Fake It til You Make It

It’s taken me longer than I intended to finish reading The Presentation Of Self, but I finally found the necessary discipline to keep my arse in the chair. I then noticed I’d lost my voice, or maybe I should say – my ability to communicate in the way that I like. I think this is more an issue of identity, though. . . as in, I identify with being an outsider. And yet I need to let that go if I’m trying to include myself with ‘others out there’, even if those others are the socially reluctant. So, anyway, arse on chair and voice in mind – the chapter is headed Belief In The Part One is Playing, and in itself has me raising an eyebrow before I even begin reading the contents. Belief? What does belief have to do with any of this? I’m hoping to see Goffman ask a question or two because I am already concerned the tone isn’t going to be objective enough for me to take him seriously. I’m worried (as one who suffers the consequences of social angst) he may have been too close to the herd to see the absurdity of what he bore witness to. I’m reminding myself the book was written in the 1950’s, but I’m also reminding myself this was after the likes of Otto Rank, Kierkegaard, and many others. What I mean to say is, he seems a little stunted in his way of thinking, or rather, he’s not doing any thinking – just observing and going along with the flow.

Goffman makes a comment early in the chapter which again makes me question his mentality –

“only the sociologist or socially disgruntled will have any doubts about the ‘realness’ of what is presented.”

Okay, so how about psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers, and others who are socially aware? Or is he seeing all of those types as ‘sociologists’? It just seems a little narrow for my liking and possibly elitist too. I’ve come across many people who are considered uneducated and yet they are well aware of how insincere people can be, yet they’re not disgruntled in the slightest – they’re often perfectly capable of communicating on a one-to-one basis, and the real issue lies in dealing with groups, in the flesh. The problem can sometimes be one of depth – they’re unable to be satisfied or comfortable with superficial social interaction, which is what most groups demand. If I turn the clock back, sociology has its roots in philosophy which is not difficult to see nor understand, and yet it appears to lack the intellectual discipline visible in other arenas. I’m also questioning just how different the socially averse were back then; I think they can’t have been that different in temperament to the similarly afflicted today.

A little further in and Goffman talks about audiences who won’t allow sincerity and gives the example of shop assistants who will white lie to keep the customer happy, but my personal experience knows we can find the insincere audience at home. I’m wondering where integrity comes in, or whether it comes in at all. Could the inability or reluctance to white lie or perform be at the heart of the so-called-socially-inept?

More than once, Goffman refers to concealment of the negative stuff and how people tend to underplay the stuff which doesn’t fit with an idealized version of the role one is playing. But, why is this? Is it necessary? Does it not point to ‘the performer’ having a few issues themselves? Are we genuinely hardwired to present ourselves in the best possible light? That’s not to say everyone should have to expose every minor dysfunction, but why, when it’s so evident that not one of us is perfect (and no job is either), is it assumed that there isn’t an underside ~ a darker belly? What’s going on here? Is it the reluctance of the performer to get off his pedestal or does the problem lie with the audience’s inability to accept that people are human? Again, thinking of the socially dysfunctional people I know personally, the problem is often one of not being confident nor comfortable in pretending much of anything…and more often than not they’re great communicators so is it even fair to call them socially dysfunctional?

He further claims that (we) people tend to exaggerate uniqueness, and I can see that’s only true on a superficial level. Just because people make claims of uniqueness doesn’t mean it’s true, and I’ve become increasingly cynical over the years and noticed that people would make claims as to who they think and feel they are, but it rarely matches the impression I get. Mostly, people are so hypocritical that it beggars belief that anyone ever pays attention to what someone says about their individual self.

The mention of humiliation and possible loss of reputation when a performance fails is important and yet barely explored (it’s underplayed). This concerns me greatly, my main objection is if someone didn’t have to play a part to begin with there would be no loss…why do people have to pretend they’re some kind of one dimensional being? When Goffman talks about loss of reputation I’m assuming it correlates to those who have a professional reputation which also claims an unrealistic moral high-ground. This is not to say it is the members of said professions who make the claim, only that the insinuation is there in place and because it’s not considered appropriate to show the behind the mask, they just carry on with the performance. It’s the assumption that all judges, lawyers, and police officers are more law abiding than average citizen; or that doctors, nurses, and carers are more health conscious, caring, and humanitarian than the average citizen. The impression that vicars, priests, and nuns are more holy, spiritual, or moral than the average citizen. It’s absurd to assume a chosen profession says anything about a person’s character. Does it not say more about how the person wants to be seen, rather than saying something about inherent characteristics? If he’s right about the level of importance given to a performance, then it would stand to reason that people choose their role based (predominantly) on how they will be seen…and we all have good examples of people who think and feel they are something that they’re not. If people are trying to conceal a flaw from the outset would it not make sense to hide in plain sight, where it would be least expected to be found?

Goffman takes the time to explore where it’s acceptable to be found out (impersonation); such as the hero not having a low economic/social status and the villain not having a high one. But when he talks about the fatal flaw, I find it disturbing because (again) it presupposes moral direction. Those flaws can be anything from jealousy to hubris, and to be honest, if you strip those down it can be difficult to see how they can be classed as flaws to begin with. Goffman claims that a legitimate performance tends to say what is unique whereas a false effort tries to make it look routine, and this sounds fine, but where is the line between ‘uniqueness’ and ‘bragging’? And what does it say for those who genuinely find it easy to do what they do? Are they supposed to pretend their role is harder than it is in reality?

One comment I found interesting was when he says “A new position means a new part” – and this comment has me wondering if those who struggle to fake a front could have a more difficult time of social transitions, or maybe it makes it nigh on impossible to adopt a new role? What I mean is, how does this impact on their ability to progress in life? Does it limit social mobility if they’re aware of the connotations that a particular role carries? Could they maybe do the actual job but not fake the necessary performance which goes alongside it? Does it make the socially reluctant more likely to be drawn to work which the self has more room to be itself? Or does it imply the reluctance comes from narcissism, because I’m also aware of those people who would say “everybody else has to get on with it so why can’t you”…what I mean is, it seems almost compulsory that all people have to follow the ways of their land…what kind of personality objects to being a member of the herd if humans are a herd type of mammal?

So anyway the gist of it is; status and position rely on the individual portraying a pattern of appropriate conduct which is coherent, embellished, and well articulated. What this means for you and me, is that we need to be consistent in our behaviour and we need to be able to express the uniqueness of our self. However, this could mean we have to make the effort to get to know what it is that makes us unique, and if you’ve spent any time listening to others with issues around socialising then you’ll know that far too many are saying the same things. If your social anxiety is a result of hidden stigma, this is going to get complicated real quick because you probably won’t want to disclose, and yet it may be that very same thing which is a big part of your uniqueness.

Catch 22 indeed!

What I’ve realised since I began reading this book is that it freaks me out. The whole idea of what is considered normal, and what is expected of me as a person freaks me out. I mean all of this in regards to the social expectations, the way ‘society’ functions. Why do I have to downplay hardship or dirty work? Why am I not allowed to admit that I struggle, or that I get conflicted? Why is it not okay to let people know I’m complex? Why do I have to stress what is unique about me when it’s probably bullshit? What I mean is, I’m not so sure that anyone can be described as possessing unique qualities or abilities – I mean come on, a planet of seven billion people and we’re still trying to pull that card?

Seriously?

25 April 2016

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. . .

Continue reading “First Impressions”