Main Body

Chapter 22: Social Interaction

Two older people sitting on a street bench not looking at each other.
Figure 22.1. The dynamics of unspoken conversation. (Image courtesy of Yusaini Usulludin/Flickr)

Learning Objectives

22.1. Micro-Level Interaction

  • Describe the social dimensions of emotional life.
  • Understand the sociological concept of “reality as a social construct.”
  • Describe the impact of social roles on individual identities and status.
  • Use Goffman’s dramaturgical perspective to describe the social dynamics of self-presentation.

 Introduction to Social Interaction

Face-to-face interaction of even the simplest sort is a far more socially intricate operation than we generally recognize. It is rife with unacknowledged rituals, tacit understandings, covert symbolic exchanges, impression management techniques, and calculated strategic maneuverings.

The Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman went to the Shetland Islands in the 1950s to do fieldwork on the social structure of the island community for his PhD dissertation. However, he found that the complex interpersonal relationships in the hotel he stayed at to be a much richer site for social study. The theories that became the basis for his dramaturgical approach in The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (1959) developed from his detailed observations of the elaborate “interaction rituals” in everyday social interaction.

Figure 22.2. “The face is like a switch on a railroad track. It affects the trajectory of the social interaction the way the switch would affect the path of the train” (Alan Fridlund, 1994). (Image courtesy of Derrick Tyson/Flickr).

Goffman describes the way that people try to control the impression they make on others in social encounters. They want to be received well. They want to be taken as credible. At the same time, the others are interested in checking up on the person’s sincerity, trustworthiness and general suitability as someone worth spending time with. In face-to-face encounters in “real time,” they might not have access to information from the person’s background. So in the absence of confirming or disconfirming information that the person is as they claim, they compare what the person intentionally expresses about themselves against other expressions that the person unintentionally “gives off”: facial expressions, mannerisms, gestures, nervousness, quality of clothing, application of make-up, use of language and so on. This dynamic between a person’s self-presentation and the audience’s critical discernment sets in motion a number of micro-level structures that govern the course of social interactions no matter their specific content.

In the Shetland Islands, Goffman observed how islanders were sometimes amused to watch the manners of neighbours who dropped in for a cup of tea. As there were no impediments to the view in front of the simple cottages and no electric lights inside, they were well positioned to see how the neighbour would drop one expression as he or she approached and adopt another as they entered the door. The visitor consciously composed his or her “social face” by adopting a “warm expectant smile.” Based on these cues the hosts were able to judge how the neighbour really felt about them. However, other neighbours who were aware of this dynamic of examination, adopted a social face well before turning into the cottage “thus ensuring the projection of a constant image” (Goffman, 1959). Successful impression management requires an awareness of both the expressions that one gives and the expressions that one gives off. In this manner Goffman examines how impression management in social interaction always involves some degree of cynical performance.

In his essay “On Face-Work,” Goffman (1972) suggests that individuals in any social encounter attempt to establish and act out a line, not unlike the pick-up line a suitor might try out on a potential companion in a bar. The line the individual adopts in any social encounter expresses their view of the situation, their attitude towards the other members of the group, and especially, their attitude towards themselves. Consciously or unconsciously, they decide what “line” they are going to take to respond to the situation. Their line might be, “I’ve been down on my luck, can you help me out?” or “I know more about wine than that guy, so I’m going to let him know it” or “I am really polite so I am not going to say directly that the dress does nothing for her,” etc.

As a result of this line, they present a certain face to the group that Goffman describes as a claim to a “positive social value” for themselves.

Face is an image of self delineated in terms of approved social attributes–albeit an image that others may share, as when a person makes a good showing for his profession or religion by making a good showing for himself (Goffman, 1972).

They present themselves as humble, sincere, knowledgeable, decisive, aggressive, or easygoing, depending on the circumstances and the nature of the social crowd present. Goffman remarks that whether they intentionally take a specific line or present a specific face, or not, they will find that the others assume they have done so and will act towards them accordingly.

Therefore, the dynamics of social encounters play out based on whether an individual is successful in his or her bid to “maintain face” or whether they make a gaff or do something that inadvertently interrupts their performance. If they are a professor, they might misspell a word on the blackboard, which undermines their claim to rarefied knowledge and erudition. If they are a new MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly), they might have to account for inappropriate pictures or posts on their Facebook page which undermine their claim to have the requisite responsibility and perspicuity for the job. If they are a driver, the hint of liquor on their breath might undermine the appearance of sobriety they wish to display to a police officer at a check stop. Then it becomes a question of whether they can “save face” or whether they will end up “shame faced.” Goffman calls the management of one’s face in light of the responses of others—how we make it consistent with the line we are acting out, how we make adjustments to cover over inconsistencies or incidents, etc.—face-work.

The strange insight that Goffman offers is that one’s “face”—essentially positive social attributes one claims for oneself in any situation, but also one’s actual face (its expressiveness, nonverbal cues, potential for betrayal)—does not really belong to the individual:

A person may be said to have, or be in or maintain face when the line he effectively takes presents an image of him that is internally consistent, that is supported by judgments and evidence conveyed by other participants, and that is confirmed by evidence conveyed through impersonal agencies in the situation. At such times the person’s face clearly is something that is not lodged in or on his body, but rather something that is diffusely located in the flow of events in the encounter and becomes manifest only when these events are read and interpreted for the appraisals expressed in them. (1972, pp. 6–7)

The acceptance or rejection of one’s face is in the hands of the others who generally are prepared to accommodate small glitches in performance, but not indefinitely. In Goffman’s analysis, a social encounter is a precarious affair in which each of the participants desperately hopes to survive without disaster or mishap. An elaborate system of tact and etiquette evolves to which the participants in a face-to-face encounter consciously or unconsciously submit, even when they have their doubts about the credibility of a performance, so that the group as a whole can maintain face. If the disruption to someone’s face becomes too severe however a “scene” is created and the encounter falls apart. Goffman illustrates the way in which even the seemingly free and spontaneous interactions of everyday life are governed by intricate and predictable structures of self-presentation and mutual accommodation.

22.1. Micro-level Interaction

Social interaction is the process of reciprocal influence exercised by individuals over one another during social encounters. Usually it refers to face-to-face encounters in which people are physically present with one another for a specified duration. However, in contemporary society we can also think of social encounters that are technologically mediated like texting, skyping, or messaging. In terms of the different levels of analysis in sociology–micro, meso, macro, and global–social interaction is generally approached at the micro-level where the structures and social scripts, the pre-established patterns of behaviour that people are expected to follow in specific social situations, that govern the relationship between particular individuals can be examined. However, as the sociological study of emotions indicates, the micro-level processes of everyday life are also impacted by macro-level phenomena such as gender inequality and historical transformations.

Emotional Management

14 bronze statues standing 3 meters tall express different states of laughter.
Figure 22.3. A-maze-ing Laughter sculpture (2009) by Chinese artist Yue Minjun, Vancouver B.C. (Image courtesy of Ted McGrath/Flickr)

The study of micro-level interaction has been a rich source of insight in sociology. The idea that our emotions, for example, have a social component might not be all that surprising at first because often we are subject to having “emotional reactions” to other people, positive or negative. The other person, or the social situation itself, brings on an emotion that otherwise would not arise.

However, sociological research has shown that our emotions also can have a systematic, socially structured quality of which we are not immediately aware. Studies of face-to-face conversations show that the outward signs of emotion like smiling or laughing are not equally distributed. For example, the predisposition to show emotion by laughing in a conversation is structured by differences in gender, status, role, and norm. Robert Provine (1996) studied 1200 two-person conversations, observed discretely in public places like shopping malls. He discovered that when a woman was speaking and a man was listening the woman laughed more than twice as much as the man. Similarly when a man was speaking and a woman listening, she was still more likely to laugh than him.  “Female speakers laugh 127 percent more than their male audience. In contrast, male speakers laugh about 7 percent less than their female audience” (Provine, 1996). Provine suggests that this shows that males lead in producing humour while females lead in laughing at humour, but it might also show a pattern of social deference reflecting the unequal social status of men and women.

How a culture laughs, when it laughs and at what it laughs also varies through history. Jokes often hone in on what we are most anxious about as a culture. The Roman Classicist Mary Beard (2014) argues that while it is very difficult to go from the recorded literature to a confident appraisal of what laughter and its place in social life in ancient Rome was like, the nature of the jokes the Romans told reveals an anxiety about the ability to demonstrate identity unique to Roman culture. Many jokes had the common theme of “how do I know that I am me?” and
how can I prove to others that I am me?”

For example, “two friends meet in the street and one says to the other, ‘I heard that you were dead,’ and the other says, ‘I’m not dead, you can see me, here I am,’ to which the first replies, ‘But the person who told me you were dead is much more reliable than you are.’ “

This typical Roman joke refers to a cultural context in which demonstrating status was extremely important but official proofs of identity like passports or ID cards were minimal (Beard 2014).

The head of a statue with a blank expression.
Figure 22.4. The Emperor Commodus (depicted recently in the film Gladiator, 2000). Roman statues do not depict their subjects with smiles. What does the absence of a culture of smiling indicate about the emotional experience of everyday social interaction in ancient Rome? (Image courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna/Wikimedia Commons)

On the other hand, one rare account from ancient Rome in which the physical, bodily, uncontrollable nature of laughter is actually recorded was when the Emperor Commodus was playing at being a gladiator in the Roman forum. He decapitated an ostrich and threatened the Roman senators in the front row by waving its head and neck at them. What a modern audience would probably find horrifying or disgusting, the Roman senator Dio Cassius found so ridiculous he had to bite down on a laurel leaf from the wreath he was wearing to suppress his urge to giggle (Beard 2014).

What is perhaps even more significant with regard to the unique emotional life of the Romans is Beard’s claim that the Romans did not smile, or more accurately, that the expression we experience as smiling played no significant role in Roman facial communication. The Romans might have turned their mouths up at the corners but the smile was not a significant gesture in their social interaction. There are no accounts of smiling in Roman literature. The Roman words that are sometimes translated into English as smile are ridere and subridere which mean “laugh” and “little laugh” respectively; no word for smile exists. Beard concludes that the culture of the smile that figures so prominently in modern life (smiling when we meet someone, smiling to show pleasure, smiling in photographs, etc.) did not exist in Roman life. Medieval scholars suggest that the culture of the smile was not invented until the middle ages (Beard 2014).

In fact our emotional life follows detailed cultural scripts and feeling rules. Feeling rules are a set of socially shared guidelines that direct how we want to try to feel and not to feel emotions according to given situations (Hochschild, 1979). We are obliged to systematically manage our emotions in response to different social situations.

For example, we often speak of “having the right” to feel angry at someone. Or we say we “should feel more grateful” to a benefactor. We chide ourselves that a friend’s misfortune, a relative’s death, “should have hit us harder,” or that another’s good luck, or our own, should have inspired more joy. We know feeling rules, too, from how others react to what they infer from our emotive display. Another may say to us, “You shouldn’t feel so guilty; it wasn’t your fault,” or “You don’t have a right to feel jealous, given our agreement” (Hochschild, 1979).

As Hochschild argues, the fact that we are even able to distance ourselves enough from our feelings to recognize that something like a set of feeling rules may or may not apply in certain situations is a product of the modern “ironic” posture towards ourselves, quite foreign to traditional cultures.

A girl taking an unsmiling selfie in front of a field of tombstones.
Figure 22.5. Do funeral selfies violate deeply held feeling rules? (Image courtesy of MudflapDC/Flickr)

An example of issue that revolves around feeling rules is the controversy that emerged over people, generally teenagers, or millennials, posting selfies at funerals. Selfies are the photographic self portraits taken with camera at arms length to be shared on social media. Taking and posting selfie photographs on social media like Instagram is commonly regarded as a frivolous, if not a purely narcissistic and self-absorbed pastime. A headline in the Huffington Post read, “Funeral Selfies Are The Latest Evidence Apocalypse Can’t Come Soon Enough” (Huffington Post, 2013). Taking selfies at funerals is seen to violate deeply held views about the solemnity and emotional tenor of funerals and the etiquette of mourning.

A commentator on an article that defended funeral selfies stated the problem clearly:

But I can’t comprehend WHY you would be taking pictures of yourself if you’re so deep into the grieving process. It does not compute. When my mother died six years ago … I didn’t decide to whip out my phone and take photos of myself in my cute outfit or pretty makeup …. I didn’t even think about that stuff. I was too busy grieving the loss of someone that I loved. I just don’t understand how taking a selfie has anything to do with the grieving process. It’s just wildly inappropriate imo [in my opinion]. It bugs me that they don’t think of this before they post the damn pic or don’t care (Doughty, 2013).

For this commentator, it is not just that selfies are seen as frivolous, but that the people taking them do not know how to feel the appropriate feelings. She sees this as a character defect.

The defender of funeral selfies, a mortician herself, makes a similar argument but from the other side of the issue. Breaking the feeling rules of funerals is not good etiquette but reflects “our tragic disengagement with the reality of death” rather than a personal defect. “Modern death practices in the West, created by the funeral industry, have given teenagers diddly squat to do when someone dies” and therefore their feelings have no support in collective ritual (Doughty, 2013).

Emotions are therefore subject to more or less conscious practices of emotion management, the way individuals work on producing or inhibiting feelings according to the social expectations of different situations. They are not as natural, spontaneous or involuntary as we typically assume. Moreover, this intimate and personal component of our life is subject to macro-level processes like commodification. In post-industrial societies, services—nursing and care professions, flight attendants, call center employees, waiters, sales clerks, teachers, community policing officers, therapists, etc.—increasingly require expertise in the use of emotional labour. We speak of emotional labour “when deep gestures of exchange enter the market sector and are bought and sold as an aspect of labour power” (Hochschild, 1979). Managing emotion according to meticulous protocols becomes part of the job description because emotional tonality is part of the commodity being sold.

The philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1992) also noted the emotional or affective nature of power. He drew on Spinoza’s distinction between joy and sadness as affects that express the feelings of power and powerlessness respectively. Power for Deleuze is defined as the sense of being able to do something; feeling uninhibited. Powerlessness on the other hand is the sense of being unable to something; feeling blocked. When we feel joy, we feel ourselves to be at the maximum of our power of action; we feel that we have fulfilled one of our abilities. Joy is the expression of the experience of feeling empowered. When we feel sadness we feel separated from our power of action; we feel that we failed to do something we could have done because of circumstances, or because we were prevented or forbidden from doing it. Sadness is the expression of the experience of feeling disempowered. Deleuze argues that sadness is therefore the effect of a power that is exercised over us; we are prevented from realizing or fulfilling our powers of action. In Deleuze’s analysis contemporary manifestations of power–the power of various types of tyrant, judge or priest in particular–are accompanied by techniques that strip people of their powers of action (joy) and instill feelings of impotence, inadequacy, guilt, indebtedness, and bad conscience.

As Brym et al., (2013) argue, “the common sense view of emotions as unique, spontaneous, uncontrollable, authentic, natural, and perhaps even rooted exclusively in our biological makeup proves to be misguided.”

Social Constructions of Reality

Two mimes making funny faces
Figure 22.6. Who are we? What role do we play in society? According to sociologists, we construct reality through our interactions with others. In a way, our day-to-day interactions are like those of actors on a stage. (Photo courtesy of Jan Lewandowski/flickr)

In 1966 sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann wrote The Social Construction of Reality. In it, they argued that society is created by humans and human interaction, which they call habitualization. Habitualization describes how “any action that is repeated frequently becomes cast into a pattern, which can then be … performed again in the future in the same manner and with the same economical effort” (Berger and Luckmann 1966). Not only do we construct our own society, but we accept it as it is because others have created it before us. Society is, in fact, “habit.”

For example, your school exists as a school and not just as a building because you and others agree that it is a school. If your school is older than you are, it was created by the agreement of others before you. In a sense, it exists by consensus, both prior and current. This is an example of the process of institutionalization, the act of implanting a convention or norm into society. Bear in mind that the institution, while socially constructed, is still quite real.

Another way of looking at this concept is through W. I. Thomas’s notable Thomas theorem which states, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas 1928). That is, people’s behaviour can be determined by their subjective construction of reality rather than by objective reality. For example, a teenager who is repeatedly given a label—overachiever, player, bum, delinquent—might live up to the term even though it initially was not a part of his or her character.

Howard Becker (1963) elaborates on this idea in his theory of labelling and deviance. If someone violates a particular rule it does not mean that they are deviant in other respects. But being labelled “deviant” by authorities (police, parents, teachers, etc.) initiates a chain of consequences for the individual which make it difficult for him or her to participate in conventional groups and activities (like holding a job or going to school) with the “normals.” The individual is also subject to common popular diagnoses about why he or she has “gone” that way–e.g. “he is a bad seed,” “she is weak willed,” etc.–which results in furthering the perception that he or she is an outsider. These factors in turn make it more difficult for the individual to conform to other rules which he or she had no intention of violating. The individual is placed in an increasingly untenable position in which it becomes increasingly likely they will need to resort to deceit and rule violation. “Treating a person as though he [or she] were generally rather than specifically deviant produces a self-fulfilling prophecy” (Becker, 1963).

Like Berger and Luckmann’s description of habitualization, and Becker’s description of labelling, Thomas states that our moral codes and social norms are created by “successive definitions of the situation.” This concept is defined by sociologist Robert K. Merton as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Merton explains that with a self-fulfilling prophecy, even a false idea can become true if it is acted on. Merton gives the example of a “bank run.” Say for some reason, a number of people falsely fear that their bank is soon to be bankrupt. Because of this false notion, people run to their bank and demand all their cash at once. As banks rarely, if ever, have that much money on hand, the bank does indeed run out of money, fulfilling the customers’ prophecy. On the other hand, “investor confidence” is another social construct, which as we saw in the lead up to the financial crisis of 2008, is “real in its consequences” but based on a fiction. Reality is constructed by an idea.

Figure 22.7. The story line of a self-fulfilling prophecy appears in many literary works, perhaps most famously in the story of Oedipus. Oedipus is told by an oracle that he will murder his father and marry his mother. In going out of his way to avoid his fate, Oedipus inadvertently fulfills it. Oedipus’s story illustrates one way in which members of society contribute to the social construction of reality. (Photo courtesy of Jean-Antoine-Theodore Giroust/Wikimedia Commons)

Symbolic Interaction

How do we understand the way a definition of the situation comes to be established in everyday social interaction? Social interaction is in crucial respects symbolic interaction–interaction which is mediated by the exchange and interpretation of symbols. In symbolic interaction, people contrive to reach a mutual understanding of each other and of the tasks at hand through the exchange and interpretation of symbols. Only on this basis can a coordinated action be accomplished. The process of communication is the central quality of the human social environment. Social interaction depends on communication.

George Herbert Mead (1934) argues that we often act as if an idea we have “in our head” defines who we are and what the situation in front of us is. But our ideas are in fact nebulous. They have to be confirmed by the others in the situation before they can become “real” or “actual.” Therefore, communication is central to defining social situations. Moreover, it operates primarily based on indications or gestures of meaning that call out responses in others. As Mead puts it, in a somewhat complicated way, “the meaning of a gesture by one organism … is found in the response of another organism to what would be the completion of the act of the first organism which that gesture initiates and indicates” (Mead, 1934).

Herbert Blumer (1969) clarifies the three parts of this communication processes as follows. Ones own and the others actions are symbolic in that they refer beyond themselves to meanings which call out for the response of the other: (a) they indicate to the other what they are expected to do, (b) they indicate what the speaker plans to do, and (c) on this basis they form a mutual definition of the situation that indicates how a joint action will be agreed upon, carried out, and accomplished. Until each of the “indications” is confirmed by the other, the situation is undefined and no coordinated joint action is possible. A robber tells a victim to put his or her hands up, which indicates (a) what the victim is supposed to do (i.e., not resist); (b) what the robber intends to do (i.e., take the victim’s money), and (c) what the joint action is going to be (i.e., a robbery). Blumer writes: “If there is confusion or misunderstanding along any one of these three lines of meaning, communication is ineffective, interaction is impeded, and the formation of joint action is blocked” (Blumer, 1969).

In this model of communication, the definition of the situation, or mutual understanding of the tasks at hand, arises out of ongoing communicative interaction. Situations are not defined in advance, nor are they defined by the isolated understandings of the individuals involved. They are defined by the indications of meaning given by participants and the responses by the others. “Such a response is its meaning, or gives it its meaning” (Mead, 1934). Even the most habitualized situations involve a process of symbolic interaction in which a definition of the situation emerges through a mutual interpretation of signs or indications.

Making Connections: Sociological Research

Conversation Analysis

Comparing body language. Long description available.
Figure 22.8. In this conversation, how do the body gestures indicate the meaning of what is being said. How do you “read” body gestures? [Long Description] (Image courtesy of Search Engine People Blog/Flickr)

Examine a recent conversation in which you participated. If possible, record it or write it out.

  • How was your conversation a joint action in the sense defined by Mead and Blumer? How would you define the joint action you accomplished in this conversation (e.g., a casual passing of time, a game, a decision, a command, a fight, a work task, an agreement to disagree, etc.)?
  • Compare a recent joint action you were involved with at home, at work, or in a recreational setting that failed (i.e., in the manner Blumer describes). Along which of the three “lines of meaning” did it fail? Did you or someone else fail to express their intentions clearly? Did the others fail to interpret the intentions correctly? Was the definition of the situation unclear or ambiguous?
  • In what way was your conversation a conversation of indications or gestures? In what way did the conversation unfold according to your initial intention or your initial opinion about things (i.e. according to the “indication” you expressed)? On the other hand, in what way did you have to modify your line of conversation as a result of the responses of the other person, and vice versa? In what way was the course, meaning, or content of the conversation socially determined through the process of conversation itself?
  • With respect to any specific statement made in the conversation, is Mead right in saying that it is only the response of the other that “gives it its meaning”? If you said, “it’s a nice day,” does this require confirmation from the other person to make it so? Does the meaning of a statement like that change according to the other person’s response? What does this imply for the social nature of conversation and language? Is it ever possible to refer to fixed meanings or already existing definitions of the situation in particular social settings? Or is meaning always unfixed or “emergent,” waiting to be discovered at the outcome of an interaction?
  • In light of the concept of communication described by Mead and Blumer, define what is meant by “symbol” and what is meant by “interaction” in the term symbolic interaction. How was your conversation a symbolic interaction?

Roles and Status

As you can imagine, people employ many types of behaviours in day-to-day life. Roles are patterns of behaviour expected of a person who occupies particular social status or position in society. Currently, while reading this text, you are playing the role of a student. However, you also play other roles in your life, such as “daughter,” “neighbour,” or “employee.” These various roles are each associated with a different status.

Sociologists use the term status to describe the access to resources and benefits a person experiences according to the rank or prestige of his or her role in society. Some statuses are ascribed—those you do not select, such as son, elderly person, or female. Others, called achieved statuses, are obtained by personal effort or choice, such as a high school dropout, self-made millionaire, or nurse. As a daughter or son, you occupy a different status than as a neighbour or employee. One person can be associated with a multitude of roles and statuses. Even a single status such as “student” has a complex role-set, or array of roles, attached to it (Merton 1957).

If too much is required of a single role, individuals can experience role strain. Consider the duties of a parent: cooking, cleaning, driving, problem solving, acting as a source of moral guidance—the list goes on. Similarly, a person can experience role conflict when one or more roles are contradictory. A parent who also has a full-time career can experience role conflict on a daily basis. When there is a deadline at the office but a sick child needs to be picked up from school, which comes first? When you are working toward a promotion but your children want you to come to their school play, which do you choose? Being a college student can conflict with being an employee, being an athlete, or even being a friend. Our roles in life have a great effect on our decisions and on who we become.

Presentation of Self

Of course, it is impossible to look inside a person’s head and study what role he or she is playing. All we can observe is behaviour, or role performance. Role performance is how a person expresses his or her role; describing it as a “performance” emphasizes that individuals use certain gestures, manners and “routines” to seek to influence others in their enactments of specific roles. In this sense, individuals in social contexts are always performers. The focus on the importance of role performance in everyday life led Erving Goffman (1922–1982) to develop a framework called dramaturgical analysis. It represents a sociological reflection on the famous line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

Goffman used the theater as an analogy for social interaction, (i.e. dramaturgy in theater is the art of dramatic composition on stage).  He recognized that people played their roles and engaged in interaction theatrically, often following common social scripts and using props and costumes to support their roles.  For example, he notes that simply wearing a white lab coat brings to mind in the observer stock images of cleanliness, modernity, scrupulous exactitude and authoritative knowledge. In England in the 1950s, even chimney sweeps and perfume clerks wore white lab coats as props “to provide the client with the understanding that the delicate tasks performed by these persons [would] be performed in … a standardized, clinical confidential manner” (Goffman, 1959). Whether the perfume clerk was clinically competent or not, the lab coat was used to bolster the impression that he or she was. Today, even without the lab coats, an analogous repertoire of props, sets and scripts are used to convey the clean, clinical, and confidential tasks of the perfume clerk.

A boy pouring perfume into small bottles.
Figure 22.9. Perfume shop in Mumbai, India. (Photo courtesy of monika.monika/Flickr)

Scripts and props are important in social encounters, because as we noted earlier individuals are constrained to present a “face” that represents how they want the others to see them. They appear “in-face.” They present themselves to others as they hope to be perceived. “First impressions” and “getting off on the right foot” are therefore crucial for the way the events during a social interaction unfold.  Individuals project an image of themselves that, once proposed, they find themselves committed to for the duration of the encounter. Their presentation defines the situation but also entails that certain lines of responsive action will be available to them while others will not. It is difficult to change ones mode of self-presentation midway through a social interaction. The individual’s self-presentation therefore has a promissory character that will either be borne out by the ensuing interactions or discredited. In either case, it commits the performer and the audience to a certain predictable series of events no matter what the content of the social encounter is.

The audience of a performance is not passive however. The audience also projects a definition of the situation through their responses to the performer. In general, the audience of a performance tries to attune their responses as much as possible so that open contradiction with each other or the performer does not emerge. The rules of tact dictate that the audience accommodates the performer’s claims and agrees to overlook minor flaws in the performance so that the encounter can reach its conclusion without mishap. Goffman points out that this attunement is not usually a true consensus in which everyone expresses their honest feelings and agrees with one another in an open and candid manner. Rather, it is more like a covert agreement, much like that in a theater performance, to temporarily suspend disbelief. Individuals are expected to suppress their real feelings and project an attitude to the performance that they imagine the others will find acceptable.  They establish a provisional “official ruling” on the performance. In this way social encounters work based on a temporary  modus vivendi or “working consensus” with regard to “whose claims concerning what issues will be temporarily honoured” (Goffman, 1959).

As everyone who has been in an awkward social situation knows, the stakes of mutual accommodation in social interactions are high. Events that contradict, discredit or throw doubt upon the performer threaten to disrupt the social encounter. When it happens, this results in a kind of micro-level anomie or normlessness, which is characterized by a general uncertainty about what is going to happen and is usually painful for everyone involved.

When these disruptive events occur, the interaction itself may come to a confused and embarrassed halt. Some of the assumptions upon which the responses of the participants had been predicated become untenable, and the participants find themselves lodged in an interaction for which the situation has been wrongly defined and is now no longer defined. At such moments the individual whose presentation has been discredited may feel ashamed while the others present may feel hostile, and all the participants may come to feel ill at ease, nonplussed, out of countenance, embarrassed, experiencing the kind of anomie that is generated when the minute social system of face-to-face interaction breaks down (Goffman, 1959).

Therefore the logic of social situations, whatever their particular content or participants, dictates that it is in the interest of the performer to control the conduct and responses of the others through various defensive strategies or impression management, while it is in the interest of the audience to accommodate the performance as far as is practicable through various protective practices (e.g. tact, willful ignorance, etc.).

As a result, individuals are continually obliged to manage the impression they are making on the others, often using the same type of “props” and “lines” as an actor. Social interactions are governed by preventative practices employed to avoid embarrassments. Moreover, because it can be unclear what part a person may play in a given situation, he or she has to improvise his or her role as the situation unfolds. Each situation is a new scene, and individuals perform different roles depending on who is present. This led to Goffman’s focus on the ritualized nature of social interaction—the way in which the “scripts” of social encounters become routine, repetitive, and unconscious. For example, the ritual exchange, “Hi. How are you?” “Fine, how are you?” is an  exchange of symbolic tokens, ordinarily empty of actual content, which indicates sufficient mutual concern for the other, that it stands in for a complete social interaction in passing.

Nevertheless, the emphasis in Goffman’s analysis, as in symbolic interactionism as a whole, is that the social encounter, and social reality itself, is open and unpredictable. It relies on a continuous process of mutual interpretation, of signs given and signs received. Social reality is not predetermined by structures, functions, roles, or history but often draws on these in the same way actors draw on background knowledge and experience in creating a credible character.

Front Stage and Back Stage

Erving Goffman
Figure 22.10. Erving Goffman (1922–1982). “We move into the world as individuals, achieve character, and become persons” (Goffman, 1959). (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Goffman observes that face-to-face performances usually take place in highly bounded “regions”—both spatially and temporally—which the impression and understanding fostered by the performances tend to saturate. A work meeting takes place in a board room for a specified period of time and generally provides the single focus for the participants. The same can be said for dinner in a restaurant, a ball hockey game or a classroom lecture. Following his theatrical metaphor, Goffman (1959) further breaks down the regions of performance into front stage and back stage to examine the different implications they have for behaviour.

The front stage is the place where the performance is given to an audience, including the fixed sign-equipment or setting that supports the performance (the raised podium of the judge’s bench, the family photos of the living room, the bookshelves of the professor’s office, etc.). On the front stage the performer puts on a personal front (or face), which includes elements of appearance–uniforms, insignia, clothing, hairstyle, gender or racial characteristics, body weight, posture, etc.–that convey their claim to status, and elements of manner–aggressiveness or passivity, seriousness or joviality, politeness or informality–that foreshadow how they plan to play their role. The front stage is where the performer is on display and he or she is therefore constrained to maintain expressive control as a single note off key can disrupt the tone of an entire performance. A waitress for example needs to read the situation table by table in walking the tricky line between establishing clear, firm, professional boundaries with the paying clients, (who are generally of higher status than her), while also being friendly, courteous and informal so that tips will be forthcoming.

The back stage is generally out of the public eye, the place where the front stage performance is prepared. It is the place where “the impression fostered by the performance is knowingly contradicted as a matter of course” (Goffman, 1959). The waitress retreats to the kitchen to complain about the customers, the date retreats to the washroom to reassemble crucial make-up or hair details, the lawyer goes to the reference room to look up a matter of law she is not sure about, the neat and proper clerk goes out in the street to have a cigarette, etc. The back stage regions are where props are stored, costumes adjusted and examined for flaws, roles rehearsed and ceremonial equipment hidden–like the good bottle of scotch–so the audience cannot see how their treatment differs from others. As Goffman says, back stage is where the performer goes to drop the performance and be themselves temporarily: “Here the performer can relax; he can drop his front, forgo speaking his lines, and step out of character” (Goffman, 1959).

However, the implications of Goffman’s dramaturgical approach are that one is always playing a role. There is no single self. Even backstage the performer is not necessarily able to be their “true self.” Firstly, role performances are often performed as part of a team “whose intimate cooperation is required if a given projected definition of the situation is to be maintained”–the restaurant staff, the law office, the husband and wife team, etc. As Goffman describes, this means that team members are involved with each other in a relationship of reciprocal dependence, because any team member of a team has the power to give away the secrets of the show, and reciprocal familiarity, because team members are all “persons in the know” and not a position to maintain their front before each other. This entails that even backstage they are obliged to demonstrate their allegiance to the team project and play their respective “back stage” roles.

Secondly,  whether one plays one’s role sincerely–fully taken in with one’s act–or with a degree of cynicism or role distance–aware of acting a role that one is not fully identified with–the self is never truly singular or authentic in Goffman’s view. The self is just a collection of roles that we play out for different people in different situations. Think about the way you behave around your coworkers versus the way you behave around your grandparents versus the way you behave with a blind date. Even if you’re not consciously trying to alter your personal performance, your grandparents, coworkers, and date probably see different sides of you. Back stage or front stage, the self is always an artifact of the ongoing stratagems of accommodation and impression management involved in the social interaction with particular persons. The self is on one side “an image pieced together from the expressive implications of the full flow of events in an undertaking,” and on the other, “a kind of player in a ritual game” (Goffman, 1972). The self is essentially a mask.

It is probably no mere historical accident that the word person, in its first meaning, is a mask. It is rather a recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role… It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves (Park quoted in Goffman, 1959)

Goffman’s point here is not that individuals are completely inauthentic or phony. “In so far as this mask represents the conception we have formed of ourselves—the role we are striving to live up to—this mask is our truer self, the self we would like to be” (Goffman, 1959).

The Individual and Society

A group of people sitting on a subway, all on their cell phones.
Figure 22.11. The individual and society. (Image courtesy of Stefan Klauke/Flickr)

Many sociological findings like these strike the newcomer to the discipline as counter-intuitive because we are so steeped in a certain way of thinking about ourselves as unique individuals. This way of thinking is what Goffman called the schoolboy attitude: the idea that we make our way in life and establish our identity and our merits by personal effort and individual character (Goffman, 1972). In this way of thinking, the individual is understood to be independent of external influences; as having a private subjective interior life of memories, impressions, feelings, fantasies, likes and dislikes that is his or hers alone. The individual makes free, rational, and autonomous decisions between different courses of action and is therefore individually responsible for his or her decisions and actions, etc. From this perspective, the individual is unique, and his or her authenticity resides in finding and expressing this uniqueness. “Be yourself!” might be the dominant message we receive through childhood and adolescence, if not beyond.

However, these are ideas about the individual that go back to the political and ethical philosophies of the Enlightenment, the aesthetic reaction of the Romantic movement, and before that to the Stoic practices of the ancient Greeks and Romans. What this means is that the modern idea of the individual is not a product of universal “human nature” or of unique personal self-discovery but a type of relationship to the self that emerges under specific historical conditions. We make ourselves into individuals. The inquiry of micro-level sociology is to examine the various ways in which the individual is produced in social interaction, just like any other artifact.

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), there is a scene in which Brian addresses the crowd of disciples that have assembled outside his window. He implores them to be themselves and not to follow him.

Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t need to follow ME, You don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for your selves! You’re all individuals!
The Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!
Brian: You’re all different!
The Crowd: Yes, we are all different!
Man in crowd: I’m not…
The Crowd: Ssssh!

The Python troupe put their finger on the paradox of the modern idea of the individual. The idea of the modern individual is to be defined by ones uniqueness and difference from all others. In a sense, one is obliged to be an individual in a manner that forces one to conform to the crowd. There is no individual choice in the matter. Moreover, as Goffman would have it, to be “an individual” is to make a claim for oneself before others using a common, shared repertoire impression management stratagems to demonstrate it. Paradoxically, to be different means to be the same in many important aspects.

Figure 22.12. We are all individuals! (Image courtesy of RXAphotos/Flickr)

Key Terms

achieved statuses: Obtained by personal effort or choice, such as a high school dropout, self-made millionaire, or nurse.

ascribed status: The status outside of an individual’s control, such as sex or race.

dramaturgical analysis: A technique sociologists use in which they view society through the metaphor of theatrical performance.

emotion management: Producing or inhibiting feelings according to the social expectations of different situations.

emotional labour: Emotional gestures of exchange required as an aspect of paid labour.

face:  An image of self delineated in terms of approved social attributes.

face-work: The management of one’s face in light of the responses of others.

feeling rules:  A set of socially shared guidelines that direct how we want to try to feel and not to feel emotions according to given situations.

habitualization: The idea that society is constructed by us and those before us, and it is followed like a habit.

impression management: Defensive strategies used by a performer to control the conduct and responses of the others in a social interaction.

institutionalization: The act of implanting a convention or norm into society.

line:  A manner of self-presentation in which an individual expresses their view of the situation, their attitude towards the other members of the group, and their attitude towards themselves.

looking-glass self: Our reflection of how we think we appear to others.

role conflict: When one or more of an individual’s roles clash.

role performance: The expression of a role.

role strain: Stress that occurs when too much is required of a single role.

role-set: An array of roles attached to a particular status.

roles: Patterns of behaviour that are representative of a person’s social status.

self-fulfilling prophecy: An idea that becomes true when acted on.

social interaction:  The process of reciprocal influence exercised by individuals over one another during social encounters.

social scripts:  Pre-established patterns of behaviour that people are expected to follow in specific social situations.

status: The responsibilities and benefits that a person experiences according to his or her rank and role in society.

Thomas theorem: How a subjective reality can drive events to develop in accordance with that reality, despite being originally unsupported by objective reality.

Section Summary

22.1. Micro-Level Interaction

Society is based on the social construction of reality. How we define society influences how society actually is. Likewise, how we see other people influences their actions as well as our actions toward them. We all take on various roles throughout our lives, and our social interactions depend on what types of roles we assume, who we assume them with, and the scene where interaction takes place.

Section Quiz

22.1. Micro-Level Interaction
1. Mary works full-time at an office downtown while her young children stay at a neighbour’s house. She’s just learned that the child care provider is leaving the country. Mary has succumbed to pressure to volunteer at her church, plus her ailing mother-in-law will be moving in with her next month. Which of the following is likely to occur as Mary tries to balance her existing and new responsibilities?

  1. role strain
  2. self-fulfilling prophecy
  3. status conflict
  4. status strain

2. According to Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, society is based on ________.

  1. habitual actions
  2. status
  3. institutionalization
  4. role performance

3. Paco knows that women find him attractive, and he’s never found it hard to get a date. But as he ages, he dyes his hair to hide the grey and wears clothes that camouflage the weight he has put on. Paco’s behaviour can be best explained by the concept of ___________.

  1. role strain
  2. the looking-glass self
  3. role performance
  4. habitualization

[Quiz answers at end of chapter]

Short Answer

22.1. Micro-Level Interactions

  1. Draw a large circle and then “slice” the circle into pieces like a pie, labeling each piece with a role or status that you occupy. Add as many statuses, ascribed and achieved, that you have. Don’t forget things like dog owner, gardener, traveller, student, runner, employee. How many statuses do you have? In which ones are there role conflicts?
  2. Think of a “self-fulfilling prophecy” that you have experienced. Based on this experience, do you agree with the Thomas theorem? What are the implications of the Thomas theorem for the difference between studying natural as opposed to social phenomena? Or is there a difference?

Further Research

22.1. Micro-Level Interactions
TV Tropes is a website where users identify concepts that are commonly used in literature, film, and other media. Although its tone is for the most part humorous, the site provides a good jumping-off point for research. Browse the list of examples under the entry of “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Pay careful attention to the real-life examples. Are there ones that surprised you or that you don’t agree with?:


22.0 Introduction

Fridlund, A. (1994). Human facial expression: An evolutionary view. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. NY: Anchor Books

Goffman, E. (1972). On face-work: An analysis of ritual elements in social interaction. In Interaction ritual: Essays on face-to-face behaviour (pp. 5–45). Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.

22.1 Micro-Level Interaction

Beard, M. (2014). Laughter in ancient Rome: On joking, tickling, and cracking up. Oakland, CA: University of California Press

Berger, P. L. & Luckmann, T. (1966). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Brym, R., Roberts, L.W., Lie, J. & Rytina, S. (2013). Sociology: Your compass for a new world (4th Canadian ed.). Toronto: Nelson.

Cooley, C. H. (1902). Human nature and the social order. New York: Scribner’s.

Deleuze, G. (1992). Expressionism in philosophy: Spinoza. NY: Zone Books

Doughty, C. (2013). A passionate defense of selfies at funerals. Jezebel. Retrieved June 3, 2015, from

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Doubleday.

Hochschild, A. (1979). Emotion work, feeling rules, and social structure. American Journal of Sociology, 85, 551-575

Huffington Post. (2013). Funeral selfies are the latest evidence apocalypse can’t come soon enough. Huffington Post. Retrieved June 3, 2015, from

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self and society, (Vol. 111). C. W. Morris (Ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Merton, R. K. (1957). The role-set: Problems in sociological theory. British Journal of Sociology 8(2), 106–120.

Monty Python, (Writers), Goldstone, J. (Producer), & Jones, T. (Director). (1979). Monty Python’s life of Brian. London, UK: Handmade Films

Provine, R. (1996). Laughter. American Scientist 84(1), 38-45.

Thomas, W. I. & Thomas, D.S. (1928). The child in America: Behavior problems and programs. New York: Knopf.

Solutions to Section Quiz

1 A, | 2 A, | 3 B, [Return to Quiz]

Long Descriptions

Figure 22.8 long description: Two people sit on benches facing each other. The woman sits with her legs crossed and shoulders hunched forward. The man leans back with his foot resting on the opposite knee. [Return to Figure 22.8]


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Chapter 22: Social Interaction by William Little is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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