In 1959, sociologist Erving Goffman published The presentation of self in everyday life. The heuristic value of the concepts he introduced in that volume have been wide-ranging, particularly in the field of communication with its focus on the ways that communication is used to establish and maintain relationships. Human desire for contact and companionship require teammates who help to present the self and an audience to react to the presentation. Goffman used the metaphor of a theatrical performance as the basis of his model of the ways that people present themselves to others in work situations. He cautioned that one drawback of the metaphor is that theatre presents situations that are not genuine, while authenticity is present to some extent in everyday life. He does claim, however, that even honest performers must present themselves in ways that avoid discrediting the impression they are fostering in their audience.
The driving force behind self-presentation, accomplished by exchanging verbal and nonverbal messages during ongoing interactions, is to present to and gather from others information that will help ascertain what can be expected in particular social situations, as people present or infer the ostensible character of the self or the other. The concept of working consensus was introduced by Goffman to define situations in which people work together to enact a situation that all will find acceptable, if not a completely true reflection of personal feelings. While some researchers claim that self-presentation is used only when the goal is to gain approval from others, and is thus inherently duplicitous and selfish, others claim that self-presentation is a pervasive feature of social life. It can be a primary or secondary interaction goal, it can be used to help others, and it is not necessarily deceitful (Schlenker & Pontari 2000). From these basic roots, Goffman and others conceptually defined constructs that are now the bedrock of much communication research.
Theoretical Concepts Of Self-Presentation
The following are some basic self-presentation concepts. Self-presentation: an individual projects an image of themselves in a social situation and thereby makes an explicit or implicit claim to be a particular type of person within that situation. This projected image demands that others treat him or her in the way that this type of person has a right to expect. Interaction: reciprocal influence individuals have on one another when in face-to-face situations, although this has been extended to mediated communication contexts as well. Performance: activity of a given participant in a particular situation that serves to influence other participants. The sincerity of the performance ranges on a continuum from complete belief in its authenticity to the dishonest portrayal of self. Social role: enactment of rights and duties associated with a particular status when performances are enacted in similar situations or with the same audience on different occasions. Defensive practices: strategies and tactics to protect a self-presentation. Protective practices: strategies and tactics to protect self-presentations of others, or tact. Preventive practices: practices to avoid damaging a self-presentation before a mistake. Corrective practices: strategies or tactics to repair self-presentations after they have been questioned. Team: a set of individuals who cooperate in staging a performance. Region: a place that is bounded to some degree by barriers to perception such as a curtain on a stage or a wall in a building. Frontstage: the place where the performance is given and decorum is maintained. Backstage: a place where the impression fostered by the performance is contradicted as a matter of course. Information control: the necessity for a team or individual to keep certain information from the audience that would contradict the definition of the situation they are presenting. Discrepant roles: unexpected and unapparent relations between feigned role, information possessed, and regions of access. Face: the line that a participant takes when presenting the self.
This concept was more fully developed in the essay “Face work” from Interaction ritual (Goffman 1967). The Chinese concepts of “lien,” which focuses on deviant behavior, and “mien-tzu,” which focuses on violations of communication norms, were adopted by Goffman, who stated that face is the part of self that is presented to others for approval. Face is influenced by the self, others, and the context, and it can be lost, maintained, and improved through interaction. Brown and Levinson’s (1987) politeness theory separated face into positive face, or the need to be connected to and positively regarded by others, and negative face, or the need to be independent and autonomous. Lim and Bowers (1991) added competence face, or the need to appear capable.
Self-Presentation Research In Communication
The heuristic value of the self-presentation concepts that Goffman and others identified has been immense. Many branches in the field of communication have adopted and advanced these concepts. Three of those areas are discussed below.
Research in interpersonal communication has long focused on self-disclosure, the revelation of information that cannot be ascertained by other means and that might result in loss of face if known by others. There is also a rich tradition of work on face, politeness, and mitigating face threats (Cupach & Metts 1994) in the interpersonal communication literature. A program of research by Wilson and his colleagues has examined the identity implications of social influence goals in different contexts. These researchers studied the competing demands on message production of face-threatening acts and seeking compliance in same-sex friendships (Wilson et al. 1998), ending romantic relationships, the educational context, and cross-culturally. For example, in the realm of same-sex-friendships, individuals who had different goals such as requesting favors, giving advice, and enforcing obligations formed messages that differed in terms of face threats and politeness strategies. Other findings are that in the educational context students who approach their professors to discuss disappointing grades and have different goals, such as getting the instructor to change the grade, trying to learn the material, or venting at the instructor, also formed messages that differ in terms of face threats and politeness strategies.
The formal organization was the original context in which Goffman explicated the concept of self-presentation. Research in organizational communication that has used self-presentation as a framework can be found in the areas of employment interviews, negotiation, gender diversity, job loss, public relations, and social responsibility (Rosenfeld 2002).
Early predictions about Internet communication claimed that ideas alone would traverse text-based, verbal communication. However, over time the personal characteristics associated with nonverbal cues may be discerned via text-based (and now image-based) computer-mediated communication (CMC). CMC is now recognized as one of the most fertile venues for the dynamics of self-presentation and discerning the veracity of impressions gleaned online. Communication may take place online with no offline anchors to one’s physical or non-conscious characteristics, rendering CMC entirely comprised of cues that are “given” rather than “given off.” The fluidity with which a person may foster a persona online ranges from the mundane to the creation of alternative personae of opposite genders.
The most detailed theoretical treatments of self-presentation appear in two of the four elements of the hyper personal model of CMC (Walther 1996). One element, selective self-presentation, explains how through writing CMC users reveal desirable information about the self in ways that are more intentional and discretionary than face-to-face communication allows. Second, they exploit characteristics of the channel to edit, rewrite, and recraft messages, with turn-taking exchanges suspended or retarded, in ways that favor themselves and target their recipients; CMC messages are composed “backstage.” Goffman’s influence is reflected in analyses of self-presentation through personal websites (Miller 1995) and, recently, in managing impressions in online match-making services, where one must strike a delicate balance between the most desirable and the realistic descriptions of self, which do not always coincide, in order to attract partners yet not disappoint them at first meeting. Ellison et al. (2006) interviewed users of online dating services, who claimed that they attempted to be honest in their self-presentations. However, they also excused themselves for strategic misrepresentation on undesirable answers to closed-ended questions that would filter them out of other users’ searches. Whereas many users had appealing offline hobbies, they did not always engage in those hobbies as frequently as their online biographies would seem to suggest.
The wide appeal of the self-presentation concept for communication research is evidenced in the wide variety of methods that have been used in research studies. For example, in the interpersonal communication domain, researchers often create scenarios and then request that respondents create messages about what they would have said in such a situation. Those messages are then coded for their level of politeness and face threat as well as for evidence that they are addressing the primary goal of the message sender. Alternatively, researchers ask respondents to recall conversations that match the type of situation under scrutiny, and the reports of those conversations are coded. Other researchers ask respondents to use scale items to rate how positively or negatively they feel about messages provided to them with and without, or with different levels of, mitigating face-work. In organizational communication scholarship, researchers have used discourse analysis, interpretive analysis, and questionnaires, among other methods. In the CMC domain, researchers have analyzed personal home pages via interpretive analysis. Others have employed interviews, content analysis, and questionnaires to determine the sender’s goals, how they used the CMC systems, and the types of changes they made to their personal profiles after receipt of a message. Most tests of hyper personal properties involve actual interactions/experiments examining how senders select behaviors, and/or how perceivers rate senders.
Self-presentation and its related concepts have provided a useful perspective on communication research in many domains, from early work on interpersonal and organizational communication to more current work on computer-mediated communication. Health communication is another more recent focus of scholars in communication, and although some work has been done on self-presentation in this context, such as on support groups, the area is one that should produce substantial future self-presentation research. Self-presentation should continue to be highly applicable as the field of communication matures.
- Brown, P., & Levinson, S. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Cupach, W. R., & Metts, S. (1994). Facework. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Ellison, N., Heino, R., & Gibbs, J. (2006). Managing impressions online: Self-presentation processes in the online dating environment. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(2), article 2. At http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol11/issue2/ellison.html, accessed July 27, 2007.
- Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
- Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction ritual. New York: Pantheon.
- Lim, T. S., & Bowers, J. W. (1991). Facework solidarity, approbation, and tact. Human Communication Research, 17, 415–450.
- Miller, H. (1995). The presentation of self in electronic life: Goffman on the Internet. Paper presented at the Embodied Knowledge and Virtual Space Conference, Goldsmiths’ College, University of London, London. At http://ess.ntu.ac.uk/miller/cyberpsych/goffman.htm, accessed September 10, 2006.
- Rosenfeld, P. (2002). Impression management in organizations. London: Thomson Learning.
- Schlenker, B. R., & Pontari, B. A. (2000). The strategic control of information: Impression management and self-presentation in daily life. In A. Tesser, R. Felson, & J. Suls (eds.), Perspectives on self and identity. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, pp. 199–232.
- Walther, J. B. (1996). Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal, and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication Research, 23, 3–43.
- Wilson, S. R., Aleman, C. G., & Leatham, G. B. (1998). Identity implications of influence goals: A revised analysis of face-threatening acts and application to seeking compliance with same-sex friends. Human Communication Research, 25, 64–96.