Reading Goffman (3): The Front and Back (or, ‘On our online presence’)

Reading Goffman’s Presentation of Self can be difficult, much of it is quite dry and abstract, and then you have little moments where he presents eccentric examples of his ontology which perfectly reflects the terminology he has constructed. The emergence of Social Media, and its effects on our presentation of self is a neat way of highlighting the nature of Goffman’s notion of the front and back, as well as the moral crisis of character presented by his division.

Goffman presents our behaviour as social agents in terms of a performance for an audience, and as away from said audience. The essence of the distinction between the front and the back relies upon this. This presumes the presence of an ‘in’ group and an ‘out’ group; for from another perspective, an audience and a performer. Goffman’s Presentation is said to have an obvious relevance for the service industry, as we can understand it in terms of social actors in roles where performance is essential. Upholding a standard of customer service, and the customer’s presumed ideal of servitude is enforced and often met. When it is not met it is presumed that a failure has occurred on the basis of what is presumed to be correct behaviour or service in terms of being treated as a customer, or sometimes, in what is expected of a customer.

The world today places a high emphasis on image, and a binding set of norms on what we presume of the appearance of a known person. In other words, a person may behave in certain ways which creates an expectation, and acting beyond these terms thus violates these expectations and our image of them. This image, this construction can be so damaging that it inhibits the range of possible behaviours of an agent, at least so in public, or among the relevant ‘audience’ where said agent is a performer.

Lately I’ve been thinking of how constructions such as the Facebook Profile or the Twitter account reflect Goffman’s Front. The Facebook Profile is almost ubiquitous around the world, across continents and across cultures. When one looks at Facebook profile, one looks at a carefully constructed image made by that person. When we create a Facebook profile, we do not create an image of ourselves ‘warts and all’, but one which fits what we consider to be our standard of acceptability.

The online profile is increasingly ubiquitous in the industrialised world. It is as commonplace as the suit is in any office. It is part of our inventory for social acceptability as say, a mobile telephone is or a pair of shoes. The online profile is the merging of the front with the back. Through one’s Tweets or Facebook updates, we communicate ourselves, but we also (at least often) write to be read. We expect to be recieved in our views or what we say.

Our Facebook status updates can be signifiers of social class and other tacit signs of character. People are increasingly aware of the importance of personality management in our online identities as it is to manage our personality and appearance in face-to-face social interactions. Our ‘Front’ in face to face interactions communicates features that are not our choice, such as disability or ethnicity, and are unfortunately adversely discriminated upon (and sometimes positively). Online profiles are distinctly different in that one can hide certain stigmatising features. Unless you knew me, you wouldn’t know my ethnic background, or know if say, I had a history with a speech impairment when I was younger. Disclosing these facts invariably changes my appearance to others when I present it to my front side.

Employers and recruiters in an increasingly difficult job market are forced to use background checks such as going through personal Facebook or Twitter profiles to gain a perspective on a person and if they are right for the roles they are being considered for. With the recent spate of arrests and furore over Tweets, it is becoming evident that what we tweet is important towards how we present our ‘Front’. I consider this a worry as normally Facebook status updates and Tweets are forms of self expression which communicates one’s inner world and thoughts. The online world has been considered in some ways an escape from our everyday ‘Front’. I could play World of Warcraft and be a Troll, where on real life one may have more pedestrian adventures by contrast to that Troll.

The worry present in Goffman’s ontology was that the Back stage was pushed further and further away as the Front becomes ubiquitous. If so much of our behaviour is presenting a Front, an image of acceptability, what becomes of our inner world? Let’s put that in more modern terms: we are ever cautious of what we have to say, whether that’s in person or online. The online world is beginning to be policed in terms of offence and trolling has been redefined as defamatory behaviour (without acknowledging there are non defamatory and harmless forms of trolling, if we used a broader sense of the term, like answering the door to a pizza delivery wearing a horse mask).

We are ever cautious of the appearance of our public profiles, and this affects the scope of our presentation. What we choose to share on Twitter or Facebook betrays of our political or otherwise ideological and ethical views, and the backstage has become our Front stage. Sometimes people choose to share aspects of their backstage behaviour on the likes of Twitter, such as their dissatisfaction with a customer or a those moments of solace, which is within their rights, but we should be aware that the medium does not affect the message anymore, complaining about a (say) customer or client in front of an audience is just as bad and damaging (to yourself or who you may represent) as being public about it.

What of the social media in relation to Goffman’s Front and Back? We could say that it allows for a melding of the front and back stages, or this melding pushes back further the space in which we can truly be backstage. I see this analysis as relevant towards the role of online anonymity.

Destre (this post established from conversation with Michael)

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Reading Goffman (1): The Definition of the Situation

“Hello, is this Mr. Peartree?”
“Speaking”
“I’m here from xxxx marketing and I was wondering if I could have a few minutes of yo-” [conversation abruptly ends]

“Hello madam how are you today?”
“[any answer]”
“That is lovely to hear, how can I help you today?”

“Hello sir, I love your umbrella”
[no response]
“I would like to talk to you about the charity….”

I’m sure you have heard many kinds of conversations like this. People in business, communications, politics or any kind of endeavour where currying favour is required, will be familiar with the notion that first impressions matter. Goffman’s Doctoral Dissertation on the subject of the interactions in a Shetlands hotel between the staff and customers, as well as between staff and the behaviours exhibited in front of staff and away from staff, formed the basis of his thought on interaction.

I have two contradictory feelings about Goffman, one is that I found it incredibly difficult to grasp the first time I read his monograph Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (henceforth ‘Presentation’), the second time reading it is similarly difficult, but perhaps I have a differing perspective on it now. The second thought that I have is that I see Goffman as relevant to everything in society insofar as it relates to people interacting in a dyadic (that is to say, one node to another, or ‘one on one’ in a more informal manner) manner, when it comes to polyadic, well, maybe I’ll get to that later.

The second time reading Goffman has made me think of the wider context in which he wrote. Goffman was a contemporary of Robert K. Merton; seems to be familiar with Sartre’s Being and Nothingness; and was influential to a number of sociologists who took interaction more seriously. I believe that Goffman’s work on the Total Institution  was referenced by Foucault in Discipline and Punish as a basis for the latter’s own work, but that is a subject beyond my current comprehension, and the topic of this post.

The definition of the situation is a term that sounds opaque to me, it is even more unhelpful to find that it has an existentialist origin. I think there is something interesting to be said about the fact that Goffman leans heavily on Sartre’s thought in discussing this issue. What is the definition of the situation?

As I have read it, the Definition of the Situation is a social confine within a singular interaction between at least two agents, this reflects the nature of what this social interaction is. The Definition of the situation reflects macrosocial features but only in a crude sense, within the macrosocial construction an agent can navigate within. Insofar as interactions allow for more fine grained manoeuvre of outcomes from the crude macrosocial colouring of interactions, we have a layer of the microsocial.

Lets start with a distinction. By macrosocial impacts upon interaction, I mean features such as ethnicity/race, gender/sex, class/status, or other situational factors (such as facial disfigurement, wearing a wedding dress etc) imposing on how one may see another. If I were to write like Goffman, I would cite cultural examples like how a Black man in the United States during the Jim Crow period may be referred to as ‘Boy’, or how in contemporary society, diminuitive terms for women or affectionate others may be denoted as ‘honey’, ‘babe’, ‘sweets’, ‘love’ etc.

The best elaboration of the Definition of the Situation comes from my Sociology Lecturer who taught me Goffman, Kieran Flanagan, who spoke of an anecdote of a ‘young student during the 1970s’ in the US speaking to a hotelier. The hotelier asks the young man politely, ‘and how was your day sir?’, the young Sociology Masters student  man replies: “I’M FUCKING AWFUL”. There was a slight pause, and the young man realised that the hotelier was mortified. The older woman was working along a constructed social script, and had faced a reaction that she was incapable of responding to, in this response, the young man had broken the interaction and shattered the message that was trying to be conveyed by the hotelier.

For me, this example says everything about what the Definition of the Situation is, and perhaps made me understand the real meaning of ‘losing face’. the Definition of the Situation is, to put it in business parlance, trying to communicate a message, and trying to put forward a pitch. What I find personally revolting about this kind of agency, is that the message you are putting forward in the definition of the situation (such as a kind receptionist appearing simultaneously sexually available, attentive, helpful and courteous) is that much of this is defined by her or his role. What exactly are the features of this role are often tacit. Goffman presents a world of agency where our interactions are often an alienation of our true self and more a communication of what we are prescribed to do. This is at least the case in the ‘Front’ side of our social interactions (which I have planned to talk about in my fourth post).

The Definition of the Situation is the confine of rule-following behaviour in interactions between social agents. In a coffee conversation with Destre, I mentioned my thoughts on Goffman to him and I said almost disparagingly, in relation to another conversation we had about Kant’s Categories: maybe this is what Kant meant by the ‘receptivity between agent and patient’. The interaction between people is a fundamental social aspect, and there is something distinctly fluid about its nature.

From a personal perspective I feel that I fail as a social person. I’m very awkward and difficult around new situations and I’m not good at working within the ‘Definition of the Situation’. However there are agents who could perhaps play very well in these constructions: people who have something to sell, pick up artists (usually men) trying to pick up (usually) women; or anyone working in the service industry. I find usually that having a presence of fixed items or aspects to a role make my anxiety about social interactions a lot easier. There is a sense in which I colloquilally consider Goffman to be a justification or theoretical eludication of my own perspective to social anxiety.

In my next post I shall attempt to discuss the role of ‘props’.

Michael