December 5th, 2006


The presentation of self in everyday life

"When an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them." So begins Erving Goffman's symbolic interactionist classic The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. This 1959 study of how we "perform" ourselves visually for others proposes social interaction as essentially theatrical. The self is a carefully-controlled, artificial construct we perform, taking care to remain consistent and credible. We project ourselves using "impression management" skills which parallel theatrical direction, costumery and "business". But the largely visual nature of these skills means that Goffman could as easily have chosen graphic design as his metaphor.

Wearing an eyepatch certainly makes you think about this stuff -- it's a rather extreme visual statement. But since buying a secondhand wig at a Sunday market and playing with it in public places, I've been thinking about Goffman's ideas some more. We don't just dress to include ourselves in desireable social contexts, he says, or to match those around us. We also dress to exclude, baffle, repel and perplex, to "prevent outsiders from coming into a performance that is not addressed to them".

Perhaps this is why I can weather with equanimity my mother's complaints ("I can't walk down the street with you without feeling embarrassed, Nicholas!"); I know that my rather bizarre self-presentation is just as likely to attract the adventurous as repel the upstanding citizens of Edinburgh's New Town. I was once at a reception for a Robert Rauschenberg show in Washington DC. Everybody there was wearing a boring business suit, except me and Rauschenberg. The artist walked right up to me and said "I've been rather intrigued by this fur waistcoat you're wearing!" We had a short conversation about secondhand clothes shopping. I don't think I'd have dared talk to him otherwise. Luckily my clothes did the talking for me.

But what happens when you concoct a self-presentation for someone else's self? When friends visit Berlin I often take them up to the four-floor Humana charity store at the Frankfurter Tor. Here, for next to nothing, you can assemble new and eccentric looks. These photos show clothes I picked out for an American friend called Sarah when she passed through Berlin. Trying these clothes on (she ended up buying some of them), Sarah became more European, more feminine, more burikko, more playful. The hard, dark, serious and practical style of her American clothes (jeans and t-shirts) gave way to something more ludic, friendly, feminine, soft... and slightly silly.

I wonder if these outfits -- the ones she ended up taking home, anyway -- changed Sarah, or just changed her self-presentation? Was agreeing to try and buy styles I found appealing a mere concession to me and my values, or was it a liberation from cultural habits Sarah was never particularly invested in? How did these looks go down on the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn when she got home? Did the clothes conjur a slightly different parallel world -- a kinder, more playful one, with different gender relations -- and did wearing them, perhaps, force the real world to converge a few centimeters towards it?