Frontstage / Backstage

Listen on Spotify
Agnes:
Robin.
Robin:
Hello, good evening.
Agnes:
So we both read this book, I mean you read it earlier, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. And you reread it and I read it the first time. And the main thesis of the book is that a lot of socializing is structured by the idea of a frontstage and a backstage so that there's aspects of one's self or one's life that one is presenting to others almost in the– as though you're an actor playing a role. And then there's, you know, what's not visible to others.
And there can be often or typically, you're going to be have teammates. So you may be playing roles together with others. And then there's an audience of people who are themselves are in some sense together. And so a lot of our social lives have this structure. And I mean, I guess one question I had for you about this is, this seems like an alternate way of presenting the idea of signaling, like a different mode of presentation of a lot of the same facts. And so how does it compare from your point of view?
Robin:
Oh, well, first of all, you have to admire it's prestigious. He's giving it a highbrow framing that is, at least, people today and his audience probably thought of plays and actors as prestigious. And so, he's taking what you might have looked down on and might have seen as sullied or dirty, and given this highbrow framing, which helps him sort of treat it from a distance and analytically and not be very critical of it per se, as many people might be tempted to be. That was an admirable, I guess, effect sort of to give people the space to sort of just consider it analytically without moralizing quickly about it.
Agnes:
I agree that he does that. I don't think the acting framing is particularly conducive to that. I mean that is like, you know the word, the hypocrite, that word. Do you know what the etymology of it is?
Robin:
No.
Agnes:
It means actor in Greek. Hippocrates is an actor.
Robin:
Right. Clearly, we've separated those connotations by now.
Agnes:
I mean I think people often use, like, have negative associations with acting like it's false. It's being fake. I have negative associations personally with acting. And I would say like the idea of a signal, right, like your idea, that just sounds like a package of information. It's non valence. So if I– if somebody told me there were two treatments of this phenomenon, and one of them said, "People spend their whole lives acting in front of other people and there's this backstage that they don't show."
And the other one was like, "Well, people are sending all sorts of informational signals and we're not like aware of all the signals that we're sending." I would have said, the second one is the dispassionate and detached one than the first one. But you're right, that's not actually how it plays out. But I don't think it's the framing.
Robin:
Well, so I do agree that just merely sending signals and communicating isn't particularly problematic. It's when there's this conflict between two levels of signals where they don't entirely agree. And that's the degree to which signaling is often sort of, it's an indirect way of communicating something that's often at odds with other things you might say, or at least, you know, there's the interesting question, why did you use this other channel of communication when you could have just said it directly?
And, you know, he does, I mean, the thing I most noticed about the book on reflecting on it was, in comparison with our book, The Elephant in the Brain, was that he talks about people managing an impression. And he does mention that many times that it's an impression that might be false, or that could be seen to be false. And in fact, he more focuses on whether one impression will be at odds with another. And he doesn't really dwell too much on whether it's just a false impression although he could.
But he doesn't, you know, really puzzle over why it is that one would need to hide anything at all. Why can't you just be open and honest about everything? He sort of presumes that there are many secrets that you would need to protect in order to be on stage and he goes with that and talks about various mechanisms by which they might secretly communicate and make sure that they have the same front put together.
But Elephant in the Brain sort of goes in the, you know, the opposite extreme of talking about how you aren't even aware that you're doing these things. And that you might deny that you were doing things if asked and to focus on that conflict. And that's the thing I didn't remember about the book is that it's pregnant or potentially in the book, but he doesn't really highlight that or even sort of clarify that it's really there, that there really is a conflict between what the people might think they're doing and what they're really doing.
Agnes:
I think that he doesn't see a conflict. That is, I think that like in Elephant in the Brain, there's this idea of what's really happening and what you think is happening, where it's clear that you, the authors, are, you know, have come down on the side in terms of, well, you say that you want, you know, are interested in this person's health, but really, you just want to show them that you care, something like that. That's what's really happening. Right.
And I think that it's not like, Goffman doesn't think of what's happening backstage as what's really happening. He just thinks there's two things happening. There's a frontstage and a backstage. And...
Robin:
He does say that you're more natural or authentic or yourself backstage. He gives that sort of a characterization but he doesn't emphasize it that much.
Agnes:
You know, there's that passage with like, there's a bunch of quotes Simone de Beauvoir a lot, a bunch of times, and about how women are, like, more themselves with other women, but then they're performing with the men. And I thought, well, there was one place where he was sort of saying, like, yes, a lot of women just feel more alive and better when they're performing. And that, in some sense, is more real for them. Right? So it's not obvious to me that he was coming down there on the idea that the backstage is more natural or more authentic.
Robin:
He does have many specific examples of sort of deception being involved, I mean like talk about a doctor recommends you to a specialist and doesn't acknowledge that there might be a kickback involved. Or, he talks about how a service workers would be pleasant and subservient to you and then insult you and make fun of you out of– offstage.
Agnes:
Yeah, but I think even in those passages, he's like, he wants to be very clear. It's not clear that what they really think is the insulting, like, the insulting is a culture that they're in over there. Right? And like, I don't think he sees the doctor thing as deception. I think he's just, they're not telling you this.
So, here's one phrase that he uses a couple of times that I found tantalizing that I wished he would have explained better. He talks about what's happening backstage is focused on achieving technical standards, that there's something technical that was happening backstage, and there's something performative or impression management or something, or expressive about the frontstage. Right?
So you might say, he seems to divide human life into these two functions that he thinks has to operate separately from one another, the technical and the expressive. I don't think he thinks of one is more real than the other. But I think it's interesting that he sees them as divided. And I wasn't sure what he meant by technical.
Robin:
Well, so, at the very beginning, there's this idea that the group of people is managing an impression. So you and I are teachers, and he has examples where teachers have a certain persona with respect to the students, and they need to maintain that and part of that is the distance. And so, if we were to open with ourselves, say, a therapist does something similar, you know, where they asked you about your personal life, and if you probe their personal life, they say, "No, we don't go there. That's not what this relationship is about."
And, you know, in some sense, Goffman is saying that's true for a lot of other relationships that when you're performing, other aspects of yourself are to be suppressed and not expressed, and that that's part of the thing, and so that a few, you know, you'll have to conspire to keep that going. And you may at times want to relent, and then your co-conspirator teammates will pressure you and help you maintain the facade.
And then backstage is where you are sort of being more natural with each other, but working together about the facade, sort of, you know, strategizing about the facade, talking about the audience on the other side, if you were to go frontstage. And so, that's at least his initial framing is that backstage is where you, who are maintaining the facade, consider more directly, talk to each other and relax and sort of do various things that maintain this boundary, and watch out for people who aren't supposed to be back there and having to put on the facade suddenly if people come backstage.
Agnes:
But I also think the backstage isn't just about managing the frontstage. That is, there is real work that needs to be done, right?
Robin:
Right.
Agnes:
So one way that he puts it is expression versus action. That is there's a trade-off between expression and action. And he has a really interesting point early on about that there are certain jobs where that trade-off doesn't show up, because the job itself is very dramatic. So like firefighters, and like musicians and surgeons. And he says, if you look at what kids want to be when they grow up, it's always one of those jobs. And that's because those are the jobs where the very doing of the job is a performance, right?
And that's different from say, a teacher, the teacher has the prep, like class prep, right, that they're doing, where they're preparing the lecture, and then you give the lecture. And there's a separation between the prep, which is the backstage and the giving of the lecture, right? And that's one without a team, you're just, you know, yourself. And what's happening backstage is not, I mean, it's not just like impression management, like, you're actually doing the actual work of thinking.
Robin:
So his favorite example is the restaurant, I think.
Agnes:
Yeah. Right. We were actually cooking the food.
Robin:
So, it gets mileage, right. So the impression management is like, the space in which you are served the food and you're asked about the food, and you eat the food. And then there's the kitchen where the food is made and disposed of. And the idea is that people eating food and asking for it don't want to see how it's made. And even though they know abstractly that that happens, they would rather it happen offstage. And therefore, the technical works have to happen off stage.
And that's true about many kinds of things. You can think about building maintenance or something, right? In our buildings, behind the walls, there's all sorts of pipes and wires, and all sorts of things. And then between the floors, there are people whose job it is to sort of go in the back rooms and the back panels and manage, change the light bulbs, et cetera. And we don't want to see that. And so, the custodial work is in some sense backstage work, because the frontstage of the clean office has to have somebody clean it once in a while but we don't want to see that and so it happens when we're say gone home for the day.
Agnes:
Right. So every kind of work that like basically, it's like, you do some kind of work and there is– there is the work component and there's this sort of communicative component or something.
Robin:
OK.
Agnes:
You have to manage both of those things. And I just think it's really interesting that he sort of solves this puzzle that I've had. I think you've mentioned it, like why do kids want certain jobs? Right? There are certain jobs that appeal...
Robin:
Like musician and athlete, but I mean musicians spend most of their time practicing, and athletes spend most of their time practicing and the game itself or the performance itself is only a small fraction of all their efforts. But maybe it's just that the practicing is close to the performance. And...
Agnes:
I think that, yeah, I think that that's right, and that, at the very least we don't think of the practicing as having to be like as hidden or like, ugly in some way. Or like cheating, or– and maybe that's not true. And maybe there are things that– but we don't think of it that way. And so, it may be that this idea that acting like that social life separates into these two components of acting and expressing is alien to children. It's something you have to learn, right? And children, it's true are not very performative, I think. They often will misbehave. And he talks about this, right? They'll misbehave– you can't allow– you don't allow the child to come into certain spaces until they're old enough to know that they're supposed to perform, which young children don't know they're supposed to perform, right?
Like young children don't know that, like when you have guests over, we want you kids to make us look good and so we want you to like behave well, right? A baby's not going to behave well. So this thing, this very thing that the Goffman is talking about, about frontstage versus backstage is not something we intuitively get as like babies or young children, we have to learn it. And so the jobs that are going to show up as appealing to children are going to be ones that don't require one yet to have mastered this distinction.
Robin:
I think there's a further part, which is that we often have idealized concepts of an activity and the backstage somewhat belies that ideal. So I was thinking about, say, if you see someone giving a passionate speech, and then if you saw them practicing the speech, you might see them sort of throwing each line with different emphasis on different words. And then you might realize that the emphasis they had in the speech wasn't spontaneously representing the emotions that are trying to be conveyed that it was all very carefully planned. And that might be, you know, on reflection, you might realize, I guess that's how it goes. But it sort of takes away this myth that the speaker is just this passionate, smart person who is telling you these things that come to his mind.
Agnes:
Yeah, so that's one of the things Goffman talks about is that there's this sort of conceit that every performance is unique or is spontaneous, or like, I can't remember what the right word, right?
Robin:
Right.
Agnes:
But it's like, there would be a problem if you found out that the conversation the shopkeeper was having with you was the exact one she has with every single person who comes in there.
Robin:
He talks very specifically about, say, a maitre d' or some host at the entrance of a place who might go out of the way say, "Oh, it's so great to see you. I haven't seen you in a long time. How are the kids?" And go through this big performance as if you were a special person. And then if you saw them do that to the next five people in a row, you might not find it so special. And so they have to have a special room where they can do this special performance just for you to give you the illusion that you're being treated differently.
Agnes:
Yeah. So I wonder I mean that, I wonder what that– why that's the case that is... and one answer might be that that's actually a meta fact, which is that in addition to the existence of these performances, we also somehow want to believe that they're not happening. And so we have to– we want to think that this is actually natural, spontaneous behavior, and that this speech wasn't rehearsed, and that there was no backroom and that there was no backstage and this is his backstage. And that's on top of the other requirements. And there could be cases where we don't have that requirement.
Robin:
So there's this classic speech technique, right? You must have seen it before, where somebody gets up there to give a speech, and they pause and their eyes drip with tears, and they take the speech and they set it aside. And they say, "I had a speech I was going to give, but now I'm just going to speak from the heart."
Agnes:
Right.
Robin:
Which is a speech they probably planned.
Agnes:
Right. But so like, like I have– I don't know, gone high ropes course, I have gone to high ropes course with my kids. And at the beginning of the high ropes course, they give you this set of instructions about how to do the clipping and all that. And every time– and I've done it, a number of times, they have to give you the instructions every time even if you've heard it before. And it's the same every time. And I know by heart now, because we've done it a bunch of times.
And that's fine. I don't expect it to be a fresh speech or something. I'm fine with the idea that there's just a canned safety speech they have to get, right? So in that context, I'm not expecting innovation, I'm not expecting personalization, I'm fine with the idea that canned safety speech that just shows up the same every time. Yet, in other contexts, we're not. So the question is, when do we need this personalization?
Robin:
So I just realized this intersects with a big interest area of mine, which is all the various professionals in our lives, and how we pay them, or how we incentivize them to be reliable and useful service people for us, right? And so, I've been interested in all the different ways we could give them incentive contracts, like a contingent fee for a lawyer, or to merge health and life insurance. And I've noticed that a lot people are just generally not that interested in various ways that their professionals could become more incentivized. And it's in part because they like the image being presented, that these professionals just like us, and they are just professionals and they have some professional sense of themselves. And that's the thing that will make them be trustworthy.
And so, they go with that, right? They try to present this concept of themselves as someone who is very dedicated to their professional ethics and their professional norms. And that they just kind of like us, and that, you know, they will do well by us because they like us, and because they're professionals. And that's a frontstage, right? And they have to coordinate to manage that for it to show like, you know, the example of the doctor getting a kickback from a specialist that undermines that professional liking you frontstage.
And in some sense many of our commercial relationships, I think are somewhat misleading. And that this is a, in some sense, a valid Marxist criticism, if you like, that many kinds of commercial relationships in the modern economy, people are presenting themselves as more trustworthy than they really are. And we kind of like that, we like that pretense, and we like to sort of feel like we're in that world.
Agnes:
I mean, I just I think Goffman would say it's not pretense, and there's no deception involved here. There's just a– so a phrase he uses a lot in the beginning of the book though, that he's– he goes on is the definition of the situation, right? So you think that's what you're doing. That's what the appearance management is, you're projecting a definition of the situation. And I think he thinks in some sense, you're like, you're creating the definition, but it's not you're redefining or something, it's like, this is what you're providing for people.
And so imagine that just people are kind of lost, they're just like wandering around in the world, they don't know what to do. And what we do is we're like, "Look, it's OK, I'm going to give you a definition of the situation that we're in, I'm going to ask something, and then you'll see where, how the world is where we stand." And, you know, if you think like, that's a very basic function that people have for one another, that's just part of what it is to get along at all. Then, like the thought– well, but not everything is included in the definition of the situation. You haven't given every single fact. It's like, of course not. Right? It wouldn't be defined. It wouldn't be limited, if it were everything, right?
So if I'm a doctor... so imagine I'm a doctor, right? And I walk up to you, and I'm like, "Let me tell you everything." Or say, "Everything I know, which every course..." You're, no, no, no. Look, I need you to just present–I need to know what this interaction is. And I'm like, "OK, let me play doctor." And that's what you want from me.
Robin:
So it's clear that we will want a limited stereotyped relationship with each kind of person we're with. But there's also the question of which kind of relationship it is. So, for many kinds of people, when we buy things from those who are low class, we feel entitled and even obligated to be skeptical about their claims to us about what they might be selling us at a flea market or something.
Somebody says that this will help us and we say, "How do I know that'll help us?" And then we want them to sort of prove something about it. And we feel entitled to sort of haggle about the price or something. And then there are these high-status relationships, like with your lawyer or your doctor. And because of their status, that framing makes us less willing to challenge them to renegotiate the price, or to ask for evidence of effectiveness. And that's the part I would say is somewhat deceptive in the sense that, I don't think it's actually true that they're being high prestige people means that you can trust them more or that you shouldn't feel as entitled to renegotiate the price.
Agnes:
That might literally just be what it means for them to be high prestige of those two things. That's all there is. The analytics, that yes, you can trust them more and yes, you shouldn't feel free to negotiate the price. That's all there is.
Robin:
Well, I mean trusting isn't analytic, I think by definition thing, right? Trust is– the question is, are they trustworthy? If we trust them, will they...
Agnes:
For Goffman, that has a definite– like that has a meaning, right? And it's like, are they going to be good at maintaining this front? That is, can they sustain it? Will it break? Will the performance fit? That's the meaning.
Robin:
Well, so then the question is, when you're hiring a lawyer, did you actually want to win the case, or did you just want to go through the "I hired a lawyer” performance? Or, when you hire a doctor, did you actually want to get well? Or did you just want to have the "I had a doctor meeting, you know, visit” performance, right? And that's, for a lot of these things. When you went to the restaurant, did you just want to have a restaurant performance, or did you want the food to taste good?
Agnes:
Right. And I guess Goffman would say, "Look, I just wrote a whole book showing you a lot of evidence that what people want is the performance in a lot of these cases." And that may be because– so you want to ask, OK, when do we want performances? And when do we just want like to buy a cheap thing, right? And you might say, "Well, there are certain parts of life where that feeling of being at sea is like very, very destabilizing, or very significant or something. And so then we need there to be more stability provided by the acting, right? And so that's going to be like when our lives are at stake.
Robin:
Right. Go for the restaurant, though. I mean, your life isn't at stake at the restaurant. And in principle, if it was just the performance, they wouldn't actually have to bring out any food you actually ate. You just bring out the same plate with colorful, you know, interesting smelling things, and you didn't touch it, you would just admire it, and then you would leave. Right? So clearly, the reason why there's all the backstage parts is that you do want more than just the performance otherwise, there wouldn't be a backstage efforts, right? They wouldn't be cooking back there, right? Unless you are– in addition to wanting the performance, you actually wanted the food?
Agnes:
Yes, in none of these cases, you just want the performance. That is no one is satisfied with mere performance. But I think it's very clear that when people go to restaurants, like why does so few people go to restaurants by themselves? Right? It's because we're not there for the food, we're there for certain kind of performance. And the food is a necessary condition. It has to be...
Robin:
And this is what connects us now to The Elephant in the Brain. So now the thesis here is closer to the thesis of The Elephant in the Brain about our hidden motives, right? Because now we're asking, what are the motives of the audience with respect to this performance?
Agnes:
And I guess one question is like, why think of it as hidden? That is, you know, if you ask the person, why do you go to restaurants? They might well say like the food or something, right? They might not well– they might well not have a full account of this performance thing. But you still might say like, well, you know, when you're presenting it to yourself in this context or being asked about it, then you're presenting it in this way. Like, why think of it as no, you somehow deceived yourself about what's going on.
Robin:
Well, so for the restaurant, you might think you are somewhat honest about it. But when we get to examples, like going to school or going to the doctor, or giving to charity, then we get bigger conflicts between the story people will tell about why they're doing it, and perhaps what seems to be a better explanation from their performative audience behavior.
So, if you tell people, "You know what? On average, people go to the doctor more, they're not any healthier." And that shocks people, they find that very hard to believe. They, if you ask them, you know, aren't you going to the doctor because they've got the gray walls and the pastel, and that makes you feel its authoritative? And they, you know, they deny that they care very much about that.
Agnes:
Right. I mean, I guess I think, you know, they do think that the doctor is going to help them be healthier. And... but they want the person who's making them healthier, it's very important to them to be able to trust that person. Whereas the person they're buying stuff from at the flea market, it's not important to them, that they're able to trust that person. And that difference, do you care about trusting the person or not? That's them understanding that this is a performance context.
Robin:
So let's watch the phrase you said, "Able to trust." Now previously, you would just define trust as sort of the having the performative relationship.
Agnes:
Yeah.
Robin:
In which case, there's no question about able to trust. So that it suggests that they are, in fact, trusting on the basis of the performance. And so that's saying there's something behind the scenes, they're trying to infer from the visible performance they see. And that may be in fact, a mistaken inference. That is, they may not be actually getting the trustworthy behavior that they are seeking from the surface behavior that they are using as the sign of what to trust.
Agnes:
Right. But like, so there's a question of what would they count as the breakdown. And like, at least Goffman has the sense of like, it's pretty specific, what is the breakdown, and it's the breakdown of the performance, right? So like, if the doctor let it be known that he was giving the kickbacks to the surgeon or whatever, right, that would be a breakdown on the performance. And so...
Robin:
Or the lawyer just doing as many hours of work as they can to build per hour, even if those extra hours are not useful for winning the case, that would also be a breakdown. And might in fact, be true that the lawyer is building as many hours as they can, regardless of how useful they are to the case. But you take the oak mahogany setting and the leather chairs and the wall of books, all in the same color backing, and their fancy suit and haircut as a sign that you can trust them not to do that.
Agnes:
I suspect it's not just that you can take it as a sign to trust them, right? It also cues them into what kind of performance they have to do, right? And they have to do a performance where you will never discover certain things about them. And it's super important that you never discover those things. And in general, the best way to ensure that is not to do those things. Now, maybe occasionally, they can cut some corners with some of these things. But there are standards here, there's professionalism, right? That's the performance. And that's going to mean they actually do the work for you. They look at those leather things, and they're like, "I better work. I'm in this like leather lined, whatever. I've got all these cues that I have..."
Robin:
But I don't see why we should assume that last part of it, that is that they would do the work effectively or efficiently. They may just, you know, they may help with your case, but they may also do a lot of extra stuff that they can bill for. So like think of the con man or con woman sort of scenario, right? A con person is putting on a performance and then they are getting you to go along with their performance. And they are getting you to trust them. And then, you know, supposedly you shouldn't have been trusting them.
And of course, the best con is one where the marks never find out. They never realized they were conned, right? Somebody sells you a fake painting for example, you know, that was not the actual artist it says at the signature. Now, if you never know it was a fake painting. That's the best con of all. Now, would we say that's a valid performance as long as you never figure it out?
Agnes:
Yeah, I was looking because I know that there's a place where he discusses con man, but I just can't find it. I mean, I think that – I guess I think that there's like a, there's almost like a meta performance where it's like all of these performances are not just performance, right? Like we couldn't have it all fall apart, like, so if everybody is doing their role, and everyone is playing their part and like, there are no embarrassing gaps and whatever, then everything is going to get done in society.
So it's almost like, it's like we're playing a game of society, right? And we have to make everybody know that we're playing the game society. And like in society, there are doctors, and there are lawyers. And you might say, but like, what if I'm like a kind of radical skeptic? And I'm wondering, maybe everyone's going to be really good at playing the roles, but they're not actually going to be doing any of the things. And that's sort of your role, Robin, is to be the skeptic and to be like, what if we're all just playing society? And Goffman is not skeptical in that way. He's like, we're playing society and it works– it's a game, works pretty well. We're all really doing most of this stuff, like a lot of it has to go to like showing each other that we're doing.
Robin:
So at some level, he is accepting the collective performance of all of us pretending like we're all getting stuff done.
Agnes:
Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Robin:
We could connect this to sort of the recent Russian army performance, because it apparently seems like the Russian army was playing army. And militaries, when they're not at war can do all the usual performance of polishing their tanks and doing some marches and making sure you see rows of rifles or whatever. But when a war actually happens, you might find they're not actually any good at it. They can't actually fight the war. And you don't know that until you actually turn it on.
So there are many kinds of things we trust that we don't get feedback frequently. And only every once in a while, will we actually see the test. And you could say that's roughly true of doctors, in the sense that most of the time, your, whatever medical problems you have are pretty minor. Every once in a while, there could be a big, tough thing and that'll be very rare. And it'll be too late if after that, you'll learn that they weren't any trustworthy.
And so in some sense, you know, the biggest problem of trusting society is when we're, you know, when a rare thing happens. So we could talk about covid, you can say, all the public health experts acted like they were all in control and understood things. And then we got a pandemic, and when they fumbled, didn't quite know what to do and change their mind a lot and took a long time to get on track. Well, that was sort of revealing that their performance was not what it was supposed to be.
Agnes:
Yeah, I mean, I was, you know, one thing that puzzled me about that whole thing, when everyone is like criticizing the public health experts. It's like, I didn't have an antecedent standard for how should they react in a pandemic. Like, I doubt that was the worst-case scenario, right? But it's probably not the best-case scenario. And it's probably pretty hard to figure out what to do in a pandemic, even if you're a public health expert. And like, if you're even if your mom is a doctor, right, and she occasionally comes across cases where it's really hard to figure out what to do.
Robin:
Right. Basic things like all the experts initially saying, "No, no, nobody needs masks. Masks are just for experts." And then changing their mind saying, "No, everybody needs masks." And you think like, surely masks would have been a thing you guys have thought about before, you know, this isn’t the first possible application of masks. People used masks in the 1918 pandemic, I mean, you know so...
Agnes:
But like think about how we are where we are now, OK, two years later with masks. What do we know about how much masks prevent covid or not, right?
Robin:
Well, that means we don't know, which means at the beginning, they didn't know either, which means they should have admitted they don't know. And part of the performance is to present they know more than they do. And so that's common for all of these things.
Agnes:
It's not at all obvious that what they should have done is admitted they don't know. I mean, imagine, right? Imagine with the beginning of pandemic and all the public health experts like, "We have no clue. We're as lost as you are." I mean, you know, is that... would we all have been better off? I mean you wouldn't be less self-deceived or something.
Robin:
So that's a standard rationale for... Right. So that's the standard rationale for authorities, like keeping regular people in the dark is that you know, the people would panic, right? And we certainly saw that rationale offered in the pandemic is that we have to pretend like we know what we're doing and give authoritative confident advice. And that's a standard thing doctors do by the way. Doctors are way overconfident in their diagnosis and their prognosis. And that's a well-known statistic but they say, well, that's just what those stressed out patients need is they need somebody who's confident to tell them what to do.
Agnes:
And like, at least let's say this, right? You know, one thing one can dispute is like how much doctors should over represent their knowledge? And maybe you think the answer is zero, but like that, it seems like an empirical question, like maybe that would just be too problematic. Maybe this is over represented by a little bit and then they might overshoot, right? But I think Goffman's thought is like, well, look, if your thought is there's just been no performance, then you're just underrating the degree to which people are lost in the game of life and they need some guidance and they need these performances.
Robin:
So now, we're getting to the core thing, right? So the key question here is, why have we divided the world into these frontstage and backstages?
Agnes:
Yes.
Robin:
Why don't we want to see the backstage? One story is it's our sort of sensibilities like, you know, maybe they kill the chicken backstage. We don't want to see them kill the chicken. And so, you know that's why the kitchen is backstage or something or, you know, that we don't want to see how the sausage is made. It's ugly. And that they're just saving us from ugly things. But another theory is that they are hiding the fact that they aren't as trustworthy as they let on and we are giving them too much of the benefit of the doubt.
Agnes:
I think it's something else. I don't think it's either one of those things. I think it's that... have you ever tried to cook with your kids? OK. You discover...
Robin:
They're very helpful, huh?
Agnes:
Yeah, everything takes 10 times as long and they make this huge mess. And suddenly, you're like, you realize you have to like, explain everything that you're doing. And all those things were like intuitive to you. But you didn't necessarily have like a fear. You don't even notice you were doing. You're like, "No, no, don't do that. Don't take the splinter, just put on the counter." All of a sudden, you have to say all this stuff, right? So there's expressing cooking, there's like communicating cooking, right? That's one thing. And there's cooking. That's another thing.
And they're just really different. And they put different demands on you. And it's not because when I'm cooking, there's a bunch of stuff I want to hide from other people. It's just how I cook efficiently is that I'm not at every moment, also trying to communicate cookery to other people around me, right? And so that's an interesting fact about human activity, that the communicative direction and the efficiency direction, don't pull in the same thing. And it's not because of anything about deception.
Robin:
So, there are many restaurants who show you the kitchen, right? They put a glass, they don't let you talk to the– or they don't let you talk or interrupt the cooks. Right? There's usually a glass wall there and so...
Agnes:
Nowadays. This is a new thing.
Robin:
Right.
Agnes:
But yes.
Robin:
A new thing, right? And so it's interesting that they, they cut off that communication problem but they let you see the cooking happening. And that many people like that sort of backstage connection. And one of the things in the book that just struck me because it echoes last week's topic, was talking about how on ships, old day ships, there was this norm that in the galley, you could say anything you want, and there were no status distinctions. And that that was an important way that sort of rumors, you know, and tensions would be relieved. So that you might think the galley is kitchen, and you want to need the keep the frontstage-backstage distinction. And of course, there's the officers and the lower deck people. And they will need to keep that distinction.
And the idea was that, well, we need a place where the distinction isn't kept. Where then they can treat each other as equals in that one place. And they, you know, and one of the marks of that back room equal treating place is free speech. There was a norm that if you said something– if you insulted an officer in the galley, he shouldn't take it out on you up on deck later on. Whatever was said there was to be kept separate from all the other decks. And that is kind of an interesting metaphor for the norm of free speech. It's sort of a very vivid, concrete example of sort of the norm that you shouldn't have consequences elsewhere for what's set in a certain kind of forum.
Agnes:
Right. So that– I mean, if we take that as our model, then the idea of public free speech is a contradiction in terms, right? It's like, "Look, if you want to talk about this stuff, go find your little separate galley, find a safe space."
Robin:
The question is, what the function of it being public or private is, for the galley. So you know, apparently, these galleys, lots of people could show up there, and then people would gossip about it. So I mean, part of the story was that, in that section was that on a ship like that, there's really nothing you ever could say that could be really kept that private, because almost everything will be overheard. And because of that, you didn't have these private spaces where you could say things and so, that's one of the functions of the galley was to be a space where you could say, private like things, and the norm was you treated that differently.
Agnes:
Right. But the point is it substitutes for private space, right? And so like people who want free speech free from consequences, they want public spaces to be like that, which will be frontstage, they want frontstage and so that's like wanting frontstage to be backstage. So that was...
Robin:
I think it's not entirely crazy in the sense that in most of these cases, you might say, you know, what they– the problem is like insulting people and things you might say about other people personally. And what people want about the public stage is that for them to talk about public issues and not to be talking about each other personally there. And they want a norm where you can just be abstract and that's OK, we're not going to treat each other personally. They're on the basics of what we say abstractly there. But I'm not sure how much it really helps us understand frontstage versus backstage. But it was an interesting sort of function there that sometimes we need that.
And so, another thing I guess Goffman said was that a servant, for example, or a person with a servant would be somewhat distant, and you know, pretend like they aren't there, and then treat them emotionally distantly, except when they really wanted a favor. And then to get a favor, they would then become more personal. And so they would overcome sort of the– you know, they would step out of the distant relationship role in order to make an appeal for something that is beyond the usual request. And that's kind of interesting how... it's like the old thing about, you know, worlds where say, you know, you never see a woman's ankle. And then when you see a woman's naked ankle, it's very erotic or something.
In a world where you're not very personal with people, then the rare exceptions can feel very personal. And there's something to that of, you know, if everybody's very chummy and casual with each other, then there's nothing so special about being back in the kitchen with the other staff and being very chummy and casual with each other. And that– so, you know, there's the issue of what's happening over the last half century or so as we become more casual, and we've reduced these distinctions between front and back stages. And, you know, it might be that this is because we've become more egalitarian or more intolerant of what we see as hypocrisy. But, you know, an interesting cost is that it's less special when we are personal and, you know, take off our shoes, because we're always taking off our shoes, and we're always special.
Agnes:
Yeah, good, to me, which we're being specific as you and I have talked about this, but not on this podcast that one of the big takeaways for both of us with Goffman is that he gives us a way of talking about a change, a big sociological change that seems to have happened, since you know, when was this book written, in 1950 or something?
Robin:
'54, I think.
Agnes:
OK. I mean, it was already underway. But the people described as like, we're less formal, or more casual, but I think it's the full breadth of the phenomenon is actually best captured by thinking about frontstage, you know, backstage goes on stage or something that this distinction is collapsing. And that stuff that used to be backstage is now frontstage. And that's everything from you know, there's questions about whether doctors should wear white coats. People wear very, you know, more similar clothes at home and how work people are working from home. People don't use formal titles as much. People– even the language on the news, like the articulations and whatever are less different, right?
I once dated a German guy who, you know, there was this big thing of like, at home, they spoke dialect, but his dad at like school would speak to high German, right? So two different languages almost that you know, are the frontstage and the backstage. So there were all these very rich different frontstage-backstage situations that are somewhat breaking down. And we are– I think we're also more inclined to see the frontstage-backstage distinction in the way that you do as hypocrisy, deception, lying and, like many of Goffman's examples, he seems sort of charmed by it. He seems delighted by the performance. He entertained by it. That's his basic response. He quotes a lot of literary examples.
And like so one that we discussed was like this example where these girls in a dorm would let the phone ring a bunch of times so that the other girls would know that they were sought after. And I think a modern version of this, it would be like, oh, what a, you know, superficial and performative or whatever act. But I think Goffman, I don't think he passes judgment on it. And so part of it is like, these things are breaking down partly because we're inclined to see the idea of there being stuff backstage that you don't want to bring front stage as false or fake or deceptive, as opposed to just there just being two different roles.
Robin:
So, one of the things we had discussed previously was maybe the hypothesis that quite often, frontstage and backstage is layered with a relative status. And that we are asserting these relative statuses by managing this distinction. And without that distinction, it's harder to assert status. And we are therefore left with fewer status markers and maybe that's what we want. And maybe then we resent each frontstage-backstage as another sort of excuse to have status markers. And if we are asked to endorse it, we are seen as endorsing extra status markers that maybe we don't need.
Agnes:
Right.
Robin:
So if a caddy at the golf course has to wear a special caddy clothes, maybe I would feel embarrassed, I say, "Fine. I need a caddy. Let him be there. But let him wear whatever clothes he wants."
Agnes:
Yeah, yeah.
Robin:
Because I feel bad that somehow, you know, I'm asserting my higher status at his lower status expense, because I make him wear caddy clothes.
Agnes:
Right. Like taxis are another good example. Right? Like, I think that, you know...
Robin:
No taxi caps, I've never seen any Uber driver wearing a taxi cap.
Agnes:
Exactly, like Uber and Lyft are, are the frontstage goes backstage version of like, I–we were driving, I don't know, from the airport – to the airport a couple days ago. And it was when my nine-year-old learned for the first time this was someone's car, like this was just the guy's car who's driving it. And he wouldn't believe me. And I had to say like four different ways. I'm like... He's like, "Well, he's driving the car." I'm like, "No, no, this is just his car that he owns that we're..." because I was I was telling him like, don't put your feet on the seat. This is someone's car." And he's like, "What? Someone's..." I'm like, "No, no, this is just this guy. He just owns this car. And he's just..." And he couldn't believe we're just going to get in a car which is just someone's car. Right?
And I think I would have been very shocked as an, I don't know, teenager or something, to think like, it's like a taxi is like, OK, I'll get in it. Because it's an official car to drive you places. But just getting in someone's personal car, it seems like hitchhiking, like I would have thought I will never catch on because that'll be like hitchhiking. So, I think Uber and Lyft like they couldn't have caught on 50 years ago, even if we you know, somehow had the techno– the smartphones. But...
Robin:
They make them wear a cap and a special– at a special place of the car or something.
Agnes:
Yeah, yeah. OK. OK. Right.
Robin:
It wouldn't be that expensive. But yeah, they would have made them, or maybe put a special like, often they have these little things you put on the top of a cab, a special little, you know, light on top, and they maybe they would have made them put that there just now it becomes officially a cab with the light on top.
Agnes:
Right. So maybe there would have been a workaround. But in any case, like I feel like now is the time for that. And...
Robin:
So I felt, I tweeted this, I think a while ago, like six months ago or something, I went to some big fancy hotel. And you know, there were– not only were the staff wearing sort of hotel uniforms, but the staff were all wearing masks, and everybody else was not. That was part of the distinction of roles and the stage right. And I felt bad for them, all these people working hard having to wear masks and the rest of us not wearing masks. And I guess I would have a similar reaction if they thought the clothing they had to wear to do the work was uncomfortable. Because I might think, "Well, I don't want you to be uncomfortable. Sure I need these things done. But you know, wear whatever is comfortable." And so...
Agnes:
Right. So you're a creature of your time, mainly, you object to this performance, right? And...
Robin:
So, sometimes people ask me, why don't I have a tweed jacket as a professor, right?
Agnes:
People have asked you that? No one's ever asked me that.
Robin:
Once upon a time, that was a tradition, many professors had their own sort of clothing as to distinguish their roles. And now, you know, basically they don't almost no one really wears professor clothes.
Agnes:
Right. Right.
Robin:
And I think I would feel a little off. So the main time people wear clothes is at job talk, right? They wear job talk clothes.
Agnes:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, exactly.
Robin:
But otherwise, they're just wearing ordinary clothes. And I would think somebody who sort of walked around wearing professor clothes and labeling that way, I would feel – they would feel a little awkward.
Agnes:
Right. So in fact, there's now like, controversy over should you wear a suit for a job talk? And I think you can just get, there'll be someone who responds to you negatively if you do, and there'll be somebody who responds to you negatively, if you don't. Because if you do that's like, oh, you know, you're doing this performance, you know. And if you don't, it's like, well, it's a job talk. Right? So I think we're at the middle stage where you can't win.
But eventually, probably that will go away and people won't wear suits for job talks. But it's interesting, if you think about it, it's like, if we had been living 70 years ago, we would have been like, of course, we got to wear the professor clothes. And so we – this is a new thing. It's a new psychological phenomenon, this feeling that you have where it's like the waitstaff at the hotel shouldn't have to wear uniforms. Like that would have been so bizarre. I think people is like, "What do you mean they shouldn't have? That's what they are, it's waitstaff, of course, they have to wear the uniforms."
But it's like the idea that there is a communicative role that they have to play that is part of their job and for weights, you know, the percent of your job that is, right? It's a functionable kind of job. So, if you're a waitstaff, right, that's a big percent of your job. If you're the cook, that's like a small percent of your job. If you're a professor, it's like a pretty big percent of your job.
Robin:
So there are many events, if I'm at and I look around, I say, who works here? like who's an official person I could ask in an official capacity? And then I want them to be wearing something distinctive. So I can find them easily and distinguish them, right?
Agnes:
Right.
Robin:
Or, like, there's a reception and somebody is walking around, you know, giving out drinks, and they should wear something distinctive so I can look around and find where to get a drink, or order for something, right? So there are cases where it's actually functionally useful for them to look different.
Agnes:
Right, right, or in a store, if it's like Home Depot, and you want to know works there so you can ask direction.
Robin:
Exactly, right.
Agnes:
Right. But I guess I think that it was functionally useful, like, you know, the, like the doctor wearing a white coat. First of all, nowadays, like, more people wear white coats, like even nursing staff wear white coats, right? So the white coat is not useful for distinguishing the doctor from a nurse if you wanted to draw that distinction.
Robin:
But it does might distinguish a medical professional say, so a pharmacist might wear a white coat, and a veterinarian would wear a white coat and things like that. So they're trying to say, I'm a medical professional, I'm keeping clean and a way you can verify that I'm clean, and that sort of thing.
Agnes:
Right. But like, how often is that useful information that you actually need like as opposed to a certain kind of reassurance?
Robin:
I realized that a while ago, I came across this issue in thinking about Halloween costumes. So kids like Halloween costumes. And on Halloween, sort of they inhabit this imaginary world where different kinds of people wear different kinds of clothes. And it's not just that it simplifies the world. It's in some sense, more interesting world.
So if you think about a classic fantasy world, we often have fantasy worlds where these different kinds of people, like they may be different races or different classes, but they're often different professions. And they're often like have different professions like live together and teach– learning things together and they wear distinctive clothes, and they have different slogans, and they sing different songs, and they have a loyalty oath that they pledged to each other. And a lot of people sort of find that very appealing. That's part of the appeal, I think of Halloween is this idea that you put on this costume, and then you become this person. That is you can inhabit this persona more vividly by putting on a costume and you can imagine, you put on the pirate costume and you're a pirate, right? Now you can talk like a pirate and imagine being swarthy like a pirate, greedily eating your soup like a pirate might.
And you'd like to have this whole package of lifestyle features that would go together by wearing a particular thing and that people would accept that from you. If they saw you wearing the pirate costume, they saw you behaving that way, they would accept that from you. And we've given that up in some sense, that is people wear distinctive things, but they don't have all these other distinctive styles that go with the distinctive thing. That...
Agnes:
Right. Like the waiter that Goffman quotes where there's a whole performance, there's a whole mode of like, civility that he's playing. And, and you might say, "Oh, I feel bad that he has to do that." But maybe he liked that. Like, he liked playing...
Robin:
He became somebody.
Agnes:
Yeah, he became– exactly, exactly. So I think that's the thing. When I was saying the definition of the situation, there's that becomes somebody where it's like, we're inclined to take for granted that everybody is somebody, right? But imagine you didn't start with that. Imagine you're like, nobody has any idea who anybody is. And then Goffman is like, it's OK, because we're going to have these roles that we play, and that's a way for people to be somebody, right? And there's that wonderful quote from a novel, where the guy is at the beach, right? And do you remember that one at the very beginning where there's like this... what's his name? He's at the beach and he is performing going into the water of the beach.
Robin:
Oh yeah, yeah, right. right, exactly.
Agnes:
And he's performing in front of like, the men, other beachgoers
Robin:
Purdy or something.
Agnes:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Purdy.
Robin:
Purdy, that's right.
Agnes:
Like for instance, he's pretending not to see the other beach goers, right, as though the beach was empty, his eyes are sort of on the horizon. And he has this fake nonchalance and distrust, right? And it's like, what that's the whole thing he's doing is he's someone at the beach, right? He's playing the role of someone. And if he weren't doing that, he'd be no one.
Robin:
So it occurs to me that there's a datum that seems relevant here, which is, if you could see music from three or four centuries ago, the most popular music was music that most everyone could sing and would sound pretty good from most anyone's voice. And then over time, we came to like music that had a very particular performance of a very distinctive artist, and only they can do it well. And the rest of us when we sing karaoke, tried to sing it, it sounds pretty crappy. And lots of other arts have moved like that way too.
So, several– three centuries, four centuries ago, the best sculptor was someone who would sculpt in exactly the same way that the best classic sculptors would scuplt. They would all– the best ones could be distinguished by looking like each other, and the best painters. And today, art is, you know, the best is very distinctive in such a way that nobody else could do it like you do.
And I think that's even true of intellectuals. Like, once upon a time, the best scholars were the ones who knew the same thing all the other best scholars knew. And now the best intellectuals have their own distinctive intellectual thesis or style. And that seems relevant here to this trend, in the sense that, in the old days, you know, there were all these different types, and you would aspire to become one of those types and become the best of those types. And that was the thing everybody aspired to. Right.
And now, we aspire to be these unique things such that like, dressing like other doctors just makes you another doctor, you're supposed to be this unique doctor. Or dressing like other professors just makes you another professor, you're supposed to be this unique professor. And I think that's part of what's going on here is sort of, if I look to dress too much like a professor, I'm sort of acknowledging I'm not going to be a unique professor. I'm not a distinctive professor. I'm just another professor.
Agnes:
Yeah, good. And so then like, I guess it's like, there's a trade-off between how you're going to be somebody that is not be nobody, right?
Robin:
Right.
Agnes:
One way you could be somebody is to be a person of a particular type, right? And then it's like, okay, I'm just a professor, like the other professors, we're all just the same, we all talk the same. But now we're like, no, I don't want to be somebody that way. That's fake. Right? That's inauthentic. That's not being real me. I want to be something completely idiosyncratic and have some weird office behind me and wear weird clothes, right? And...
Robin:
Yeah. You and I know nothing about this, right?
Agnes:
And that's like, that's how I'm going to be somebody. Right? And when somebody in our culture, right, is looking at somebody in Goffman's culture, and we're looking at them, say, making the phone ring three times, or we're like, that's so fake, right? But they looking at us might be like, "These people are absurd. She's just a professor, why does she have to act like she's different from all the other professors? Why did she take all this energy and time? I mean, how much time it would have taken her to decorate this office?" Right?
Robin:
Right.
Agnes:
And like to have special headphones made that are different colors. And she's putting all this effort in, it's so inefficient, right? When she could just wear a professor clothes, get that over and done with and then get to her professoring, right? And so you might think the additional effort or the inefficiency is still there, it's just somewhere else.
Robin:
And so, and this is related to the observation that over the last century, we've had enormous increase in wealth, but we've spent most of it on variety, rather than just quantity. So, you know, a century ago, people to the extent they were rich, they had the biggest house they could have, or the biggest car and the biggest, fanciest coat or things like that. But they were all pretty similar to each other. They had this pretty much the same coats and the same cars and the same houses. They just have– the same meals, and they just had the biggest ones they could.
And we've gotten a lot richer, but instead of having much bigger houses and much bigger meals and much bigger, even wardrobes, et cetera, we've decided to have variety, where we each need our very distinctive, colorful headphone, and sort of the best, most expensive one, or that was the same as lots of other people's. And that's sort of an overall social trend in the last century, is we've spent most of our increased wealth on variety.
And here, you could say, Goffman is letting us notice that people spent most of their increased effort at career success at variety as well, that is they are less eager to be the generic cab driver. And maybe they want to be the distinctive cab driver that pitches you their movie script as you ride with them. And you know, maybe you have a story to tell about the distinctive driver you rode with. And that's the kind of thing people aspire to is to be these unique distinctive personas as career people as well as making their offices distinctive and everything else.
Agnes:
Do you think, I mean, I wonder like, is that– how does that relate to being egalitarian? One way to think about it is it's backlash against the egalitarian. It's like, OK, fine, we're all equal. But I'm special because I have a colorful office.
Robin:
Right.
Agnes:
But fundamentally, none of us is OK with the egalitarianism, because that means I'm just like everybody else. But I want to be different special. And so that the that, yeah, that'd be one theory about, but I don't know what are the other possibilities?
Robin:
Well, we could just decide that being a professional, like other people was just not good enough. That is, we're just going to shoot higher, because we can. So you know, basically, you know, the basic long-term trend is we were all really poor. And then we could afford more stuff. And we could afford more interesting careers, and we could afford more interesting jobs. And the first thing was just to move from very basic materials up to something better.
And then at some point, we decided that, like, bigger wouldn't be better. It wouldn’t show off more features of ourselves to be unique in a special way. So people like complain about McMansions, I don't... you know, right? People complain that some people are rich, they just buy a bigger house. And they might say, "Well, how boring. How..." That doesn't show very much interesting.
Other people, they spend all that extra wealth on buying a special sort of downtown apartment, or condo where they decorate it with art that they've chosen personally. And they arrange particular unique ways, they structure it, and they're showing off all these individual personal features other than their wealth, by how they make it unique.
So you might think just being bigger, does shows a certain capacity. But if you're trying to show that you're, you're excelling, then you try to be more unique as to show that you are the very best.
Agnes:
But it also seems like there's a– you might– so the way you just put it as like you're more competitive, right? But it's a different kind of competition. Like it's like...
Robin:
It's more deniable that you're trying to be admired if you like, cut that, yes.
Agnes:
Exactly. Exactly. Right.
Robin:
You can pretend you're just trying to express your individuality.
Agnes:
Exactly. So it may be that sort of expressing your individuality is like the sweet spot where people still feel, you know, like, they're not just like everybody else, which nobody wants to be.
Robin:
Right.
Agnes:
But they're not at the same time saying I'm better than other people. So it's like, what we– one thing that we are looking for, that we're deeply searching as a society is ways of saying, "I'm not just like everybody else." that don't entail, "I think I'm better than other people." That's like one of our deep problems that we're constantly in.
Robin:
Right. But now, take musicians, right? So like I said, musicians today are trying to be unique performers, right? They aren't replaceable with others, they have their own style, their own instruments, their own cadence of their music, their own kind of theme in their music, they make this whole unique package that's distinctively theirs. And you might think, like, we have, say, the Grammy Awards, where we pick the best of them. And you might think they would be offended by the Grammy Awards. If they say "No, no, I'm not trying to be better. I'm just trying to be different here." And there'd be this big movement to sort of boycott any awards, things that would make any of them sort of be explicitly celebrated. They might just say, "You know, I'm glad a lot of people like my music, but I'm not doing it for other people. I'm doing it just for me."
Agnes:
Yeah.
Robin:
And there's some of that, but not so much as you think.
Agnes:
There is some of that. But probably more of it than there used to be, is my guess.
Robin:
Yeah, sure. Right.
Agnes:
And like, there's a lot of, you know, I mean, if you think about the way people behave at award ceremonies, I mean, one question would be, if you could look at it, that behavior over time, has it changed? Right? But there's this like, massive performance of humility that is required of a person, right? If they get an award, what they have to do is like, talk about how other people actually are the reason why they got the award immediately. Like, you're all the people have to think who really did this.
Robin:
I think it would be actually funny to see a movie of a Roman Caesar, like, coming down the parade, after of his triumphant giving the speech of how he didn't really deserve this. And it wasn't him, it was the troops.
Agnes:
Exactly. Exactly.
Robin:
His family has to be credited. And he was just lucky in the right place at the right time.
Agnes:
Yeah, right. It's always your family. Right, exactly. So I mean, I do think, I think that there is if you want to know like, what is a part of life where there's like a massive amount of performance? The answers of award ceremonies, right?
Robin:
Right.
Agnes:
Because it's like that is a tightrope that they have to walk in terms of, you know, you have to be honored, you have to be flattered, you have to be– you have to perform as that beautiful actor, actress. You can't– like you really can't reveal that you want to win.
Robin:
And it's actually pretty striking. So you might think somebody like Jack Nicholson or something, they have this contrarian persona where they're just going to do the opposite and be honest. And you might think one of them would just try to walk up to the microphone and say, "Yeah, I deserve this. I am better."
Agnes:
Right.
Robin:
And that would sort of fit with their brand and people would sort of "Yeah, that's a Jack Nicholson. But that nobody ever does. That would be too– it reached too far."
Agnes:
Yeah, yeah, exactly. Right. Right. Because it's like, it's very important. Like, here's the thing, I think would not at all work. If somehow, instead of an academy awards committee, which I don't know who those people are, who are like somehow behind the scenes, choosing who they think is the best actors, if the actors had to give speeches explaining why I did the best performances here.
Robin:
Right, exactly.
Agnes:
Really look at what I did over here. I was better than anybody. That would be totally unacceptable, right?
Robin:
Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
Agnes:
Right? So they're not really compete– I mean, there are competitions, competitions exist, right? But...
Robin:
But you don't explain why you deserve to win. So but that's... like venture capital is interestingly, different that way, right? And that, in some sense, is one of the ways people are uncomfortable with business. If you want to go get funding for your venture, you have to stand there and make a pitch about why your business is better.
Agnes:
Right.
Robin:
And even we, academics, like when we give a talk, we're kind of telling people why our topic is important. We're blowing our own horn a bit. And I understand that Europeans think that we Americans go too far in that direction. They are much – they underplay themselves, and they need somebody else to praise them. And they looked down someone on Americans who are just to forthrightly braggish about our stuff.
When Europeans come here we tell thm as students "No, you need to brag more about your stuff. You can't just sort of hint that it might be interesting. You need to say why it's great." But that's somewhat at odds with this larger social norm of you know, I'm just a different scholar, I'm studying my own stuff. I'm not any better than anybody else. I just happen to be interested in this thing. And if you like it, that's great. But...
Agnes:
Yeah, that's interesting, because I think that like in, right, the problem with that I'm just doing my own thing is like, but in a lot of these cases, you have to attract people to your thing somehow.
Robin:
Right.
Agnes:
You have to make them read your book, or whatever. And so...
Robin:
Buy your music.
Agnes:
Buy your music, right. And so in effect, you have to get them to conclude that your thing is better than some other things. But you have to do that without yourself saying any of that, right? And that's like self-promoting, it's bad to be self-promoting, right? Somehow other people have to promote you. Other people can say, "Oh, she's better than the other singers."
Robin:
Right.
Agnes:
But I'm not supposed to say that.
Robin:
So it's interesting how the old style that Goffman is describing allows you to avoid being so selfish. So if I'm a cab driver, and I'm saying cab drivers are great, we're maligned, we're doing all this stuff for the city, we are good people. I can be saying that about me, but in my mind emotionally saying that of all the other cab drivers that I know and love, and I'm less blowing my own horn and blowing our horn. Right? And so in some sense, you have to be sort of more arrogant and selfish in our world, than you would be in this prior world.
In our world, I'm a professor, and I'm telling you how great professors and scholars are. And not necessarily– I am one and indirectly, I'm saying I'm great by that way. But I'm mostly emotionally and literally pointing you to all the other scholars and saying, I wanted to join this group, because look, I saw all these great things they were doing. And this is a community I wanted to be part of. And that's a way in which, you know, people were less, were less arrogant, in some sense, right?
Agnes:
Right. So like, in a way, that's part of what the costume or the– what's it called, like, uniform, right, that you wear gets you is that you're not performing as yourself, you're performing as, you know, a doctor or a waiter or something. And now, we're always performing as ourselves. And so we're very self-centered and kind of arrogant and a bit narcissistic, right? Because every single time– and I think social media increasing, you're always performing as yourself. Right?
Robin:
Right.
Agnes:
And so that's very...
Robin:
Are there aren’t even any community accounts, I mean, that would be kind of interesting to see on Twitter or something like a community account where like, it's 10 people. So the Economist magazine does this thing where the author's– the articles are not authored by individual people. And that's pretty rare in the media, because most by– have by lines by individual, but sometimes there are these communities. And so in some sense, when you're an economist journalist, you are part of that community, you're not an individual, you are promoting the economist brand, but not your own brand. Although you might privately tell people which articles are yours.
Agnes:
Right. So that's like the New York Times Editorial Board also has, like, you know.
Robin:
We do sometimes retreat to this sort of communal persona. And we certainly might do that in firms or something. So you know, Google presents itself to the public, and it doesn't necessarily– it doesn't necessarily say who inside Google did anyone think that Google does. And in some sense, firms are our sort of our main remaining communal production and facade.
Agnes:
So that could explain, at least partly, one of the reasons why people are so suspicious of an opposed to firms, right, because we now have become much less tolerant of this facade. And the firm is only a facade. I mean, that's never going to break down, right? Because there's no person, it's literally not a – it's a person of that kind. Right? And so, we, you know, the firms are in a way stuck in the past, because they're stuck in this old model of...
Robin:
Right.
Agnes:
I mean metaphysically stuck, they're never going to be anything else, right? There's a facade, and there's going to be like a PR team or whatever, right? And there's going to be– they're going to be presenting, there's going to be a brand, literally a brand of like, Nike or whatever. And I wonder whether now any entity that is in that position of being stuck, like so you imagine, right, you get this societal shift, where we all move towards, you know, backstage and this frontstage, right?
What happens to people like, well, intellectuals, like you and me just start being more idiosyncratic and wearing different clothes and, you know, being ourselves or whatever. And it's like, we adapt, right? Like, we're now in a different ecosystem. And so we just allow frontstage– backstage to go frontstage. But now you look at these, these dinosaurs, you know, things like firms, businesses, right, that can't adapt in this way. They can't allow backstage to go frontstage because in effect they're sort of...
Robin:
And they won't go away. So they're not dinosaurs in the sense of sort of being the last or something.
Agnes:
Oh, right, right. No, I didn't mean that they're dying.
Robin:
And governments– and charities are also in some sense like this, or major organizations are, you know, the US government says something we don't necessarily say who in the government figured that out or decided to say that.
Agnes:
Right. But something I was thinking about was, if you think about, you know, businesses are firms are now more vulnerable. That is, they're going to be more negatively received by people, because they're putting up a front and were less tolerant of fronts. And maybe that's partly why they are also now more, they seem to be sort of more cowardly, in the sense of, they're going to fire someone if that person is, you know, definitely looks bad in social media, not– I mean, universities too, right?
Robin:
Right.
Agnes:
Any large organization, in effect, the management of your image has become an almost impossible task. And so you're just going to– the possibilities for bad behavior have sort of increased and become more tempting.
Robin:
There could be an asymmetry in being unique about good things versus bad things. So you know, if there's a famous engineer at Google, then Google can shine from knowing they have this famous engineer at Google. But if somebody gets a reputation for being a bad guy and is at Google, Google may not be as willing to tolerate that association. Because they're mostly sort of a unified shared identity rather than distinctive individuals.
Agnes:
Right. And it's like, if you imagine, in the olden days, if you were a restaurant or something, and it was asked, "How do you manage your public image or something?" The answer would be, "Well, we have our waiters, and they wear these beautiful..." I went, OK, I went to the Russian Tea Room in Chicago, a couple days ago. And I noticed that the waiters didn't really wear a uniform, they sort of were like black and white, but they could kind of wear their own clothes, right? And then, in fact, the door to the back room was like halfway open, and I saw someone like eating a banana, might just eating a banana, but I didn't notice, right that this is a fancy restaurants and he's eating banana. But on the one hand, it's like this restaurant, which clearly was once very formal, is now much less formal, even though it would still be one of the more formal restaurants in Chicago.
Robin:
Right.
Agnes:
But here's some other things. There's a giant Ukrainian flag in the window, there's a special menu where if you order off of that menu, everything goes to Ukraine, right? And you might have imagined at an earlier time, maybe they wouldn't have to do all that, like...
Robin:
Right. Well, that would be out of character, in some sense, right? They are just, I mean, so like, I don't know about Russia, but like, there are many Italian restaurants in the US where the brand is, "We're an Italian restaurant, we're going to give you the Italian restaurant experience." And if they had some unique thing about that, that was kind of take away from, you know, the unique brand of we are the sort of fancy Italian restaurants.
Agnes:
Right. But my thought is like when there's less of a brand, then you're more subject to just the whims of public opinion. So then all of a sudden, there's a war with Ukraine. And now, the Russian Tea Room has to behave differently, because it doesn't have this solid facade of the waiters or whatever, all that is gone away. And it's now kind of floating in the wind. And the same is true of Apple, and the same is true of universities. They're just unmoored because part of what stabilize them was all this presentation that we're no longer doing.
Robin:
Right. Although, I mean, you have to realize the contrary trend is you know, 300 years ago, there were almost no large organizations. So almost all businesses were very small. And so you only really had brands on sort of professions and generic kinds of products, and you know, Apple is a brand now, because there's an organization that has the brand Apple, and that sort of thing just didn't exist three centuries ago. So we've had the rise of these big shared corporate brands, as we've decreased the sort of brands of professions and particular styles of interactions.
So now, like, we have Disney as a brand, and this is a Disney experience, whereas there might have been once the Italian restaurant experience, but nobody owned that. And anybody anywhere could try to create the Italian restaurant experience. And everybody did. And now we have brands that are like owned by someone like Disney. And they create and they manage the brand. But now, we are more suspicious of it, because, well, it's got this for-profit motive behind it.
Agnes:
I'm suggesting there's a different reason for suspicion, which is just that...
Robin:
Yes.
Agnes:
That there's a brand at all.
Robin:
Right.
Agnes:
So the interesting connection to me is that if you think about like, it's a possible driver of cancel culture that I hadn't thought of before, which is that, like, the, the real pressure point, the real weak point is like, whoever is going to fire someone, right? So are you going to fire your employee, because whatever, a whole bunch people are mad at them. And you might imagine that like, in an earlier time, like, you just wouldn't care, right? You just be like, "Whatever, whatever those people think we're still the restaurant, we're still the university, we're still the whatever, right?" But...
Robin:
it's also like the professional identification, right? So if we less identify with ourselves as professionals of a certain type, then these other identities are going to shine brighter. So I would think in the past, if you had an engineer, and he was your engineer and you were engineers together, and the outsiders were attacking them. But for something they did, that wasn't an engineer that you might say, well, you know, I care about them as an engineer, and they're a great engineer. So you know, let's ignore that other stuff. But now, you might identify less with us as engineers, and these other identities stand out more.
Agnes:
Right. And part of that is just they don't wear engineer clothes anymore.
Robin:
Right.
Agnes:
Right. So that's what that was getting us. Right? It wasn't nothing to make them wear the engineer clothes. And so it's like, you know, if you think about all of this acting or performance, or whatever, that Goffman is, like documenting and that we're doing less of it, if we're doing less of it, we're also...
Robin:
We should notice people are doing an enormous amount of performing as a member of their political tribe. Right. And, you know, in some sense, they even wear – so we have the separation, but geographically different political tribes like moving in different places. And then these different places just have different styles, right? Different kind of restaurants and clothes and other things. And so in some sense, as we've decreased sort of this professional identity with the professional style, we've replaced this political identity and style.
That was still pretty weak. But, you know, if you think of a hipster, for example, a hipster has a particular identity and style in terms of clothes and hair and things like that, but it's not a professional style.
Agnes:
I think it can be pretty unclear. We had a discussion– we often discuss around the dinner table, which one of us is hipster? And are we hipsters? Like, It's hard to know. We're like genuine and like...
Robin:
OK. But if one of you was a cab driver, you would notice that, right?
Agnes:
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So hipsters, like a little bit, it's a little bit, you know.
Robin:
Right. And so our identities are more evasive. And like that, yeah, there's more to them to make a higher bar to beat.
Agnes:
And we deny them like, you know, we're inclined to deny them. Like, no one wants to say that they're a hipster, we– other people. So having one of these personas is a bad thing. Can we see it? Because you're acting, you're fake. Oh, you're performing your political identity. That means you're a deceitful actor, right? And so, it's not just that we've shifted these things over. It's that the very image of it as being a performance is one that we now see as fake and a problem and so the only people who will talk about it that way are people who are not doing it, right? Because they're, you know, to identify it is to be alienated from it.
Robin:
I think we've gone over our time, because I didn't– we didn't start on a time here.
Agnes:
Oh, yeah.
Robin:
So, we should probably end now.
Agnes:
OK.
Robin:
But it's been nice chatting today.
Agnes:
Yeah.
Robin:
OK. Bye.
Agnes:
Bye.