The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

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Erving Goffman
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

The Main Argument, and the Starting Assumption

As in Berger & Luckmann's Social Construction of Reality, this work is an attempt at analyzing our daily life world from the perspective that all of our actions we perform - and the interpretations and meanings we give to these actions - are fundamentally social in nature. In carrying out this analysis, therefore, the perspective Goffman adopts is that of the analogy of the everyday life to the theatrical, or the dramaturgical, performances. So, in this perspective, we cannot merely act for the sake of that action. Rather, all actions are social performances - with the aim of not only achieving whatever the "inherent" purposes the action may have had, but also that of giving off and maintaining certain desired impressions of t he self to others. So, human actions are seen as inherently involving this social and relational aspects with the desire to give off the impression that people want others to have of themselves. This is a starting assumption, not a deductively arrived conclusion. With this assumption kept in mind, then, Goffman's task in these pages is to outline several techniques people employ in order to manage these social performances to give off the kind of impressions they desire others to have.


Several interesting key concepts are introduced here.

1. The distinction of two modes of communication - expressions we give and expressions we give e off. The former is the concretely intended and conscious form of expression, as epitomized by verbal communications using language. The latter is the non-verbal, presumably unintentional, form of communication that is not concretely expressed in speech but nevertheless have efficacy in communicating, consciously or unconsciously, some things about the person expressing it. It is important to keep in mind that, while the former is always intentional, the latter does not necessarily have to be unintentional in turn and, in fact, people are capable of manipulating them as well, which is the subject of the next introductory distinction Goffman makes.

2. The symmetry vs. the asymmetry of these two modes of expression. Symmetry occurs whenever there is a congruence between what these two modes of expressions communicate, asymmetry is whenever these two do not express same things. Thus, say, when a student who had been yawning all along a lecture, nevertheless says he had enjoyed the talk greatly, then there is an asymmetry in what these two modes of expressions communicate. Because people are capable of manipulating the latter, non-verbal mode of expression to a considerable degree, then there is a possibility for the type of information games to set in, Goffman notes. This may take the form of a cycle of "concealment, discovery, false revelation, and rediscovery", all of course geared to the goal of giving off as advantageous a set of impressions as possible.

3. "Working consensus"
People express different definitions of the social situations they are in, and they may conflict. "Working consensus" is a type of consensus, which is not an agreement in any absolute sense, but a tentative agreement as to whose claims and definitions would be honored according to the different situation. Also, in accepting other's definitions of social situations, Goffman notes of the crucial importance of information people possess initiallyconcerning fellow participants, for all subsequent actions and responses would be based upon these initial knowledges. Following this, it now follows that these initial definitions of situations by someone eventually set a plan for the co-operative social activity that ensues. Goffman here notes that these accepted definitions then come to have the moral, imperative character, in that they now tell people what they ought to be and what they should do. When people violate these definitions and do not act according to...
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