Many Ways To Signal

The signaling classic, Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, was published the year I was born, 1959. Here Goffman says he wants to explain much more than conscious motivations:

When an individual appears before others his actions will influence the definition of the situation which they come to have. Sometimes the individual will act in a thoroughly calculating manner, expressing himself in a given way solely in order to give the kind of impression to others that is likely to evoke from them a specific response he is concerned to obtain. Sometimes the individual will be calculating in his activity but be relatively unaware that this is the case. Sometimes he will intentionally and consciously express himself in a particular way, but chiefly because the tradition of his group or social status requires this kind of expression and not because of any particular response (other than vague acceptance or approval) that is likely to be evoked from those impressed by the expression. Sometimes the traditions of an individual’s role will lead him to give a well-designed impression of a particular kind and yet he may be neither consciously nor unconsciously disposed to create such an impression. The others, in their turn, may be suitable impressed by the individual’s efforts to convey something, or may misunderstand the situation and come to conclusions that are warranted neither by the individual’s intent nor by the facts. In any case, in so far as the others act as if the individual had conveyed a particular impression, we may take a functional or pragmatic view and say that the individual has “effectively” projected a given definition of the situation and “effectively” fostered the understanding that a given state of affairs obtains. (p.6)

Alas, Goffman was not exactly eloquent here, which probably contributed to his unfair neglect. So let me try to translate:

What we say and do, and how we carry ourselves, influences how others think of us. Since we care greatly about how others see us, we use many channels to help us adapt our behavior, so we can look good. Sometimes we very consciously attend to our circumstances and audience, trying to create very particular impressions. Sometimes we are just as careful and attentive to context, but do so largely unconsciously. Sometimes we have a vague sense that acting certain ways “looks good” without being very conscious of how or why. Sometimes we act consciously, but mainly to make sure we act how someone is “supposed to” act in such situations, without much detailed understanding of the impression it gives. When studying how we adapt our behavior to manage our image, it makes sense to first just consider what behaviors have good images, without getting too distracted by exactly how we figure that out in each situation.

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  • Rob

    Professor Hanson, I think you would greatly enjoy the rigorously researched yet brilliantly and hilariously readable work of William Ian Miller (perhaps especially Faking It) all of which is wisely informed by the guiding spirit of Goffmann.

  • An early version of “Presentation of the Self” along with other works of his are available at the Erving Goffman Archives.

  • Professor Hanson, very useful, thanks.

    Also thanks as always to TGGP.

  • mike shupp

    What makes THE PRESENTATION OF SELF so marvelous is not really the sort of dispassionate analysis your quote but Goffman’s observations of actual people — for example, the father arguing with a daughter who transforms when aware of a stranger’s observation into a innkeeper, while the daughter switches from angry teenager to obedient employee.

    With those all too believeable, all too understandable images before us, the points Goffman chose to make become incredibly clear; his extended discussion mirrors our own ruminations.

    PRESENTATION is one of the greatest works of sociology, indeed one of the greatest non-fiction books of the 20th century. It transforms a reader’s understanding of human relationships, its nsights might even transform readers into being better persons.

  • That is an extremely poor paraphrase of Goffman. What, in the original text, corresponds to your repeated use of “looking good”?

    Goffman is a theorist of strategic interaction and social draumaturgy, and the goals and roles that underlie social performance are considerably broader and more nuanced than that. In fact, I recall one of his examples was beggars who work to make themselves “look bad” in order to elicit more sympathy. So yes, sometimes people will be acting to raise their status and “look good”, but he’s talking about a far broader range of behavior than simple status seeking and signaling.

  • Also, it’s “Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”, not “Presentation of the Self…”. A telling mistake, I think. Your wording implies there is some concrete, well-defined self that is merely presented strategically. Goffman’s real point is that there is no underlying self — rather, the self is a shifting constellation of different roles constructed on the fly through social interaction. I’m not sure he ever says that explicitly, since he stays close to the observable phenomena, but IMO that’s the deeper lesson to be drawn from his work.

  • Rob and TGGP, thanks for the pointers.
    mtraven, thanks for the correction.
    mike, I’ve posted many examples here at OB, but I usually get criticism about my analysis.