Waiting for Goffman

There are few better interpreters of modern metropolitan life than sociologist Erving Goffman.

By Michael Dirda

Spectators watch the launch of the space shuttle Discovery, 2007. NASA/KSC.

Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, sociology and the other sciences humaines emerged for a brief, shining moment as the hot majors for college undergraduates. After all, to change society, you first needed to understand it. As a result, activists and intellectuals of every stripe were soon eagerly reading the works of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Herbert Marcuse, R. D. Laing, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault—and Erving Goffman.

Canadian and Jewish by birth, Erving Goffman (1922–1982) trained at the University of Chicago, published eleven books and, at the time of his death from cancer at age sixty, was the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Like many other revolutionary thinkers, he led a quiet, reserved life, dressed like an accountant, and valued his privacy: he rarely allowed himself to be photographed and refused to speak at conferences or appear on television. 

Today Erving Goffman is a powerful, almost mythic figure inside sociology. But when I recently mentioned his name to various friends—well-educated and well-read—it meant nothing to them. It would seem he has faded from general cultural consciousness as much as, say, Marcuse and Laing. Yet at his best, this maverick thinker is one of the most exhilarating writers on human relations and social interaction that you will ever read. 

Relying on an eye for detail that Sherlock Holmes might envy, coupled with a genuine literary sensibility, Goffman dramatically illuminates how people respond and react to one another in offices, on the street, at home. Above all, he seeks to understand people as social beings living with other social beings, usually in a state of constant jostling—for attention, position, recognition, or just a place at the front of the line. His many books—including Behavior in Public Places, Stigma, Encounters, and The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life—reveal him to be an essential guide to modern city life and “the way we live now.” 

Some of Goffman’s power as an analyst of “face-to-face” encounters derives from the way he looks at our daily traumas and urban dramas with a cold, almost inhuman eye. His “reports,” “notes,” and “essays,” as he refers to his various works, might almost be the logbooks of a visiting Martian. Yet while some sociologists, Talcott Parsons being a notable example, can be daunting and virtually unfathomable to the ordinary reader, that’s not the case with Goffman. His prose is clear and often quietly witty, while behind the objective tone, one can usually detect a faint strain of melancholy.

Most surprising of all, Goffman’s books—especially his groundbreaking early works—derive their evidence from literature and memoir nearly as often as from real life. He regularly quotes from contemporary fiction, often cites etiquette manuals, and frequently discovers insights in the memoirs of both prostitutes and diplomats. From his own fieldwork, he draws on observations of Shetland islanders, hotel staff members, children at play, surgeons at work, patients in asylums, and casino gamblers. Almost no aspect of modern urban life is alien to him. He once called himself “an ethnographer of small entities,” and like Henry James or Marcel Proust—two other great microanalyzers of social nuance and motivation—he enables us to see the world afresh, with new eyes. 

Over the thirty-five years of his active scholarly career, Goffman developed four metaphorical scaffoldings for his thought, each with its own usefulness and pizzazz—the theater, the ritual, the game, and the frame. All of these are useful for understanding the shocks and stresses of city life, but here I’m going to concentrate on introducing his “dram­aturgical” texts, which are his best known. As Goffman once said, “All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify.” 


The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) is essentially a study of what Goffman calls “impression management.” Nearly every social activity depends on our prefabricating a notion of how we should behave. As we go about our city life—ride the subway to work, greet people on the street, or chat with clients or colleagues—we are constantly adjusting the image we convey to the world. What’s more, one must distinguish between the impression an individual gives and the one he or she gives off. The first derives from the usual modes of direct communication; the latter embraces what can be determined from nonverbal, often unintentional behavior. 

Throughout the book, Goffman emphasizes role-playing and attendant dramatic routines as being central to metropolitan life. Any time two or more people meet, they jockey for position, silently and half-consciously attempting to establish and sustain their individual definition of a situation—in essence, their claim to what reality is. Everyone, Goffman insists, needs some kind of audience “before which to try out one’s vaunted selves,” as well as “teammates” with whom “to enter into collusive intimacies and backstage relaxation.” He works his dramatic metaphor for all its worth—and of all his books, this is probably the richest in amusing and illuminating anecdotes. To depict the ability of performers to feign roles, and thus to “attest to the presence of something that is not really there,” he launches into a description of old-time street beggars and their sociological charm, registering that in recent years there has been a decline in “dramatic merit”: “Today we hear less of the ‘clean family dodge,’ in which a family appears in tattered but incredibly clean clothes, the faces of children glistening from a layer of soap that has been polished with a soft cloth. We no longer see the performances in which a half-naked man chokes over a dirty crust of bread that he is apparently too weak to swallow, or the scene in which a tattered man chases a sparrow from a piece of bread, wipes the morsel slowly on his coat sleeve, and apparently oblivious to the audience that is now around him, attempts to eat it. Rare, too, has become the ‘ashamed beggar’ who meekly implores with his eyes what his delicate sensibilities apparently prevent him from saying.”

As anyone who lives in a big city can testify, some of these techniques haven’t altogether disappeared.

Many of the later pages of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life are concerned with what it means to be a member of a team, that is, a group with a common interest. At one point, for instance, Goffman notes how similar the attitudes among team leaders can be, regardless of the activity. “Whether it is a funeral, a wedding, a bridge party, a one-day sale, a hanging, or a picnic, the director may tend to see the performance in terms of whether or not it went ‘smoothly,’ ‘effectively,’ and ‘without a hitch,’ and whether or not all possible disruptive contingencies were prepared for in advance.” 

He also recognizes that certain apparent team leaders are just figureheads. How many times does the real power lurk behind the throne, or lie with a deputy or underling? As Goffman muses, “It has often been said about the British infantry in World War I that experienced working-class sergeants managed the delicate task of covertly teaching their new lieutenants to take a dramatically expressive role at the head of the platoon and to die quickly in a prominent dramatic position, as befits public-school men. The sergeants themselves took their modest place at the rear of the platoon and tended to live to train still other lieutenants.” 

It may seem fairly obvious to describe a face-to-face encounter as the interaction between a performer (or a team of performers) and an audience. To use a simple example, consider all the role-playing that ensues after a highway patrolman stops a speeding motorist. Nonetheless, Goffman turns what fellow sociologist Tom Burns calls “this relatively simple analytical device” into a powerful tool for social understanding. Burns notes that Goffman collects all sorts of behavioral routines and everyday observations of urban existence and “merely by juxtaposing them in an unfamiliar classification reveals them in a newly significant light.” Goffman explores, for instance, the implications of “audience complicity, ‘breaking role,’ ‘discrepant roles,’ the moral obligations of membership of a team of performers, playing as member of a team” and other “manifestations of the individual’s management of his conduct and situation.” We are all involved in street theater and office melodramas. 

In perhaps his most brilliant stroke, though, Goffman grasped the necessity and significance of what he calls the “backstage.” While some qualities must be “accentuated” to establish and enhance a particular definition of an activity or role, others which discredit the fostered impression need to be suppressed. They are then often relegated to a “back region,” or backstage.

This “may be defined as a place relative to a given performance, where the impression fostered by the performance is knowingly contradicted as a matter of course.” In actual dramatic representations, it may be literally the area behind the stage’s backdrop, its curtained wings, or the actors’ dressing rooms—in short, those places where the players unwind, take off their makeup, and rudely comment on the audience or each other’s performances. Bathrooms, teachers’ lounges, locker rooms, hunting lodges, and bedrooms are some familiar backstages where people will exclude the outsiders before whom they strut and gesture and only admit fellow team members. 

The contrast between front-stage—being “on”—and backstage behavior and language is, well, dramatic. “Throughout Western society…The backstage language consists of reciprocal first naming, cooperative decision-making, profanity, open sexual remarks, elaborate griping, smoking, rough informal dress, ‘sloppy’ sitting and standing posture, use of dialect or substandard speech, mumbling and shouting, playful aggressivity and ‘kidding,’ inconsiderateness for the other in minor but potentially symbolic acts, minor physical self-involvements such as humming, whistling, chewing, nibbling, belching, and flatulence.”

Such places of escape and refuge are essential to our lives, especially our busy metropolitan lives, because, “The whole machinery of self-production is cumbersome,” fragile, and prey to mishaps. As Goffman observes in his essay “Role Distance” (included in Encounters, 1961), people “trip, forget names, wear slightly inappropriate clothes, attempt to buy a too-small amount of some commodity, fail to score well in a game, arrive a few minutes late for an appointment, become a trifle overheated in argument, fail to finish a task quite on time. In all these cases, a momentary discrepancy arises between what the individual anticipated being and what events imply he is.” 

In that discrepancy lies anxiety but also, Goffman later suggests, the possibility of defining oneself as unique and distinctive. One can learn to step back from assigned and self-assigned roles and view them with a saving irony. Goffman’s own wry sense of life emerges in his footnotes and in the maximlike observations scattered throughout The Presentation of Self. “If a service is judged on the basis of speed and quality, quality is likely to fall before speed, because poor quality can be concealed but not slow service.” 

In the end, though, the book reminds us that urban living transforms all of us not just into actors but often into broken-hearted clowns. Peer backstage, and any individual “will be seen for what he largely is, a solitary player involved in a harried concern for his production.” Further refining this ancient trope, he movingly adds, “Behind many masks and many characters, each performer tends to wear a single look, a naked unsocialized look, a look of concentration, a look of one who is privately engaged in a difficult, treacherous task.” That task is the central problem of city life: interacting with other people.


Today’s sociologists may argue over the degree of his originality, but to the casual student of poor, forked humanity Goffman consistently provides an eye-opening, touching, and frequently harrowing look into the meaning of our behavior, especially our behavior in cities.

At one point in The Presentation of Self he notes that “There is hardly a legitimate everyday vocation or relationship whose performers do not engage in concealed practices which are incompatible with fostered impressions.” Insincerity and inauthenticity haunt us all. But sometimes people possess what Goffman emphatically calls “spoiled identities” or “stigma”—and these they must live with or try to hide: time spent in jail, for instance, or being a successful prostitute. Stigma (1963) examines the nature and difficulties of a damaged life.

Goffman first distinguishes between “an undesired differentness” that “normals” can see, such as a physical deformity, and those that can be hidden from the public, such as impotence or a criminal record. “In the first case, one deals with the plight of the discredited, in the second with that of the discreditable.”

While the discredited, depending on the “obtrusiveness” of their infirmity, have to spend their psychic time in managing “tension” generated during social contacts, the discreditable instead must manage “information” about their “failing.” Thus they constantly need to decide whether “to display or not to display, to tell or not to tell, to let on or not to let on, to lie or not to lie, and in each case, to whom, how, when, and where.” This often leads to what is commonly called “passing,” trying to appear as a “normal.” As a result, the branded individual becomes hypervigilant, a constant “scanner of possibilities,” and often grows “alienated from the simpler world in which those around him apparently dwell.” 

For the most discreditable, existence can readily become nightmarish and Kafkaesque: a man or woman trying to pass must live with repeated doubt over whether his or her secret is truly hidden. One can never be sure. Ever increasing subterfuge (“in-deeperism”), the leading of a double life or even a double double life, may result, not to overlook the possibility of every sort of blackmail. And the more people who even suspect anything shady, the more treacherous the situation. As Goffman says, “It may be safer for a bank teller to dally with his wife’s girlfriend than to go to the races.”

Above all, for those with something to hide, the “information connectedness” of their biographies becomes a stress point. Whereas, in The Presentation of Self, Goffman highlighted the need for performers to play multiple roles, here he underscores the safety of a clear, unilinear presentation of one’s past. Any gaps in the lifeline—due to incarceration, for example, or hospitalization or closeted homosexuality or an ongoing adulterous relationship—must be disguised or accounted for. Who among us, then, ever wholly escapes the consequences of some form of stigmatization? No human heart is untroubled, and we are all lamed in some way.

Consider “On Cooling the Mark Out” (1952), the youthful Goffman’s first truly distinctive paper. While its title derives from the argot of grifters and con artists, its theme is, to invert Boethius, the philosophy of consolation. The essay surveys the myriad disappointments we all encounter in business, in courtship and marriage, in all our urban and suburban relations. Sooner or later, each of us will be the mark of time and circumstance and dashed expectations.

At the end of most swindles, Goffman writes in his introductory pages, the criminals simply disappear with the mark’s money. But sometimes a gang feels it necessary to assuage the anger and bereavement felt by the victim, usually to avoid reprisals or to discourage undue attention from the authorities. And so one of the cons—still thought to be a “friend”—remains behind to “cool the mark out.” His job is, essentially, to commiserate, and then “to define the situation for the mark in a way that makes it easy for him to accept the inevitable and quietly go home. The mark is given instruction in the philosophy of taking a loss.”

To understand how this is done, one must first consider the psychology of cons. In Goffman’s view, “The mark’s readiness to participate in a sure thing is based on more than avarice; it is based on a feeling that he will now be able to prove to himself that he is the sort of person who can ‘turn a fast buck.’ For many this capacity for high finance comes near to being a sign of masculinity and a test of fulfilling the male role.” Thus, in the aftermath of a sting, the mark’s self-image has suffered as much damage as his pocketbook. “He has defined himself as possessing a certain set of qualities and then proven to himself that he is miserably lacking in them.” This awful realization Goffman likens to a destruction of the self—and the imagery of death informs his subsequent portraits of disappointment and regret.

In life everyone needs cooling out from time to time. After all, hasn’t each of us failed to live up to the kind of person we thought we were? When this is made freshly and painfully clear, as again and again it must be, such recognition results in a species of mourning for the idealized self we have lost. Merely to live in a city is to suffer inevitable daily shocks and to risk small and large humiliations. In some almost Ovidian passages, Goffman reflects on the many dispiriting alterations and metamorphoses of urban existence, of how each of us must handle “the passage from the role that we had” just a moment ago or last week “to a state of having it no longer.” He lists some of the more obvious transitions: “One might consider the social processes of firing and laying off; of resigning and being asked to resign; of farewell and departure; of deportation, excommunication, and going to jail; of defeat at games, contests, and wars; of being dropped from a circle of friends or an intimate social relationship; of corporate dissolution; of retirement in old age; and lastly, of the deaths that heirs are interested in.”

When in our professional lives a role has been yanked away or denied us, we can quit in a huff or be fired—or, as a consolation prize, be transferred up, down, or away. Sometimes the loser is mollified with a crumb: a rejected lover can be asked to remain a friend, the washed-up heavyweight may become a trainer. In extreme cases, psychotherapists might be called in, “Because it is their business to offer a relationship to those who have failed in a relationship to others.” 

Victims, as we all tend to see ourselves in these circumstances, deal with failure by developing rationalizations and excuses. Writes Goffman with somber majesty, “It is, perhaps, in this region of fantasy that the defeated self makes its last stand.” Occasionally the broken-spirited may grow mystical, convinced “that all involvements are part of a wider con game,” and that people are fools to take pleasure in any particular role because we suffer all the more “when it is time to leave it.” All too frequently a man may turn “sour”: while outwardly accepting his loss, he nonetheless “withdraws all enthusiasm, goodwill, and vitality from whatever role he is allowed to maintain. He complies with the formal requirements of the role that is left him, but he withdraws his spirit and identification from it.” Who has not known friends and fellow employees in this condition?


I n counterpoint to this melancholy, rather Hobbesian meditation on life’s nasty turns, “Where the Action Is” (in Interaction Ritual, 1967) offers a study of why people look for excitement, why they take risks, why they gamble and, without any apparent need, put their lives or fortunes on the line. Like “On Cooling the Mark Out,” it is a classic moral essay disguised as a sociological paper.

It opens by noting that as we grow to maturity, society enforces on us the need to “take care,” to “forego opportunities” of making mischief, noise, and trouble, or of getting hurt. “Personal development is the process by which the individual learns to forego these opportunities voluntarily, even while his capacity to destroy the world immediately around him increases. And this foregoing is usually so well-learned that students of social life fail to see the systematic desisting”—isn’t that a wonderful phrase for self-control?—“that routinely occurs in daily living, and the utter mayhem that would result were the individual to cease to be a gentleman. Appreciation comes only when we study in detail the remarkable disruption of social settings produced by hypomanic children, youthful vandals, suicidals, persons pathologically obsessed by a need for self-abasement, and skilled saboteurs.” 

The social benefits of peace and quiet are obvious. Yet, notes Goffman, by arranging our lives to avoid what he calls the “eventful,” “fateful,” or “consequential,” we inevitably neglect the cultivation of some important qualities. In particular, the more active virtues—those encapsulated in the Greek term arete—can neither be demonstrated nor earned by playing it safe. “Serious action”—gambles and risks—thus offers “a means of obtaining some of the moral benefits of heroic conduct without taking quite all of the chance of loss that opportunity for heroism would ordinarily involve. But serious action itself involves an appreciable price.” 

In the end only those who engage in “fateful” activities can truly test their characters, discovering in themselves and simultaneously revealing to others such qualities as courage, a game spirit, self-discipline, presence of mind, poise. Grace under pressure, Goffman reminds us, can only be shown during “action,” as he demonstrates with anecdotes about the coolness displayed by professional gamblers, pool hustlers, and even those condemned to the gallows. To live by the toss of the dice or to accept death with aplomb requires a consummate self-possession, which is the essence of character. No one becomes a hero by staying at home, going to the office, and attending church.

With the richness of his kaleidoscopic thought, there are few better interpreters of modern metropolitan life than Erving Goffman: every day in our cities people play their ever-changing roles, then gripe about them in dark bars at the end of the working day. We all try to “pass,” or desperately scramble to protect our secrets; each of us suffers sudden disappointments that require consolation, and to every man or woman there eventually comes a moment of decision and the chance to act with courage or generosity. To Erving Goffman we human beings are all on the same merry-go-round, but each of us displays a different attitude to the ride. In the meantime, around and around we go!

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