Life as Drama
All the world's a stage - or is it?
Posted Jul 29, 2018
During a recent visit to my dentist, the hygienist and I engaged in the sort of small talk common to situations of that sort. At one point, she told a story about her daughter, then in eighth grade, who came home from school one day and asked: “Momma, why do some girls need so much drama?”
The hygienist, a wise person, laughed at her remembrance of the event. She recalled also that she did not have a ready answer. Nor did I, though I am used to offering people my opinions.
But it is interesting to think about that issue for this writing.
When we think of people being dramatic – or in this case, overly dramatic - we think of them making much of their appearance before others. They enjoy feeling and displaying emotions. They have a taste for tension-filled scenes. They want others to know how they are interpreting a situation and how it is affecting them. The only thing that matters, or so it seems, is what is happening now. Dares, tantrums, and ultimatums reign. Life becomes operatic.
Certain situations can magnify these inclinations. So can certain stages of life. Young people have what Erik Erikson called gangling minds and bodies. They have not worked out the countless behavioral strategies they will need for successful social functioning. Physical and emotional challenges sometimes overwhelm them. They commonly occupy low social positions that make them victims of much that happens. They face many issues and challenges for the first time.
Add to this the fact that some adults expect – and even want – their charges to act in a way that is “childish.” In the face of immature displays, those adults can discipline and control. And we should not forget the other side of it: dramatic behavior may help the misbehavers get what they want. Commotion produces results, at least sometimes.
Drama with peers is not so different. As Erikson famously explained, people in their early teens are very concerned about their standing in social circles. In addition to dealing with many other things that people expect of them at this more independent life-stage, young adults are preoccupied with issues of “identity.” Who am I? How do I fit in with others like me? What do these people (really) think of me? So young adults tend to check-in with one another continually. What are you wearing to school tomorrow? Are you going to that game or party Saturday? Did you see what so-and-so posted last night?
At this young adult stage, bonding with some people – and separating from others – is key. Most of us can remember seventh and eighth grade as a constant shuffling of relationships. Romantic crushes last only a little time. Friendships can dissolve quickly. Staying true to someone the rest of the gang disrespects is difficult indeed. Cliques are commonplace. At the center of this shifting is the desire to belong and, more than that, to hold a worthy position in those groups-of-choice.
How do peers manage each other? Remember the mechanisms. There is teasing and ridiculing, of course. Worse surely is shaming, embarrassing someone before others. People may denounce each other, in my day called “telling them off.” Different again is the threat of being ignored or shunned, perhaps not hearing about information and events the rest of the group already knows. In that regard, few of us care for the “silent treatment.” Add gossip to the list. Who likes it when other people are talking about them “behind their back”? Disturbing also is the spectacle of some people pairing up or joining other small groups in a way that openly displays their allegiance – and pointedly excludes us. Most dangerous of all is the prospect of banishment, where one no longer has any standing in the collectivity. These are all very basic human concerns. The rise of the Internet - with its “Fear of Missing Out” culture - only magnifies these issues.
If there is a summarizing concept for all these matters, it is the preoccupation with status-regard. Ideally, we want to climb in the estimation of others. At least let us hold our place. Please don’t let us fall out of the relationships that seem so central to who we are.
The “treatments” just discussed are all social control devices. Each of them effectively lets us know where we stand. Most lower our standing, and it is that very prospect that we fear.
So who can blame teenagers for sometimes being dramatic? They are very sensitive to their placements. Open – or just perceived – slights hurt deeply. People of that age are not established enough to resist their influences. Tender egos need doses of support. And when they don’t get it, there may be blatant appeals for attention – and dire threats to boot.
Enough said of young people. How different are we adults? Aren’t we just as involved in social dramas?
That very question inspired one of sociology’s classic books. Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life centered on how modern people manage their self-images during their daily encounters with others. What he called “impression management” is the use of all manner of dramatic techniques, settings, and props to see that the people we care about regard us in the way that we desire.
In Goffman’s view, most of our interactions feature people trying to uphold a certain image of themselves – an idealized self – before others. Said differently, we all want others to think of us in a certain way, if only as the respectable people we claim to be. To do that, we need to behave in a fashion that is consistent with how a respectable person of that sort would speak and act.
Goffman’s basic contention is that our behaviors are really performances. Most of the time, we sense that we are being watched and judged. In that context, the very of goal of those behaviors is to convince our watchers that we are the people we say we are.
Unlike a stage play, where one party is the actor and the other the audience, in real life we alternate roles of play-acting and spectating. Differently also, in real life there are no fixed scripts or prearranged endings of our scenes, or at least there are only loosely scripted scenarios.
Like actors then, we assemble our characters with all manner of stagecraft. We dress and groom our appearance in a way that suits our preferred version of self, or rather the particular version we are playing in that situation. We choose what to say – and what not to say – to others. We control many kinds of non-verbal behavior – eye contact, uses of touch, physical distance, facial expressions, and bodily gestures. Tone of voice and posture are important. All are part of the actor’s repertoire.
As Shakespeare contended, the world is a stage with many roles, each with “their exits and their entrances.” We are friends, lovers, parents, children, siblings, coworkers, teammates and leaders. We know that behavior at a party is quite different from behavior at a funeral. We conduct ourselves accordingly. All the while, we understand that the expectations for us are not entirely generic. Rather, we must do what is appropriate for “us,” as people will judge our behaviors not just in the moments at hand but often in the days or even years that follow. In sum, there are narrow, situational identities as well as broader ones that span our entire lives.
On the one hand then, we try to convince others through various doings and sayings. We may even use “props,” that is, assemblages of settings (perhaps our apartment arranged in a certain way), accoutrements (cars, cell phones, clothing, and so forth) and even smells (such as favored cologne). We may take our friends, dogs, or children along with us to achieve the desired effects. Once again, we want others to think of us in a certain way and, more than that, to consider our performance “sincere.”
There is the other side of it. We are, at the same time, audiences. We observe and judge other people with the intent of discovering whether they are indeed the people they say are, that is, whether they are genuine. Because we cannot read their minds, we have to observe their words and behaviors – or rely on the words and behaviors of others who know them. Effectively, we try to see through the façade they present to us. And we think we do this especially when we catch them out in various slips and errors. Unintentionally, they blurt out something they should have withheld, make an odd joke, or lose control of their emotions. Of special importance are the moments when they think they are “offstage,” presumably out of our view or when they think our attention is diverted elsewhere. We see them, or so we think, in a less guarded form.
In sum, social life consists of carefully managed “impressions.” Goffman’s book (which was a paperback best-seller in 1959) appealed to the emerging white-collar class of that era. In that world, people acknowledged the importance of keeping up appearances, “making friends and influencing people” (as another best-seller had it), and attending to social status in all its manifestations. One kept up with - and ideally ahead of - the Joneses.
Are we so different now? Social life is split into many specialized segments or worlds – economic, social, religious, educational, recreational, and the like. Each requires a certain presentation of self. Add to this the explosion of social media. At such sites, people craft carefully the visions of self – usually happy, surrounded by family and friends, going to exciting places, and so forth – that they want others to see. These “cultural” selves have a permanence our “social” selves lack. Anyone can see them anytime, at least if they have access to the site. Surely, the intention behind such postings is to make us look good. Perhaps new friends, romantic interests, or even potential employers will see the production and think, “This is a winner!”
So our dramatic exploits are not limited to social gatherings, where John or Jane can regard us. Just as radio, movies, television, and computers have changed the scope and character of stagecraft, so we produce ourselves electronically. The “selfie” is as much for others as it is for us.
Goffman’s contention – that we are careful producers of our own images – has dark implications. Are we always so self-conscious and on-guard in our encounters? Are we never truly genuine? Do we manipulate others incessantly to our own ends?
Add to this an even more mordant theme. Do we “present” ourselves even in our private moments? Do we pull in our stomachs before a mirror, study our facial expression, preen and pose? Indeed, is our own self-regard the issue that we treasure most?
Like most theories, Goffman’s may be criticized for over-doing its central theme. Surely, we do not always stand behind the scenes of our own personas, carefully and somewhat dispassionately managing the performance. There are, or so I would contend, times of naturalness and spontaneity. Indeed, and like our drama queens and kings, we can get caught up in our own productions, being both in and out of control at the same ties. Moreover, our involvements have lasting effects. Embarrassment transcends situations: shame may last for years. To sound a happier note, feelings of pride and happiness may persist as well.
I should emphasize also that we can commit ourselves to the support of others – think of the people you really care about – as much as we commit ourselves to more narrowly selfish matters. The cagey, Machiavellian self is only one manifestation of what it means to be human.
Most of us know well what it takes to “make it” in some of our institutional settings. For politicians, corporate executives, and other highly placed people image-control has its value. But the more important theme, for any of us, is integrity of personhood. We should be the persons we say we are, not just as social apparitions but in all the moments of our lives.
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