Erving Goffman was quite revolutionary in his ideas about social interaction. He believed, unlike many, that we are a completely different person dependant on those who we are around and our motives at the time. He believed that, as adults at least, we are constantly aiming to improve our social identities amongst others. Because of this, he thought, it made sense that we will try to manipulate the perceptions that others have of us. In some instances, he believed that this manipulation is aimed at a specific person, such as at a job interview, while he believed it was sometimes more generally aimed at maintaining a good self-image.
He suggested that we are a different person when we are alone and freed from the rules of social norms and values, but posed that all public spaces are like a stage on which we act. When we are in a social situation, our behaviour is driven by the effect we wish to have on our audience, much more than our actual underlying values. Goffman also goes on to suggest that the roles an individual plays publicly will go on to become part of their personality. Social interaction plays such an important role in our lives that it goes on to almost determine who we are. While many see this relationship the other way round, whereby our personality merely effects our behaviour in public, sometimes the way we behave around others will affect who we are inside as well.
Goffman also describes time in private as ‘backstage’, where we prepare for our performance outside. He states that when we perform we can choose our own costumes in the clothes we wear, our own stages in the places we choose to visit, and our own props too. He says that like in a performance the coherence of the production must be maintained, suggesting that to manage this we have social rules or ‘scripts’ to govern our public performances, making sure that we do not destroy the integrity of the piece. Everyone must agree on how to behave in the situation, or it will not make sense.
He also believed that since these rules are formed between individuals during the performances that are their lives, when one element of the performance does not keep to the social rules, often people will try to pretend that nothing has changed. Goffman was very interested in how much of the scene would have to fall apart before the act would be broken and the persona that people had adopted would be removed, but more research in this area is still needed.
Goffman’s analogy of the theatre really helps us to understand just how important a role society can have on the way we behave. Who we are with and the situation we are in can completely change how we act, and it is this understanding of the social world that has enabled social psychology to bloom. It is important to understand that however individual we may personally feel, in our tastes, preferences and values, much of this is irrelevant as soon as we enter a social situation.
Image from: http://www.flip.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/theatre.jpg