– a social psychologist theory on how and why we try to influence other people’s perception of us
Imagine walking down the pavement of a busy street. A man walking in front of you stumbles onto a crack in the pavement and exclaims “whoops”. He then quickly glances over his shoulder to see what made him stumble like this. After making a quick assessment that the man is OK you will most likely turn away, acting like you didn’t witness the event or, depending on whether he seems embarrassed or not, say something to make him feel better about the situation such as for example “this pavement is so uneven”.
The human ability to feel for others and to put themselves in their shoes emotionally is part of what makes us social beings according to social psychologist and dramaturgist Erving Goffman (2018), who invented part of the basis of social psychology.
As a dramaturgist, Goffman (2018) saw the world as a stage and human beings as actors trying to convince the audience ie. other people, that the role they are playing is their true self. The role is a slightly embellished version of ourselves that we play in order to make other people like and accept us. Although it is mostly up to others to interpret what they think of us, we care about our image and we care about what people think of us. When we want people to perceive us in a certain way, we are trying to manipulate their impression of us in the here and now. Goffman (2018) referred to this concept as impression management.
“he is performing the role of a victim”
The man in the example above is using impression management by exclaiming “whoops” and then looking back over his shoulder to investigate the crack in the pavement. The “whoops” is not a way to express the surprise of suddenly stumbling. He does this because you and potentially other people are present and it is to express that this is not something that usually happens to him. He does not perceive himself as a clumsy man and neither should you.
Consciously exclaiming “whoops” indicates that this was an accident, but unconsciously this man wants to let spectators like yourself know that he is not to blame for this incident, thus managing your impression of him. Although this man has absolutely no reason to explain himself to you, as you don’t know each other, nor to feel embarrassed in your presence, he still cares about what you and others think of him. And looking over his shoulder to investigate the crack confirms to him that it really wasn’t his fault. With this he is performing the role of a victim and by looking away you are unconsciously accepting that the man’s version of what happened is the correct one.
If you choose to address the fact that the man stumbled, such as stating that the pavement is uneven, you are making an effort to try to make the man feel better about himself by indicating that this little mishap could have happened to anyone walking down this particular pavement. Both are examples of ways to accept his performance, which is the ultimate goal in regards to impression management.
“the only way to be your true self is by being alone”
Goffman (2018) described human beings as actors trying to portray their best self-image to the audience, who it is up to to interpret and accept or reject their performance. Although human beings are seen as performers, there is still a core self underneath the mask when presenting oneself to others. Because we want others to see what we see in ourselves and this can be done consciously and unconsciously. All it takes is to have someone else present, and impression management is ensured. Goffman (2018) means that impression management will always happen when someone else is present, so the only way to be your true self is by being alone. Backstage with the mask off.
The man in the example might go home to change to sweatpants and put his feet on the table whilst eating pizza with his hands, not caring if he spills food all over his clothes. This is his backstage as there is no one to perform for and he doesn’t need to care about how others perceive him. Does this mean that we aren’t being ourselves in the company of others? Partially. Is this a good or a bad thing? Debatable.
There are so many situations where we feel we have to modify or alter our behaviours in order to fit in with the environment.
There are social rules to follow and we try our best to act accordingly so that others will accept us. For example, we become aware to watch our language when there are small children present and we are expected to dress nicely to attend a wedding and that doesn’t necessarily compromise who we are and what we stand for. If we stretch our behaviours in directions too far away from our core selves it will inevitably lead to conflict, internal and/or external, and the potential audience will think that you are lying to them and reject our performance.
Not to mention what a negative impact it might have on your emotional well-being. If you one day demonstrate against eating meat and the next day visit a McDonalds and order everything on the menu you will be seen as a hypocrite, because only one or maybe neither of these behaviours reflect your true self and becomes impossible to manage.
A rejection of a performance can be subtle, such as rolling your eyes, or direct, such as calling someone out in public. If the man in the scenario above, for example, stumbled on the crack in the pavement because he was staring at his phone and not paying enough attention, he would not sound genuine exclaiming “whoops”. Others might shake their heads or roll their eyes in his direction and he will become self-conscious and think he is to blame for this mishap. Even though the crack is technically still to blame, as he might have stumbled on it regardless of where the man had put his attention.
The view we have of ourselves can differ from the view others have of us and the goal is to make both concur with each other in order to protect the way we perceive ourselves.
If someone tells you “I’m a good person”, you will most likely get a bit suspicious and maybe even see through that the person saying this is trying to manipulate your view of them. However, if you see the same person dropping everything in order to help an elderly citizen cross the street safely, you will believe that this is a good person, as it is what a good person would do in most people’s opinion. If a person is not feeling integrated in themselves and is feeling insecure, one could argue that impression management could be a way to create a safety net for this person.
A fake it til’ you make it kind of approach to how they want to be perceived by others as well as how they want to perceive themselves. Because mask or no mask, we care about what others think of us and they care just as much about what you think of them.
BA Social Psychology
Findus is a social psychologist and analyst working with NISAD on a number of our projects – in particular, currently, with the development of ELK.Health’s #CertainAbout Uncertainty programme which is planned to be available, free, at the end of this year.
She is Swedish and lives and works in southern England.