1.3 Defining yourself within the scene
1.3.1 Social interactions
The sociologist Erving Goffman studied how people relate to each other across a wide range of situations. According to him, each of us enters into ‘social interactions’ with an interest in trying to control what goes on. A social interaction is any kind of situation in which people communicate with each other or do things together. After all, much of what we do in life, we do through dealings with other people. We negotiate the routine business of daily life through interactions with family members, friends, shop assistants, work colleagues, clients, carers, and so on. In order to handle these various social interactions we need to have ways of influencing how other people behave towards us. We do this by trying to influence how situations are defined.
… it will be in … [the individual’s] interests to control the conduct of the others … This control is achieved largely by influencing the definition of the situation which the others come to formulate …
(Goffman, 1971, p. 15)
Goffman says the main way you can influence the definition of a situation is through the way you present yourself within it. You are capable of presenting yourself in many different ways. But within given situation you have to choose just one way. Interactions do not work unless everyone ‘agrees’ to play a specific part within the scene and stick to it. You have to opt for a version of yourself which will (you hope) be effective within that situation. Goffman allows that there is scope for shifting the definition of a scene while it is playing and for modifying the roles of participants. But he says that such changes have to be consistent with what has gone before. This strictly limits the scope for change. Consequently, it is in the opening ‘projection’ of yourself that you have most opportunity for influencing the way others treat you.
Click to read the first paragraph of the extracts from Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.