Frontstage / Backstage
Hello, good evening.
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?
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
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?
It means actor in Greek. Hippocrates is an actor.
Right. Clearly, we've separated those connotations by now.
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.
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
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
So his favorite example is the restaurant, I think.
Yeah. Right. We were actually cooking the food.
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
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
Which is a speech they probably planned.
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?
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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?
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.
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?
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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..."
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
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
So at some level, he is accepting the collective performance of all of us
pretending like we're all getting stuff done.
Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
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.
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.
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...
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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
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
They're very helpful, huh?
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.
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...
Nowadays. This is a new thing.
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
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.
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
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.
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...
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
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.
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?
'54, I think.
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
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
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.
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."
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.
Right. Like taxis are another good example. Right? Like, I think that, you
No taxi caps, I've never seen any Uber driver wearing a taxi cap.
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...
They make them wear a cap and a special– at a special place of the car or
Yeah, yeah. OK. OK. Right.
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.
Right. So maybe there would have been a workaround. But in any case, like I
feel like now is the time for that. And...
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...
Right. So you're a creature of your time, mainly, you object to this
performance, right? And...
So, sometimes people ask me, why don't I have a tweed jacket as a professor,
People have asked you that? No one's ever asked me that.
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.
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.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, exactly.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Right, right, or in a store, if it's like Home Depot, and you want to know
works there so you can ask direction.
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.
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.
Right. But like, how often is that useful information that you actually need
like as opposed to a certain kind of reassurance?
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
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...
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...
He became somebody.
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.
Oh yeah, yeah, right. right, exactly.
And he's performing in front of like, the men, other beachgoers
Purdy or something.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Purdy.
Purdy, that's right.
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.
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.
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?
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...
Yeah. You and I know nothing about this, right?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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...
It's more deniable that you're trying to be admired if you like, cut that,
Exactly. Exactly. Right.
You can pretend you're just trying to express your individuality.
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.
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.
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."
And there's some of that, but not so much as you think.
There is some of that. But probably more of it than there used to be, is my
Yeah, sure. Right.
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.
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.
His family has to be credited. And he was just lucky in the right place at the
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,
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.
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
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."
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
Really look at what I did over here. I was better than anybody. That would be
totally unacceptable, right?
Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
Right? So they're not really compete– I mean, there are competitions,
competitions exist, right? But...
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.
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...
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.
You have to make them read your book, or whatever. And so...
Buy your music.
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."
But I'm not supposed to say that.
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?
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?
And so that's very...
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.
Right. So that's like the New York Times Editorial Board also has, like, you
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.
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...
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...
And they won't go away. So they're not dinosaurs in the sense of sort of being
the last or something.
Oh, right, right. No, I didn't mean that they're dying.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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
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.
I'm suggesting there's a different reason for suspicion, which is just that...
That there's a brand at all.
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...
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.
Right. And part of that is just they don't wear engineer clothes anymore.
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
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
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.
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...
OK. But if one of you was a cab driver, you would notice that, right?
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. So hipsters, like a little bit, it's a little bit, you
Right. And so our identities are more evasive. And like that, yeah, there's
more to them to make a higher bar to beat.
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.
I think we've gone over our time, because I didn't– we didn't start on a time
So, we should probably end now.
But it's been nice chatting today.