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Personality Props: Material Objects and the Self

How do physical things facilitate interaction and support identity?

Key points

  • Some objects facilitate social interaction by clarifying status, becoming elements of shared activity, and supporting withdrawal.
  • Objects can help us recover our former selves and consolidate ideas about past events and relationships.
  • Objects support future commitments. They manifest who we wish to be and provide the physical circumstances for change.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman. Goffman, who died in 1982, achieved fame with the publication of his 1959 book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, in which he argued that social interaction is a kind of drama or theater with people playing different roles in different situations. The intention of that play, he insisted, is to convince others that we are, indeed, the characters we claim to be. Social life, it seems, is about making and managing “impressions.”

Goffman’s special interest was the revelation, or sharing, of information to those who have limited knowledge of us. Should we tell them our true intentions in situations? How much should they know about our current circumstances or background? Should we reveal what we already know about them? So considered, interaction becomes a sort of information game in which selected things emerge and others remain hidden—and most appear as versions of the full truth. Again, all of us want other people to regard us in certain (usually, idealized) ways. That concern mixes with other practical goals. Interaction, as another of his book titles has it, is “strategic.”

Most of us think of self-presentation as the management of behavior (both verbal and nonverbal) and appearance. We take care with what we say—and with how we say it. That means monitoring posture, gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, and eye contact, as well as observing rules about personal distance and touch. We do all this to convince the person before us that we are a certain sort of person who is going to treat them in a certain sort of way. To that end, we should stay consistently in character throughout the encounter. For “personal” relationships (transcending situations), we should sustain that character for much longer periods, in some cases for a lifetime.

Material objects are important elements of this stagecraft. Physical settings (compare a lawyer’s office to a gymnasium) facilitate certain kinds of activity and not others. The appearance, manner, and equipment of “staff” distinguish them from “clients.” Participants feel themselves moving on and off stage, sometimes to its center and sometimes to its back and side regions.

To be sure, clothing is one indicator of how we see ourselves, how we wish others to see us, and what we expect from the current situation. Hats, shoes, and jewelry have their effects. Make-up can enhance appearance. As Goffman stresses, slips and errors in this self-presentation (perhaps a spot on our tie or a section of undyed hair) can cause us to “lose face.” These concerns may not matter among those who know each other well. They are paramount in occasions where people meet and initiate significant relationships.

Because Goffman concerned himself more with information (ideas, values, and norms) than he did physical objects, let’s explore those latter matters a bit more below. Think of those objects, which we sometimes keep to ourselves and sometimes share, as “personality props.” Their common purpose, I argue, is to help us navigate our way in the present, past, and future.

Ryan McGuire/Pixabay
Source: Ryan McGuire/Pixabay

Present Dealings

Like small children with teddy bears or snuggly blankets, most of us have valued possessions that help us feel secure and give us the confidence to move from one situation to the next. Consider the uses of cigarettes in their heyday a half-century ago. Brightly packaged, the products were visible on or about the person, tucked into shirt pockets, and displayed on tables. In that sense, smokers themselves became advertisers. Putatively choosers of brands, they were in turn “branded,” many happily so.

Cigarettes facilitated interaction, as “bumming” smokes was common. More intimate was sharing a light (perhaps hands cupped to block the breeze) or even drags off the same cigarette. Profoundly, smoking provided a pattern and pace to interaction with its three stages of waiting/preparation, tension-filled activity, and completion. In that spirit, smokers lit up in hospital waiting rooms, between courses at restaurants, during intermissions at events, after sex, and so forth. Whatever its role as a physical and psychological addiction, smoking was equally a social compulsion, which fueled the traffic of public encounters.

Cigarettes also sanctioned social withdrawal, associated most clearly with “taking a break” at work. “Going out to smoke” might be an excuse to end a current conversation (perhaps at a party). Among young adults, the activity might divide the more rebellious types from more moralistic or health-conscious ones. Beyond that, a lighted cigarette could be a line of defense, positioned between the smoker and an unwanted companion. Finally, how one smoked (carrying the product, removing it from its package, lighting it, holding it, inhaling, and so forth) was a marker of gender identity.

No one should romanticize those bygone days, when cigarette smoke filled most interior spaces. Rather, my point is that people crave some reward-producing item in their hands, which they manipulate to move in and out of social situations. Less addicted to smoking than their antecedents, my students explain that cell phones now function in this way. “Checking one’s phone” gives the illusion of social connection (and importance), especially in face-to-face settings when interaction falters. Brands and models of phones have a certain cache. So does demonstrating how to obtain and use the various apps. Displaying screen content to another person is an opportunity for physical closeness. Oppositely, leaving a setting to respond to a message—by actual withdrawal or just by withdrawal from engagement—is accepted practice. In essence, the phone user makes clear that he or she is someone who has a set of concerns and relationships beyond the setting at hand. There are times to relinquish phones (weddings, sports practices, exams), but usually they allow one to be semi-involved.

Setting these examples aside, most adults have some activity-linked object that serves both as focus and as social buffer. Televisions and computers are critical. Consider knitting and other forms of needlework, crosswords and number puzzles, magazines and books, musical instruments, and cameras. All make plain that the user has something “going on,” that they possess a certain interest or skill, and that other people should interrupt that user only with good cause.

The Past Recovered

A British television series, “The Repair Shop,” offers wonderful examples of the ways in which treasured objects forge ties between the generations. In every episode, someone who has lost touch with a loved one (often by death) brings a dilapidated item to the shop for repair, an item that was once important to that loved one’s life. Miraculously, the craftspeople restore it to some semblance of its former glory. Confronting the restoration, the owners feel reconnected to their ancestors. Joy and sadness combine.

What person does not possess treasured objects that link them to earlier life stages and to the people that shared those moments with them? Sometimes, these are simply records of what one has done (like an artist’s paintings). Others are public acknowledgments (like school trophies and merit badges). Most poignant are products of loved ones who have moved on to other life stages (like a small child’s drawings or old love letters) or to death itself (like cherished objects of ancestors).

Discovering an old baseball mitt or love-worn doll is not just an occasion for memory, whether private or shared with others. Such events are confrontations with the fact that our lives extend well beyond the present; indeed, the present is only the moving edge of who we have been. As we age, the more profound those past events and relationships become.

Future Commitments

Old possessions symbolize continuity and endurance; new ones shout possibility. In that spirit, we upgrade televisions, computers, and phones. We move to someplace different or redecorate our current accommodations. We change our appearance. In a future-oriented society, all this seems right and proper.

However easy or difficult those shifts may be, the issue is not so simple. Pointedly, by acquiring and using objects—that new cellphone, car, or pair of boots—we become the users of those items. Having worn social masks for most of our lifetime, we find that the face beneath is pale and malleable. Indeed, removing such masks for any length of time seems untenable. The person becomes the persona; essence and image overrun.

Stated more simply, material possessions claim us just as we claim them. Much of life, or so it seems, involves mortgages and car payments, shopping excursions, and visits to repair shops. Old goods are abandoned; new ones acquired. My concern is not to mark these activities as good or bad. It is to remind us that material things are more than tools, habitats, and conveyances; they are the circumstances of who we have been, are now, and will be. Being thoughtful about those circumstances is the challenge of modern living.


Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.