Erving Goffman: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Jakub Holy



According to my professor, this report is quite good, though it's more a review than a report.

The most important idea of the book is that the performers need to establish a working consensus among themselves regarding the performance they are going to play. They all have to share the same idea of the impression they want to give. If everybody plays his role according to his own understanding, the tout ensemble (total impression) would be the chaos.


Goffman studies a social establishment from the dramaturgical point of view. He questions the ways in which people create an image of themselves and their activity and how this image may be discredited, as well as the techniques used to prevent such a disruption.



A social interaction is always full of uncertainty, because its too hard (indeed impossible) to acquire all knowledge of reality  relevant to the interaction (for instance you cant really know what the person in front of you intends, unless you can read his mind). Hence the participants of an interaction have to rely on various symbols that claim to represent certain reality. For example, if you meet a man in a luxurious suit, you wouldnt believe him that he hasnt a single penny on his bank account, because his clothes claims him to be a rich man. 

When two parties meet, they need to define the situation or establish a working consensus, in other words they have to agree upon what the reality is like. It includes what their social statuses, their relationship in this particular situation, their intentions etc. are. For that purpose they employ a number of means that serve as symbols (e.g. gestures, the environment, way of speaking). It can be well perceived as a performance, whose aim is to give a particular impression to the other party. People always enter an interaction with some intentions concerning the interaction. Hence its to their advantage to be able to control the interaction and guide it in the desired direction, in other words to enforce their definition of the situation. The resulting working consensus is then a product of the efforts of all participants to enforce their own desired definition of the situation, under the restriction that they want to avoid a conflict.

Goffman introduces the term teams to describe the fact that individuals do not act solely for themselves, but that they unite too. Members of one team cooperate in enforcing one shared definition of the situation (of course there can be one man team). A team may be static as well as very dynamic (for example on a cocktail party teams change all the time, as people move from one group to another, give their sympathy to somebody else etc.).

Usually one of the teams is more active and has the major role in establishing the definition of situation. Goffman calls it the performing team while the rest is called the audience (though indeed everyone is a performer and an audience at the same time).

The reality, which the performers try to make an impression of, is usually different from the real reality. Most performers idealize themselves and the quality of the work they do. They claim to embody certain standards and values appreciated by the audience, though sometimes these standards and values may be even contradictory to their task. The negative facts concerning the activity are hidden, while the positive ones are stressed (for example the stuff in a hospital tries to hide that people do die there). The difference between the reality and the fostered impression leaves space for many possible disruptions of the impression.

In the following sections I shall draw near some aspects of the performance, as described by Goffman.


An essential element of each performance is something called (social) front, which is a "general and fixed fashion to define the situation for observers". It's the symbolical 'equipment' employed by the performer to evoke a particular definition of the situation. It includes both a setting (the environment - furniture, music etc.) and the personal front of the performer (which is considered to be a 'part' of him). The personal front itself consists of two parts: 'appearance', which informs an observer of the performers status etc., and 'manner' that warns the observer of what role the performer wants to play in the interaction. The appearance includes e.g. sex, age, clothing, speech, while the manner concerns mainly the behaviour of the performer. Observers expect a coherence among the various parts of the front (for instance it's hard to accept that a TV celebrity lives in poor conditions). As I mentioned above, people tend to interpret facts as symbols. Inevitably sometimes they interpret as a symbol something that wasn't meant to be a symbol, Goffman calls it 'unmeant gesture'. The trouble is that such a gesture points to another reality than the one projected by the performer, it discredits his claim that the projected reality is the only one possible. For instance if a queen stumbles and falls down, on an official ceremony, it shows that she's but a human being and the impression of her superiority is completely destroyed.

It should be mentioned that mostly performers do not create a new front, but rather choose one of the existing fronts or compose their front from well-established components. The reason for that is that an audience is already familiar with such a front and knows how to interpret it.


 People often cooperate in creating an impression, for example all employees of a company sustain the same image of soundness and quality, thus forming a performing team. A performance depends on all members of a team and they have to trust each other to play well their parts. The mutual dependency evokes a special relationship of friendship among the members, characterized by relative equality and informality. This relationship is further supported by the fact that they share information about the performance inaccessible to the non-members (they know, for instance, that it is only a show). But the extent of informality of this relation is limited for various reasons - for instance, though members of one team, the members have to play for each other (everyone has his own small performance, still going on).

Various specialized roles in a team may develop. Most of teams have, for example, a 'director' who has the right and duty to drive the performance. It should be added that often it's advantageous if the audience is not aware of the fact that the performers form a team, for the impression is more credible if it seems to come from independent sources.

Regions and Regional Behaviour

With respect to a performance, we can distinguish three kinds of regions, which are, most of the time, physically separated: front region (frontstage), where the performance is given and where the audience is present, back region (backstage), private team's region where the team may relax from the performance, prepare it etc., and outside region (the rest of the world). Similarly we can distinguish three kinds of people, with respect to the right of access: audience, performers and outsiders. The back region is very important, for there the performance may be constructed, the negative aspects hidden, problems discussed, team's morale risen.

The same individual play number of roles, or the same role for various audiences. This requires a segregation of audiences. If it fails, than the performer becomes confused of what role should he play, or/and the audiences looses the impression of the uniqueness or truthfulness of the performance given to it.

Discrepant Roles

We've already talked about the three crucial roles in a performance. But there are also special ones, called 'discrepant' by Goffman, which possess an unusual and perhaps unapparent combination of the three essential factors - available information, region access and function in the performance. Thus he talks for instance about 'informer', who pretends to be a team member, but indeed 'works' for the audience (secret agents, e.g.), 'shill', who pretends to be a member of the audience, but is an ally of the performers (e.g. to provide the desired audience response) and non-persons, who are present, but are considered to be neither performers nor audience (e.g. children or servants) etc. There is also a special kind of discrepant roles, who are not present during the performance, but possess unexpected information about it - e.g. 'service specialists' who help to prepare it, a member's confident, colleagues (who perform similar show for similar audience). All of them have the power to discredit the performance, thanks to the information they have, and that's why there exist various social mechanisms to prevent them from doing so (law, professional ethics...).

Communication out of Character

Though most of the time a performer plays his role, sometimes he 'steps out' and performs a communication that is incompatible with the fostered impression. This communication is mostly addressed to his team mates and has various purposes - to support team's morale, to confirm backstage solidarity, to express discontent with the working consensus (especially if he has to play a subordinate role) etc. Goffman distinguishes four kinds: 'treatment of the absent' (the way, mostly derogative, how performers talk about their audience when it isn't present), 'staging talk' (about the performance - its quality , possible improvements...), 'team collusion' (secret communication regarding backstage things during the performance, e.g. acts confirming that the show is but a show) and, finally, 'realigning actions' (ambiguous acts used to offer/accept a change of the definition of the situation without undermining the current one; the performer has the right to deny that he 'meant anything' by the act, while the audience has the right to act as if nothing has been conveyed). Realigning actions are exceptional, because they are addressed to the audience.

The Arts of Impression Management

Sometimes performance disruptions do occur, whether unintended (unmeant gestures, 'faux pas', intrusion of an outsider) or intended (team members fall in a quarrel, audience  rejects to accept the show...), and that's why there are techniques of their prevention and 'correction'. Both parties participate in the impression management. The performers employ defensive practices, for instance choose loyal and disciplined team mates and tactful audience, prepare plans for the case of a disruption, consider carefully the information available to the audience etc. The audience employs protective practices to help the performers to save the show - they respect the backstage privacy, employ 'tactful inattention' when needed (i.e. pretend that a disruptive fact doesn't exist) etc. For this they are motivated e.g. by the identification with the performer(s) or the desire to avoid a scene. But the performers must facilitate for the audience to be tactful - they must be sensitive to the 'hints' that indicate the audience's discontent with the show and if they are to misrepresent facts, they must follow certain 'ethics' (e.g. leave a place for an excuse etc.).