First Impressions

Erving Goffman (1922 – 82) was one of the most influential Canadian-American sociologists of the twentieth century. I was disturbed to learn he had such a wide-ranging influence on a number of key figures from the twentieth century including the lieks of Michel Foucault. Even more disturbing is the matter of his work not being peer reviewed and neither did he ever enter into serious debate with anyone about his ideas. But anyway. . .

I am now in possession of three of his books and intend to make a start with The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. This particular book was written way back in 1956 and one of the reasons I’m starting so far back in time is because I want to build up a picture of where today’s thinking originated. Apart from the odd article in The British Journal of Psychiatry and a few others found here and there, I’ve read very little.

What I have read is plenty of public opinions because I have a nasty habit of skipping to the comments section on news articles. This is never a good idea if you’re afflicted with a common stigma. People, especially ordinary people with no stigma, can be judgemental bastards. People with small amounts of stigma can also be fuckers. And then we have people from both of those groups who manage not to berate others into oblivion for their social imperfections.

I know Goffman likes to compare social roles with acting and I can certainly see how people assume a role when they’re in the company of others. Some can maintain that role even in the company of so-called friends, although it may be a mistake to trivialise the social self when it has such a profound impact on the individual. The introduction is mostly concerned with explaining what happens in a basic interaction. One of the most important points he tries to stress is that a person will always try to present himself in the most favourable light. There is also mention of the difference between a real and fake performance and he’s claiming you can only see the ‘real’ or ‘true’ self through what is indirectly communicated. And one last point, he’s claiming we all live by inference, and what he means is that we can’t live by scientific methods. He gives the example that we can’t know for a fact that he won’t steal our money if he’s invited to our home; we can only assume by what he infers that he won’t.

I’m already confused, because as far as I know, inference means a conclusion reached by use of evidence and reasoning. But then it’s a common enough complaint among the philosophically inclined that most people have faulty reasoning. I’m already wondering if Erving Goffman was one of those most people?

I’m going to end with a comment he makes that;

“In everyday life, of course, there is a clear understanding that first impressions are important.”

I have a couple of issues with this and need to give it more thought but I’m asking;

i) is this a clear understanding by a significant majority of persons or simply a parroted phrase which demands to be acknowledged as a fact?

ii) if one is in possession of the knowledge that one cannot know a person until a considerable amount of time has passed, is it not a sign of faulty reasoning if one assumes that a first impression is an accurate representation of the person in question?

iii) is this something he believes, as in, does he think he can amass enough information from someone in the space of a few minutes to accurately judge them as a person?

I’m feeling disturbed because I have to wonder what happens when a bad impression is made? What constitutes a bad impression? Are those who give a good impression automatically elevated to the higher moral ground? The concern here is that sociopaths and psychopaths know how to play the social game well,

and those who are more authentic can make a bad impression if you catch them on an off-day…

Bearing in mind this book was written a few decades ago now, are first impressions still important?

What about – should first impressions be considered important?  

Originally posted: April 03 2016

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