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The Arts of Impression Management

By: Erving Goffman

New York: Doubleday, 1956, Chapter VI, pp. 208-212
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In this chapter I would like to bring together what has been said or implied about the attributes that are required of a performer for the work of successfully staging a character. Brief reference will therefore be made to some of the techniques of impression management in which these attributes are expressed. In preparation it may be well to suggest, in some cases for the second time, some of the principal types of performance disruptions, for it is these disruptions which the techniques of impression management function to avoid

In the beginning of this report, in considering the general characteristics of performances, it was suggested that the performer must act with expressive responsibility, since; many minor, in advertent acts happen to be well designed to convey impressions inappropriate at the time. These events were called “unmeant gestures.” Ponsonby gives an illustration of how a director’s attempt to avoid an unmeant gesture led to the occurrence of another.

It should be added that the individual held responsible for contributing an unmeant gesture may chiefly discredit his own performance by this, a teammate’s performance, or the performance being staged by his audience.

When an outsider accidentally enters a region in which a performance is being given, or when a member of the audience inadvertently enters the backstage, the intruder is likely to catch those present flagrante delicto. Through no one’s intention, the persons present in the region may find that they have patently been witnessed in activity That is quite incompatible with the impression that they are, for wider social reasons, under obligation to maintain to the intruder. We deal here with what are sometimes called “inopportune intrusions.”

The past life and current round of activity of a given performer typically contain at least a few facts which, if introduced during the performance, would discredit or at least weaken the claims about self that the performer was attempting to project as part of the definition of the situation. These facts may involve well-kept dark secrets or negative-valued characteristics that everyone can see but no one refers to. When such facts are introduced, embarrassment is the usual result. These facts can, of course, be brought to one’s attention by unmeant gestures or inopportune intrusions. However, they are more frequently introduced by intentional verbal statements or non-verbal acts whose full significance is not appreciated by the individual who contributes them to the interaction. Following common usage, such disruptions of projections may be called “faux pas.” Where a performer unthinkingly makes an intentional contribution which destroys his own team’s image we may speak of “gaffes” or “boners.” Where a performer jeopardizes the image of self projected by the other tea Etiquette manuals provide classic warnings against such indiscretions:

Unmeant gestures, inopportune intrusions, and faux pas are sources of embarrassment and dissonance which are typically unintended by the person who is responsible for making them and which would be avoided were the individual to know in advance the consequences of his activity. However there are situations, often called “scenes,” in which an individual acts in such a way as to destroy or seriously threaten the polite appearance of consensus, and while he may not act simply in order to create such dissonance, he acts with the knowledge that this kind of dissonance is likely to result. The common-sense phrase, “creating a scene,” is apt because, in effect, a new scene is created by such disruptions. The previous and expected interplay between the teams is suddenly forced aside and a new drama forcibly takes its place. Significantly, this new scene often involves a sudden reshuffling and reapportioning of the previous team members into two new teams.

Some scenes occur when teammates can no longer countenance each other’s inept performance and blurt out immediate public criticism of the very individuals with whom they ought to be in dramaturgical co-operation. Such misconduct is often devastating to the performance which the disputants ought to be presenting; one effect of the quarrel is to provide the audience with a backstage view, and another is to leave them with the feeling that something is surely suspicious about a performance when those who know it best do not agree. Another type of scene occurs when the audience decides it can no longer play the game of polite interaction, or that it no longer wants to do so, and so confronts the performers with facts or expressive acts which each team knows will be unacceptable. This is what happens when an individual screws up his social courage and decides to “have it out” with another or “really tell him off.” Criminal trials have institutionalized this kind of open discord, as has the last chapter of murder mysteries, where an individual who has theretofore maintained a convincing pose of innocence is confronted in the presence of others with undeniable expressive evidence that his pose is only a pose. Another kind of scene occurs when the interaction between two persons becomes so loud, heated, or otherwise attention-getting, that nearby persons engaged in their own conversational interaction are forced to become witnesses or even to take sides and enter the fray. A final type of scene may be suggested. When a person acting as a one-man team commits himself in a serious way to a claim or request and leaves himself no way out should this be denied by the audience, he usually makes sure that his claim or request is the kind that is likely to be approved and granted by the audience. If his motivation is strong, enough, however, an individual may find himself making a claim or an assumption which he knows the audience may well reject. He knowingly lowers his defenses in their presence, throwing himself, as we say, on their mercy. By such an act the individual makes a plea to the audience to treat themselves as part of his team or to allow him to treat himself as part of their team. This sort of thing is embarrassing enough, but when the unguarded request is refused to the individual’s face, he suffers what is called humiliation.

I have considered some major forms of performance disruption — unmeant gestures, inopportune intrusions, faux pas, and scenes. These disruptions, in everyday terms, are often called “incidents.” When an incident occurs, the reality sponsored by the performers is threatened. The persons present are likely to react by becoming flustered, ill at ease, embarrassed, nervous, and the like. Quite literally, the participants may find themselves out of countenance. When these flusterings or symptoms of embarrassment become perceived, the reality that is supported by the performance is likely to be further jeopardized and weakened, for these signs of nervousness in most cases are an aspect of the individual who presents a character and not an aspect of the character he projects, thus forcing upon the audience an image of the man behind the mask.

In order to prevent the occurrence of incidents and the embarrassment consequent upon them, it will be necessary for all the participants in the interaction, as well as those who do not participate, to possess certain attributes and to express these attributes in practices employed for saving the show. These attributes and practices will be reviewed under three headings: the defensive measures used by performers to save their own show; the protective measures used by audience and outsiders to assist the performers in saving the performers’ show; and, finally, the measures the performers must take in order to make it possible for the audience and outsiders to employ protective measures on the performers’ behalf.

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