The Presentation of the Self

Goffman, in Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, talks about how people are social actors who manage their expressions based on the social situation they are in. When entering any interaction, people make an assessment of the situation to determine how they should portray themselves. For example, when a student enters a classroom he or she remains professional, does not talk out of turn or make disruptive comments, etc., whereas with friends the lines of when it is appropriate to speak essentially disappear. Goffman calls the establishment of the expectations for the interaction the “working consensus” (4). In this interaction, people try to be agreeable so as to limit potential conflict. Additionally, at the start of any interaction whoever has the strongest opinion on an issue will be the one that is “temporarily honored” by the group, meaning that everyone else will at least stay neutral rather than trying to argue with the dominant opinion, causing tension in the situation.

I find Goffman’s ideas to be thought-provoking because while the majority of people conform to this system, most do not realize it. This process happens involuntarily as a result of socialization. Thus, it is interesting to consider one’s own position in interactions, and think of how it varies based on the power relations one is in. I can see how my position varies even in parallel situations such as with different groups of friends, depending on the personalities in the group. It brings up the point that what we call “two-faced” sometimes may not actually be someone purposely acting different, but doing so because it feels like the appropriate mode of interaction for a certain group. Around my friends who are witty and funny, I usually take a backseat and laugh at their jokes. Around certain groups who do not have strong feelings about social issues, I know that my opinions take dominance, to a certain extent, because people recognize the social consequences of trying to argue with someone so passionate.

It is also interesting to consider how social factors such as race, class, gender, ability, etc., play a role in the creation of the circumstances of these situations. Immediately when an interaction begins, each person uses the characteristics that they can see to make inferences about the other. This is part of what Goffman calls the “front,” which is the space where interactions happen. These symbols of a person, whether chosen or ascribed, help people make inferences based on how society defines them. We must be aware of these factors, because they unconsciously dictate the nature by which we interact with people, even if they do not reflect the reality of the individual. Becoming conscious of stereotypes associated with any characteristic can help to make interactions more transparent, so people go into them with an open-mind rather than with their mind set on who the other is.

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