How we present ourselves to others

Many years before I was introduced to the Ancient Maya, a little book by Erving Goffman entitled, The Presentation Of Self In Everyday Life,” set me on the path of becoming an armchair anthropologist. Actually, it may have been his insights that sparked my later interest in the Maya, in part because their kings and artisans developed an astonishing and unique capacity for expressing their worldview and myths through costuming, gestures, dance and poetic speech.

One of the principle tenants in the anthropology of visual communication is that “everyone notices everything.” Paying attention, especially to people, has always had survival value. We notice what people wear and don’t wear, how they walk and talk, adorn themselves, tend to their fingernails and hold their forks. Body language helps us trust or not trust what people say. Kenetics, formalized as the study of motion, helps us maintain social versus personal space, even make judgments about how people move.

Dr. Goffman’s thesis is that we’re actors in everyday life, performing on various “stages”—as parent, child, spouse, artist, professional, priest or politician. We dress the part and present ourselves on these stages in ways that we think or hope will gain us admittance, acceptance, an advantage or convey an impression. How we present ourselves is our unique expression. And it shapes other people’s perception of us.

My master’s thesis demonstrated that observers walking through homes of people they didn’t know—and who were absent—could make accurate judgments about their values based on a standardized test taken by both parties. In addition to family relationships, marital and economic status, lifestyle choices and interests, the evaluators picked up on personal matters—creative expression, ethnic and political orientation, worldview, philosophy of life and religion. The homeowner’s choices, their books, magazines, CD’s and DVD, even the size and placement of the television set(s) were revelatory.

We don’t just notice presentations, we make judgments based on them because they reflect choices—about clothing, shoes, makeup, hairstyle, tattoos, jewelry, cars, food, schools, sports teams, etc.—and these represent values. Aside from these material clues, what we say and how we say it is noticed and judged as well. Judgments made by reading our presentations may be accurate or wrong, but either way they largely determine how others choose to see and relate to us.

So, personal presentation matters greatly. It is a matter of life and death for the peacock—his ability to reproduce and maintain the species. So too for the  12-year-old who was shot for wielding a toy gun in front of a police officer. More commonly how we appear to others determines our acceptance, advancement and fulfillment—in every aspect of personal and social life. These terms may fall flat on this page, but the everyday realities of depression, suicide, murder, crime and domestic abuse attest to what can happen when individuals are not accepted, are blocked from realizing their potentials or chronically dissatisfied with life and living.

Particularly troublesome for parents are the presentations of film and television celebrities. In part, boys notice that aggression, violence, crude language and ignorance are considered “cool,” signs of strength, the best way to fit in and get what they want.

Girls notice that to get what they want—or “should” want—they have to be aggressive or slutty. Ideally both. My daughter, Jennifer, is a regular contributor to NBC on a variety of parenting issues. Around Halloween a few years ago, they interviewed her on the subject of over-sexualized costumes being marketed to young girls and teens. It’s a hot topic again this year because parents are  objecting to these costumes—and finding support.

As we observe each other, we also observe society and how people are—around the world. One of the complaints I have about popular culture is that it’s entirely manufactured, a created reality based on presentations designed to stimulate commerce and consumption. Nonetheless, I also see it as an appropriate and necessary phase, an evolutionary driver of sorts, that will bring about a shift toward more authentic and respectable presentations of self in everyday life. Sometimes we often need to learn what doesn’t work in order to discover what does. As always, I realize that change begins with me.

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

Erving Goffman, Sociologist


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