According to one of the most famous Shakespearian memes, the world is a stage and all the individuals in it are merely performing actors. This suggestion implies that the way in which people go about trying to achieve self-actualization within the society cannot be discussed outside of how they strive to adjust their social behavior to be consistent with adopted the existential identity, on their part, and the society’s socio-cultural conventions.
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The fact that there is a strongly defined “dramaturgic” quality to the essence of one’s self-positioning in social settings has been discovered a long time ago. However, it is only now that the phenomenon’s mechanics are starting to become apparent: all due to the recent breakthroughs in the fields of sociology and biology. We now know that the observable peculiarities of just about any person’s actions should be discussed in conjunction with his or her biological agenda in propagating its genome, securing access to resources/nutrients, and achieving a dominant status within the society.
Nevertheless, because people are socially integrated beings, they strive to adapt to the discursive dynamics within the surrounding social environment, as the main precondition for them to be able to succeed “biologically”. The actual process of how they pursue this particular agenda accounts for the concerned individuals’ “dramatic performance”, in the Goffmanian sense of this word.
After having indulged in different types of interpersonal communication with others through the last few months, I came to conclude that most of Goffman’s insights into the subject matter are indeed thoroughly legitimate. Probably the most notable of the latter has to do with the sociologist’s insistence that the social self-positioning of just about every person has two sides to it: the so-called “front” and “back” regions.
The fact that it is indeed the case is best illustrated, regarding one’s understanding that it is very important to appear well-dressed in public places, whereas the same person would be likely to grow negligent about his or her outwardly appearance if forced to pursue a socially withdrawn lifestyle. The reason for this is apparent. People are innately prompted to be trying to give the impression to others as being much better than what they really are, in both physical and behavioral senses of this word.
This is fully explainable: by paying close attention to what they wear in public and how they interact with their friends (as well as strangers), individuals are able to present the “façade” image of themselves as those who are perfectly comfortable with the discursive conventions that the society imposes on its members. Consequently, this implies that the concerned persons are socially empowered and that they do have what it takes to be able to move up the society’s hierarchical ladder. As a result, these people will be much likelier to attract the representatives of the opposite sex for procreation: thus, fulfilling the biological purpose of their existence.
According to Goffman, the process of how people proceed with positioning themselves socially is “negotiable”, in the sense of being reactive to a significant extent to the changes in the surrounding “social stage”. One of the reasons for this is that the person’s reputation as a socially integrated citizen presupposes his or her affiliation with one of the competing groups within the society. Because of it, most people experience an irresistible urge to adjust their “onstage performance” to be consistent with the corporate values of the group (gender) that they happened to belong to. As I inferred from my own socialization experiences, this never ceases to be the case with most individuals in both formal and informal settings.
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One will invariably change the manner in which he or she addresses a particular challenge if the currently adopted approach to doing it strikes discord with how his friends or colleagues tend to tackle similar situations. For example, my experiences in interpersonal communication indicate that for as long the conversations that take place within a particular all-male company are concerned, even the most intellectually progressive White men tend to refer to women in implicitly disrespectful terms. By doing it, they aspire to live up to the strongly patriarchal conventions of Eurocentrism, as the object-oriented worldview that continues to have a strong effect on the contemporary social realities in the West.
Essentially the same can be said about the effect of one’s professional/class affiliation on the communicative approaches that he or she uses to convey messages to others. This brings us back to Goffman’s notion of “team”, as such that refers to the heavy influence of the currently prevalent social discourse on the specifics of people’s perception of the surrounding reality and their place in it. Evidently enough, there is indeed a good reason to believe that, in full accordance with how Goffman saw it, there is nothing “fixed” about the person’s sense of self-identity and the way in which he or she communicates it to the outside world. It is not only that people are required to “perform” their self-adopted identity, but also to prove themselves being extremely efficient improvisers throughout the process’s entirety.
Thus, it will only be logical to assume that interpersonal communication does not only serve the purpose of facilitating communication per se but that it is also the tool of ensuring the society’s hierarchical structuring. The validity of his assumption is best explored, concerning yet another Goffman’s concept of “sign-vehicle”. It refers to the idea that the primary reason why people communicate, in the first place, is that it helps them to evaluate each other as potential competitors within a specific social niche.
In this regard, one’s foremost priority is to convince others that he or she represents a larger group of people, united in subscribing to the same set of existential values. And, the lesser is the applied verbal effort, in this regard, the more effective is the communication process. As Goffman noted: “Performers can stop giving expressions but cannot stop giving them off” (184).
This explains why, people often resort to different “sign-vehicles” (material objects, facial expressions, impulsive gestures, etc.) to convey meaning. For example, many of my friends consider themselves to be the affiliates of the “gangsta” sub-culture, which in turn endows them with a sense of collective belonging. As a way of communicating their affiliation to the world, they wear massive golden chains on their necks and the skull-ornamented golden rings on their fingers.
This illustrates the full soundness of Goffman’s suggestion that, in order for one’s “dramatic performance” to prove thoroughly effective, it does not need to be particularly plausible, in the cause-effect sense of this word. Rather, it needs to correlate with what appears to be the unconscious anxieties in the audience. Therefore, it indeed does make much sense to compare ordinary people to actors in the theater. After all, just as it is the case with the latter, the former is fully capable of acting “out-of-character”. The only difference between the two is that, unlike actors, many individuals in real-life settings prove themselves incapable of understanding the nature of the forces that drive them to proceed “performing” in one way or another, in the first place.
Because of what has been said earlier, it appears that there is very little rationale in subscribing to the essentialist outlook on one’s individuality, or as the religious people refer to it: “soul”. The “dramatic” role, played by an individual, is not necessarily reflective of the nature of his or her psychological and cognitive predispositions. This, of course, puts in question the value of the interview-based sociological data, as such that by definition cannot contain any objective insights into the essence of a particular social trend. What also emerges from both Goffman’s book and my personal socialization-related experiences is that, just as it was implied initially, one’s personality is strongly instrumental: the finding that correlates well with the main theoretical provisions of evolutionary biology.
Apparently, there is indeed nothing “mysterious” about how such a personality comes into being: this is just another socially observable aspect of the never-ending “natural selection” process, which defines the qualitative dynamics within human society in the same way as it does it within the pack of apes. The reading of Goffman’s book will prove indispensable to those who seek to acquire a better understanding of one’s sense of personality as a socially constructed category.
Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor, 1959.