The house lights go down, the audience hushes, the curtains rise – and you are on stage. An unfamiliar experience if you are not a thespian? By no means, if Erving Goffman got it right. Shakespeare told us that one man in his life plays many parts, but he was describing the journey from childhood to old age. Goffman told us that we give different theatrical appearances several times a day.
Goffman was described as “the most influential American sociologist of the 20th century”. He died in 1982. His speciality was the study of our everyday behavioural transactions in a range of circumstances. I first encountered him many years ago through his classic book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. He argued that consciously or unconsciously, we all present ourselves in different roles according to circumstances. We might at first demur. Are we not always the same person? Is it being suggested that we somehow, almost dishonestly, modify our characteristics in order to be seen in a favourable light? It bears thinking about.
I recall one example he gave which brought the issue home to me. He described the waiter in a swank restaurant, moving with dignity, speaking with courtesy, Jeeves-like in his performance. He then returns to the kitchen. As he passes through the swing door, his suave expression is replaced by an annoyed look, his language changes, as does his vocabulary, he moves with irritability and impatience. But when he returns into the dining room, he becomes the urbane Jeeves once more. He does not have a split personality; it is merely that he presents himself differently according to circumstances.
I find this only too easy to recognise. I am a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather. In each of these relationships I respond differently. The changes are subtle but they are undoubtedly there. And they are more marked in other roles. I have school friends, business friends, I am a member of a Catholic parish, I write for the Catholic press, I lecture on a variety of subjects, I run a very active blog. In each of these I present myself as a somewhat different person.
Let’s look at this through the metaphor of theatrical presentation, as Goffman does. We often get the opportunity to set the scenery. One stage setting is the office. It is easy to make a good guess about a person merely by looking at the way he has chosen or arranged his office. Even in the modern desert of the open office, revealing personal touches appear. The home, of course, is another setting where we can control: the size, location, age, decoration, furniture, even the books in the shelves. The car might be considered both as a setting and a prop, but increasingly it is used for self-presentation. What does a shiny BMW, or one of those immense cars whose volumetric capacity seems to be greater than the house it stands beside, say about its owner? What does my old and tatty Honda say about me? We may spend or borrow thousands of pounds to get that setting right.
The next question for the actor is the choice of costume. I dare not discuss this in terms of the actress, though I have the impression that it is a most important issue in social confrontation. My wife would tell you that my normal costume is best described as scruff. But there are occasions when I wear a three-piece suit which has some individual style, and is accompanied by props such as a watch chain. I have to say that I am treated quite differently according to my choice of costume.
Make up is important. Again, with women, there is a range of choices from vamp to respectable headmistress. Both men and women have a choice of spectacles to complement their self-presentation, and hair is a matter of significance for both sexes. Length and style give the messages here, and men have the additional choice of facial hair. What does Hercule Poirot’s waxed moustache tell us about his character?
A decision must be made about voice. Many go, or are sent, for elocution lessons on the (quite correct) ground that received pronunciation gives many advantages in terms of authority and credibility, although the occasional northern vowel can nowadays be acceptable in liberal company.
Yet the actor is not only concerned with his effect on other people; he is also concerned with the effect on himself. As he dons his costume and puts on his make up so he transforms his own internal self into the internal self of his character. Similarly, our own presentation affects the way we feel and act. As I put on my suit I transform from a bumbling ancient into a person of consequence. Even my memory changes from unreliable to precise. I now fit the part I have chosen to use.
Think of Greek drama here. It was not only for practical reasons that masks were used, they allowed the actors the freedom to assume the personality they chose. No wonder that masks are sinister. It is no surprise that a blog contributor, or a Twitterer, may feel free to speak without inhibition behind the mask of a pseudonym.
But I don’t experience it as a choice. Not until I analysed my own presentation for this column, did I realise the extent to which I routinely stage manage myself. Should I refer to myself as a hypocrite in future? And how about you?