When we first meet someone, our conversation follows a pattern. That’s because we’re supposed to be following a social script (it’s so obvious, you can tell what stage in a relationship people are by it). We’re supposed to be pleasant and polite. We’re supposed to be receptive to conversation and not rejecting. We’re supposed to avoid controversial topics. If we do this, other people know how to interact with us, we know how to talk to other people and everything is good (except, that that initial small talk often gets awkward after a while, because people don’t know how to move on).
But another part of this first interaction is that people immediately start to lie to you (kind of). In 1956, Erving Goffman talked about impression management. He noted that, depending on our goal at the time, people will “take a line” (as he puts it) upon first meeting.
This meant that, depending on what we’re hoping to achieve, we’ll present ourselves in a certain light. So, if you’re networking, you’d step out with your business face on. You’d be ‘taking the line’ of a intelligent professional. If you got blindsided by some cute-looking single, you’d ‘take the line’ of a confident and charming virtuoso perhaps (or more likely put your foot firmly in your mouth, if you’re anything like me).
Goffman uses the metaphor of stage to make his point, referring to people as actors and the interactions between people as a performance. And as with any performance, for the ‘act’ to work, the audience must be responsive for there to be success.
So there are two possible outcomes for you when you’re talking to your ‘audience’:
- you go on to accept the other person’s line (in a conversation where you care). Goffman refers to this as ‘giving face’, and it’s an essential part of early conversations. For a conversation to continue, one must allow the other to present themselves in a certain light (and accept that presentation).
- If the other person doesn’t interact with you as you mean them to (called ‘losing face’), then that’ll become a problem.
Makes sense right? Now, I said that people will start to lie to you straight away, but it’s a lie of omission. People emphasise some things while minimising others; putting on a certain ‘face’. Goffman’s theory outlines the fundamental truth that is, we are multifaceted and flexible people, not a single, static entity, and we’re strategic with our identity. We choose the facet we want to portray based on the goal we’re trying to achieve. As Shakespeare put it in Jaques’ monologue:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts”
Or as Goffman did, (and I’m paraphrasing):
All the world is not, of course, a stage”, but when it isn’t who can tell?
Speaking of people lying to you, learn how you lie to yourself everyday (and it’s a good thing). Or learn how it’s easier for lies to convince you if the source is dodgier. Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.