Sunday, December 4, 2022

Erving Goffman: “Life is a Theatre”

Erving Goffman was a sociologist and a writer who has created the concept of micro sociology. In other words he studied social aspect of human behaviour in everyday life. After decades of research Goffman came to a conclusion that human life is like theatre and that we all act our parts in it weather it’s a conscious or subconscious process. Undoubtedly one of the fundamental aspects of human existence is the social interaction and according to Goffman we always try to control or to influence the way others perceive us, usually we want to be seen in a favourable light. Personality therefore is a sum of all the roles that we exercise during our live times. 

“Choose your self-presentations carefully, for what starts out as a mask, may become your face”

He also divides human life in two parts: on stage and behind the stage. On stage we act in accordance with the scenario while behind the stage we are hiding our real truths. Goffman states that as actors we choose different styles of acting depending on our audience; the audience can consists of family, friends, work etc. As he says himself: “it doesn’t matter who you really are, what matters is whom you seem to be”.

For Goffman, in everyday life we wake up and put on the mask which we then change according to the social situations we find ourselves in. Successful people are often conscious of this process and they choose the most appropriate masks for their audiences, they adapt fast. 

The majority of people though don’t realise that they can choose their own role and by giving up control of this process they allow the society to impose a role on them. Let’s observe a typical person from this perspective of theatre. During the childhood stage the programming of our behaviour begins, we are taught how to greet someone, how to ask for something, how to behave at the table, how to behave at school… During adolescence stage whether consciously or unconsciously we begin to experiment with our roles, choosing the ones of most convenience, we also realise that we should switch those roles according to our audiences: we act one way in front of our friends and another way in front of the family. During the young adult stage we continue looking for the perfect roles in the theatre of life, we continue forming self-identity. 

How can this theory serve us on practical level? Let’s go by points.

  1. It helps us to create a more accurate image of self-identification by recognising that we interpret various roles in various escenarios on a daily basis. Simply by asking ourselves which roles we chose and why makes it more clear to us who we really are.
  2. Recognising that we can consciously choose the roles to interpret. Although the process of role changing is never easy, it gives us a fulfilling sense of choice over our own lives. If you desire to change your role it is advisable to pay attention to the following aspects: 
  • Thoughts – everything begins in the head, analyse what belief system your new character might have, what does he tell himself on a daily basis, how he reacts to certain events around him, what does he respect the most, what does he like, what he avoids, what habits he chooses for himself? If you want to create a masterpiece from yourself begin on the inside.
  • Body language – how would my character walk? What tone of voice would he choose? How will he greet people? What would be his typical gestures? There is a science called social engineering which focuses exclusively on body language and how to create a desirable effect in society by choosing the right type of gestures in different situations, it’s not a popular science but rather a reserved one for actors and politicians. Dr Paul Ekman has conducted a considerable research on this subject and is highly recommended for those who like to put theory to practice. 
  • Imitation – choose people who are more closely related to the role you wish to interpret, observe their thought process and behaviour and imitate it until it feels natural to you. Conscious approach to the theory of roles allows us to have more resources in our mental inventory and this facilitates success. 
  1. You can be the scenarist and not just an actor. This concerns leadership. You can suggest roles to others. Let me tell you of an interesting experiment before going deeper into the subject. In this experiment psychologists have divided people in two groups. The groups were of mixed gender and included people of various talents. To the participants of the first group psychologists were constantly saying that they possess a natural gift of creativity, to the participants of the second group they said that they have a natural gift of logical thinking. After a few weeks the participants of the first group have all began to exercise some form of creative activity: painting, singing, writing etc. While the participants of the second group have augmented activities concerned with logical thinking: programming, analysing, playing chess etc. This experiment has given birth to an number of techniques on motivation. How this can be used in everyday life? Let’s suppose you want your couple to become more responsible, just let them know that you value their level of responsibility. You want someone to work more? Tell him how talented he is in his field already. The key is consistently repeating to the person that he already has the abilities that you want him to develop further. And this is how you begin to suggest a new role to another person without them ever realising that they are being pushed towards change. The more consistent you are in repeating the positive affirmations the faster that person will change his role. 
  2. Going outside of scenario. Once Barack Obama has publicly stopped to greet a cleaning person, he went outside of the expected escenario, the next day his popularity raising has gone up. Going outside of escenario can have a very powerful effect on your image. Obviously you should time this “improvisation” perfectly this can be done by having a very specific objective beforehand. What impression you want to give with this “improvisation”? Do you want to seem more humble, kinder, more charismatic? Keep your objective in mind and improvise. 
  3. Understanding the roles of others. We always have an opinion of how we are being perceived by others. In the majority of cases that opinion is different from the reality. When you define for yourself who is playing which role in your social circle, keep this to yourself; people often get offended when someone else intents to define their place in life. By analysing the roles of others you have more chances of accurately foretelling their reactions to various situations. You then can check if you were right by provoking those situations on a small scale. I call this mapping the person; but always remember that map is not the landscape. By practicing this simple exercise you can significantly improve your personal knowledge of human behaviour. 
  4. Enjoy the process. Everything is easier when you enjoy it. If you are new in creating your own roles the process might seem difficult at first but keep practicing and very soon you will realise just how much more resourceful you have become. Think of it as adventure, remember that you always have a choice of how to act and that instead of being led by others you are the one with the leading role now. It is only difficult until it becomes easy. 
  5. Analyse. This stage applies just as much to others as it does to yourself. Keep analysing even when you don’t participate directly in social situations, always keep observing. Ask yourself: why does this person react this way? Stop judging and begin looking for “why”. Judging is a dead end, there is no more development from that point. Every time you understand a reaction different to yours, your mental inventory amplifies and you can use those new resources in the future. Ask yourself: what belief system that person is likely to have? What’s his self esteem? What are his motivations? What are his fears?… This is called conscious living and is one of the keys to success. 

In conclusion allow me to mention another of Goffman’s theories. He believed that there are two types of people: there people who adapt and there are people who adapt their surroundings. Successful people practice both: they know how to adapt themselves and they know how to adapt the circumstances to achieve their objectives. 

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