1.5.1 Agreeing who to be
So far I have focused on one-to-one interactions. Yet ‘defining a scene’ is often a group effort. Goffman says this involves teamwork, with all participants, in effect, agreeing to act and speak within an overall frame of reference. He suggests that it works like a theatrical play in which everyone has taken on a part within the scene. To play your part means setting aside all those aspects of yourself which are not relevant to your role. The scene works only because everyone plays their part properly and avoids acting in ways which undermine or contradict other people’s performances. If anyone messes up their role-playing then it is embarrassing for everyone, because it threatens to break up the scene. This would expose the fact that everyone is acting and make it difficult to continue the scene.
But how can this work? How do people work out who is playing what? Goffman suggests that it happens through a process of people speaking (or doing) in turn and thereby projecting definitions of the situation and of themselves. But they do this in ways that avoid contradicting people’s projections that have preceded theirs.
Click to read excepts from Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.
Read the attached extract from Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and highlight what you see as the main points. When you get to the end, look back at what you have highlighted and make brief notes for yourself of the main things the passage says.
Here is my version
Every participant contributes by projecting a definition of the situation, even if mainly by their response to other people’s projections.
Normally participants’ definitions are sufficiently ‘attuned’ to each other so that contradictions do not arise.
This means ‘putting on a front’ – suppressing your ‘real’ feelings (e.g. don’t yawn while someone is telling a story) and acting in a way which suggests that you share common values with the other participants.
Usually you are allowed responsibility for defining aspects of the situation which are relevant mainly to your own role, on the general understanding that you respect other people’s definitions of themselves and do not undermine them. In other words, if someone makes a claim which seems to you improbable – for example, that they are twenty years younger than they look – so long as it doesn’t affect your own role, you say nothing.
In this way the group achieves and maintains a ‘working consensus’ as to what is going on and who is playing what role.