you'll notice that Goffman 's writing is littered with examples of groups and their behaviours. This exemplifies a vision of research conducted through participant observation, attempting to understand people's lives and behaviours through directly engaging with them in the contexts in which they live and interact, rather than thinking that a few questions on a piece of paper or an hour-long interview in a sterile room can adequately capture the richness of their humanity.

There's one important thing to clarify before we dive head-first into the murky sociological pool. Goffman's ideas make a great deal of intuitive sense. They're centred around a dramaturgical metaphor, conceiving of the social world as composed of a multitude of different performances by a vast number of actors, in a variety of settings. The theatrical elements of this concept run deep into the vocabulary he creates in order to explain the different ideas contained within it, but we have to be careful not to take it too literally.

When encountering Goffman for the first time it's easy to project a veneer of cynicism onto him that is not necessarily present in his work: calling our social behaviours "acts" or "fronts" can make them feel "fake", and separate from the "true self" that we have in private. Alternatively, we might think that the implication of his work is that there isn't an essence of the self; that it is, as it were, performances all the way down. In truth, Goffman hints that there are areas of life where we may not be acting, and he doesn't take a specific position on the existence of an essential self. If you want to understand the self in private, a better place to look might be Charles Cooley's "Looking-Glass Self".

With this clarification out of the way, we can look at the ideas coming out of Goffman's work. This will focus primarily on Chapter One of his book, entitled "Performances", but the subsequent chapters are in part devoted to further elaboration of the concepts and ideas he introduces in this section, and so we don't necessarily lose a vast amount by choosing to narrow the scope here.


Introducing performances

The basic idea of self-presentation is that our actions in the social world are "acts", and that when we act, we put on a front in order to project a certain image of ourselves. This front is in turn created and maintained by manipulating the setting in which we perform, as well as our appearance, and the manner in which we present ourselves. Burrowing deeper, we also engage in impression management, trying to project an idealised image of ourselves through the aforementioned control.

The underlying belief exemplified by this framework is that when we interact in the social world, minute things can carry a great degree of significance. A well-timed wink, the use of one word instead of another, a slight modulation in tone, a pushing back of one's hair: all give off signals, whether we like it or not. We can't dictate how people respond to us (again, see Cooley for a greater exposition of this), but we can attempt to manage to image we present and the front we put on in order to maximise the control we do have.

Sincerity and cynicism

Before you run off and start writing essays in which you tell your marker that Goffman has a deeply cynical view of human nature, explaining that this is just a reflection of the time we live in like you're Banksy, it's worth understanding Goffman's thoughts on sincerity.

Goffman says that, yes, our performances can be cynical. We don't have to believe in, or be invested in, the role which we play. We can act purely as a means to another end - and it might well be for self-gain, as in the case of the lawyer who acts tough in arbitration to strike a better deal. Alternatively, it might be for the gain of others: as when a teacher is strict in their classes, or harsh in their comments, because they think it will benefit their students.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are performances which are completely sincere. We can be completely invested in our act, believing it to be a genuine expression of our identity with no fabrication or exaggeration involved. The evangelical who stops people in the street to talk to them about their faith might be a good example of someone who honestly believes that their performance at that moment is a reflection of their inner self.

The vast majority of performances lie somewhere between these two poles, with a mix of sincerity and cynicism.

Possibly the reason that students tend to see this as an intrinsically cynical view of the world is because it seems, on face, to grant a lot more agency to individuals than they might think they have. We don't consider ourselves to be acting much of the time - and even to the extent that we do, we are not necessarily aware of all of the moving parts of our performance. This doesn't mean that we aren't doing them, though: much of our socialisation, including the norms we imbibe and our understandings of how to act out politeness and decorum, comes without us ever really realising it. It might seem like the very act of trying to dissect our social behaviours assumes a degree of manipulation from people in general in a way that we are uncomfortable with, but it needn't necessarily be read as such.


In Goffman's own words, "it will be convenient to label as 'front' that part of the individual's performance which regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation for those who observe the performance." What that means is that the front is like a stage.

He then goes on to split this into three further aspects:

  1. Setting - these are the fixed elements of the front: the physical layout of a room, the props we might use. If you're a doctor, it's your office with a bed and some scales and a terribly aged computer that's crying out for the sweet embrace of oblivion. If you're a student hosting pre-drinks before a night out, it's a grotty room filled with a few mismatched chairs and sofas, a set of speakers and a deck of beer-stained cards you use for Ring of Fire.
  2. Appearance - these are the things that follow you around, the fixed characteristics that we can't change (much or easily). They're things like age, race, gender, the clothes we wear and the items we carry with us.
  3. Manner - these properties are more transient. They comprise our attitude towards our setting and performance: our facial expressions, our air of confidence or humility, our general demeanour. Goffman calls manner "those stimuli which function at the time to warn us of the interaction role the performer will expect to play in the oncoming situation".

The latter two are what Goffman calls the "personal front": the "other items of expressive equipment, the items that we most intimately identify with the performer himself and that we naturally expect will follow the performer wherever he does". [It's always interesting that you can tell the time during which a piece was written by the pronouns the author uses - you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who habitually used "he" as a generic pronoun in English academia today.]

We might expect consistency between these three features when we encounter somebody's front, but we don't always find it. That lack of congruence can be jarring. For example, the "Pick-Up Artist" community, a loose association of men who pride themselves on their ability to seduce women (with all of the problematic connotations you might expect from that), will often talk about "frame", which has a remarkable similarity to Goffman's conception of congruence. They say that a man should appear to have a compatibility between the way he looks, the things he says and the things he does in a potential romantic encounter, because in doing so he gives off a positive impression. They believe that women (and people in general) are very good at detecting and being put off by incongruities between different aspects of a man's appearance and presentation.


In the same way that we might expect that there are constraints on how someone can self-present if they are attempting to find a romantic or sexual partner, there are broader constraints upon the attributes individuals can present within the context of a particular front.

When we're in the context of presenting ourselves to others, we tend to play up the aspects of our performance that highlight the confirmatory or congruent aspects of our front that might otherwise remain hidden. Doctors make visible use of their medical knowledge and do their best to avoid being seen to google symptoms on WebMD. Students in my tutorials do their best not to fall asleep and to appear to have done the readings, whilst at the same time trying not to appear too keen in front of their peers. Goffman calls this phenomenon dramatic realisation.

Similarly, when we present ourselves in front of others, we tend to play up the societally accredited and celebrated aspects of our front. This is a process Goffman calls idealisation. When I tutor students, I do my best to appear to some extent professional and refrain from burping or making borderline acceptable jokes in a way that I might when I'm around my friends. I tend to dress slightly smarter, particularly on days when I'm not feeling particularly smart. When a first-generation university student turns up at Oxbridge, they might "play up" their knowledge of and willingness to participate in odd ritualised behaviours like "pennying", a game in which students have to down their drink if someone manages to catch them unawares and plant a penny in it. Failure to engage might result in them being branded "shit chat", and failing to be completely accepted into a friendship group.

The converse of this is negative idealisation, the idea of concealing ourselves or "playing down" when we're in a situation with people we believe to be of a lower social status. We might lower the tone of our voice, slightly "roughen up" our accent, or call people "mate" or "pal" a lot more than we're used to.

Contrivance and Impression Management

The ideas of idealisation and dramatic realisation fundamentally come down to an attempt to have our performances believed and accepted by our audience, to be seen as valid in the role we have cast ourselves in. Goffman goes on to outline a number of other ways in which we attempt to do this, which I'll cover briefly. These boil down to mechanisms by which we engage in impression management: the idea is that through our actions, behaviours and appearance, through what we do and do not do, we are able to convince our audience of our sincerity, authority, etc - whatever attributes that role is "supposed" to have.

There are things that we hide: the profit we make from a performance , the mistakes that we make, the time and effort we've spent preparing, the illegal activities we might have engaged in, or even our origins. You can likely think about instances in which you've hidden any of these things in an attempt to be accepted in a social interaction, whether you were conscious of it at the time or not.

We segregate audiences. We put on different performances, or emphasise different aspects of our performance, for different sets of people. I have vivid memories of going out as a teenager and playing up how drunk I was with my friends, only to do my level best to appear as sober as possible the moment I got into my parents' car. Similarly, anyone who has any family members on Facebook can attest to the problems associated with trying to present a front that's acceptable to both their friends and also their elderly grandparents or their conservative aunt.

We engage in a maintenance of expressive control. The minor cues we give off in our facial expressions, our words or our behaviour are read as significant - all of our social interactions rely on them being taken as such. The problem comes when we slip and give off cues unintentionally that are still read as significant.  We might lose muscular control: tripping, or burping, or yawning. We might show too much or too little concern for an interaction: looking far too keen on a first date and texting somebody immediately afterwards in a way they find a bit intense, or looking at your mobile during a meeting and being seen as rude. We might also lack dramaturgical direction: our setting might be sloppily constructed (think wearing beach clothes to a business meeting) or our timing off.

We misrepresent, trying to mislead our audiences into believing things that have no basis in reality - as when I try to bluff my way through a tutorial for which I haven't done the reading properly.

We mystify, maintaining a distance with our audience so as to keep up an idealised performance. School teachers maintain their ability to keep discipline and respect within a classroom by concealing the fact that they have any kind of personal life from their pupils.


Fundamentally, Goffman's Performances attempts to tell us that the role of expression is in conveying impressions of the self. It's odd that we tend to assume that people shouldn't mislead us with impressions of themselves, even though this is something that we do - and we know they do - regularly.

I'll leave you with a long summary quote from Goffman himself, coming from the conclusion of his book:

"Any social establishment can be studied from the perspective of impression management. Within the walls of a social establishment we find a team of performers who cooperate to present to an audience a given definition of the situation. This will include the conception of own team and of audience and assumption concerning the ethos that is to be maintained by rules of politeness and decorum. We often find division into back region, where the routine is prepared and front region, where the performance is presented. Access to backstage is controlled to prevent the audience and outsiders from seeing preparations. Among members of the team, we tend to find solidarity, familiarity and secrets being kept. A tacit agreement is maintained between performers and audience to act as if a given degree of opposition and of accord existed between them. Typically, but not always, agreement is stressed and opposition is underplayed. The resulting working consensus tends to be contradicted by the attitude towards the audience which the performers express backstage and through communication out of character while "on stage". We find that discrepant roles develop which complicate the problems of putting on a show. Sometimes disruptions occur which threaten the definition of the situation which is being maintained. Performers and audience all utilise techniques for saving the show - teams are careful to select loyal and circumspect members and prefer to play to audiences who are tactful".

If you have any questions or things you'd like to add, please don't hesitate to contact me.

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