From Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in EverydayLife. New York: Doubleday, 1959, pp. 208-212.

Chapter VI


In this chapter I would like to bring together what has been saidor implied about the attributes that are required of a performer forthe work of successfully staging a character. Brief reference willtherefore be made to some of the techniques of impression managementin which these attributes are expressed. In preparation it may bewell to suggest, in some cases for the second time, some of theprincipal types of performance disruptions, for it is thesedisruptions which the techniques of impression management function toavoid

In the beginning of this report, in considering the generalcharacteristics of performances, it was suggested that the performermust act with expressive responsibility, since; many minor,inadvertent acts happen to be well designed to convey impressionsinappropriate at the time. These events were called "unmeantgestures." Ponsonby gives an illustration of how a director's attemptto avoid an unmeant gesture led to the occurrence of another.

One of the Attaches from the Legation was to carry thecushion on which the insignia were placed, and in order to preventtheir falling off I stuck the pin at the back of the Star through thevelvet cushion. The Attache, however, was not content with this, butsecured the end of the pin by the catch to make doubly sure. Theresult was that when Prince Alexander, having made a suitable speech,tried to get hold of the Star, he found it firmly fixed to thecushion and spent some time in getting it loose. This rather spoiltthe most impressive moment of the ceremony. [1]

It should be added that the individual held responsible forcontributing an unmeant gesture may chiefly discredit his ownperformance by this, a teammate's performance, or the performancebeing staged by his audience.

When an outsider accidentally enters a region in which aperformance is being given, or when a member of the audienceinadvertently enters the backstage, the intruder is likely to catchthose present flagrante delicto. Through no one's intention,the persons present in the region may find that they have patentlybeen witnessed in activity That is quite incompatible with theimpression that they are, for wider social reasons, under obligationto maintain to the intruder. We deal here with what are sometimescalled "inopportune intrusions."

The past life and current round of activity of a given performertypically contain at least a few facts which, if introduced duringthe performance, would discredit or at least weaken the claims aboutself that the performer was attempting to project as part of thedefinition of the situation. These facts may involve well-kept darksecrets or negative-valued characteristics that everyone can see butno one refers to. When such facts are introduced, embarrassment isthe usual result. These facts can, of course, be brought to one'sattention by unmeant gestures or inopportune intrusions. However,they are more frequently introduced by intentional verbal statementsor non-verbal acts whose full significance is not appreciated by theindividual who contributes them to the interaction. Following commonusage, such disruptions of projections may be called "faux pas."Where a performer unthinkingly makes an intentional contributionwhich destroys his own team's image we may speak of "gaffes" or"boners." Where a performer jeopardizes the image of self projectedby the other tea Etiquette manuals provide classic warnings againstsuch indiscretions:

If there is any one in the company whom you do notknow, be careful how you let off any epigrams or pleasant littlesarcasms. m, we may speak of "bricks" or of the performer having "puthis foot in it." You might be very witty upon halters to a man whosefather had been hanged. The first requisite for successfulconversation is to know your company well. [2] In meeting a friendwhom you have not seen for some time, and of the state and history ofwhose family you have not been recently or particularly informed, youshould avoid making enquiries or allusions in respect to particularindividuals of his family, until you have possessed yourself ofknowledge respecting them. Some may be dead; others may havemisbehaved, separated themselves, or fallen under some distressingcalamity. [3]

Unmeant gestures, inopportune intrusions, and faux pas are sourcesof embarrassment and dissonance which are typically unintended by theperson who is responsible for making them and which would be avoidedwere the individual to know in advance the consequences of hisactivity. However there are situations, often called "scenes," inwhich an individual acts in such a way as to destroy or seriouslythreaten the polite appearance of consensus, and while he may not actsimply in order to create such dissonance, he acts with the knowledgethat this kind of dissonance is likely to result. The common-sensephrase, "creating a scene," is apt because, in effect, a new scene iscreated by such disruptions. The previous and expected interplaybetween the teams is suddenly forced aside and a new drama forciblytakes its place. Significantly, this new scene often involves asudden reshuffling and reapportioning of the previous team membersinto two new teams.

Some scenes occur when teammates can no longer countenance eachother's inept performance and blurt out immediate public criticism ofthe very individuals with whom they ought to be in dramaturgicalco-operation. Such misconduct is often devastating to the performancewhich the disputants ought to be presenting; one effect of thequarrel is to provide the audience with a backstage view, and anotheris to leave them with the feeling that something is surely suspiciousabout a performance when those who know it best do not agree. Anothertype of scene occurs when the audience decides it can no longer playthe game of polite interaction, or that it no longer wants to do so,and so confronts the performers with facts or expressive acts whicheach team knows will be unacceptable. This is what happens when anindividual screws up his social courage and decides to "have it out"with another or "really tell him off." Criminal trials haveinstitutionalized this kind of open discord, as has the last chapterof murder mysteries, where an individual who has theretoforemaintained a convincing pose of innocence is confronted in thepresence of others with undeniable expressive evidence that his poseis only a pose. Another kind of scene occurs when the interactionbetween two persons becomes so loud, heated, or otherwiseattention-getting, that nearby persons engaged in their ownconversational interaction are forced to become witnesses or even totake sides and enter the fray. A final type of scene may besuggested. When a person acting as a one-man team commits himself ina serious way to a claim or request and leaves himself no way outshould this be denied by the audience, he usually makes sure that hisclaim or request is the kind that is likely to be approved andgranted by the audience. If his motivation is strong, enough,however, an individual may find himself making a claim or anassumption which he knows the audience may well reject. He knowinglylowers his defenses in their presence, throwing himself, as we say,on their mercy. By such an act the individual makes a plea to theaudience to treat themselves as part of his team or to allow him totreat himself as part of their team. This sort of thing isembarrassing enough, but when the unguarded request is refused to theindividual's face, he suffers what is called humiliation.

I have considered some major forms of performancedisruption--unmeant gestures, inopportune intrusions, faux pas, andscenes. These disruptions, in everyday terms, are often called"incidents." When an incident occurs, the reality sponsored by theperformers is threatened. The persons present are likely to react bybecoming flustered, ill at ease, embarrassed, nervous, and the like.Quite literally, the participants may find themselves out ofcountenance. When these flusterings or symptoms of embarrassmentbecome perceived, the reality that is supported by the performance islikely to be further jeopardized and weakened, for these signs ofnervousness in most cases are an aspect of the individual whopresents 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 theembarrassment consequent upon them, it will be necessary for all theparticipants in the interaction, as well as those who do notparticipate, to possess certain attributes and to express theseattributes in practices employed for saving the show. Theseattributes and practices will be reviewed under three headings: thedefensive measures used by performers to save their own show; theprotective measures used by audience and outsiders to assist theperformers in saving the performers' show; and, finally, the measuresthe performers must take in order to make it possible for theaudience and outsiders to employ protective measures on theperformers' behalf.


1. Ponsonby, op.cit., p. 351.

2. The Laws of Etiquette (Philadelphia: Carey, Lee andBlanchard, 1836), p. 101.

3. The Canons of Good Breeding, p. 80.


Back tothe Syllabus