Social Dramaturgy: The Masks We Wear

Social dramaturgy: the masks we wear

We can analyze the way we interact with others as if we were watching a play. Sometimes it is as if our social life consists of a series of masquerades. Social dramaturgy is a micro-sociological approach that focuses on the study of human behavior and the rules that govern our daily interactions with others.

In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates asks which genre of ancient Greek drama, comedy or tragedy, is more like real life. Socrates believed that it was the tragedy. However, it was Erving Goffman, creator of symbolic interactionism, who said that life was a stage.

Goffman argued that in every social interaction we engage in, we consciously or unconsciously try to project a concrete image of ourselves. In other words, we try to manipulate how others perceive us.

For Goffman, our personality is not an internal phenomenon. Instead, it is the sum of all the different ‘masks’ we wear throughout our lives: a social dramaturgy.

What is Social Dramaturgy?

Both theater and social actors have the same goal: to be congruent in their interactions with the people around them. To make a good impression, we must have dramatic (social) skills and the necessary costumes and props.

However, all this is irrelevant if the actors on stage can’t agree on the expectations and limitations of their play. In other words, their ‘interpretation’ implicitly determines how they should act in a particular environment (social environment).

Two people each wearing a mask

The stage and behind the scenes

Social dramaturgy involves two important elements: the stage and the space behind the scenes. The stage generally consists of the moments when we project an image of ourselves for others. The space behind the scenes, however, represents our private life, where we can also wear another mask.

Social dramaturgy consists of knowing how to move back and forth between these two elements. In addition, to be socially successful, it is also important that you can switch skillfully from one set to another and that you wear an appropriate costume at all times.

So someone who doesn’t know how to behave during the play is a danger to the entire cast. As a result, he runs the risk of being sidelined.

As we perform our play, our comments and expressions of surprise, approval, irony, or disgust shape the opinion that others have of us.

We are aware of this, so we control what we say, think about the gestures we make, and watch our reactions. We always act. In addition, we define our roles based on the environment we are in. We try to make sure we belong.

We are constantly adapting to our role. As with actors on TV, our personality, job, education and relationship status may not be defined in the first episode. We can begin to change and define these aspects as we hear our audience’s response.

From there, we try to adapt to this character throughout our lives. Or at least, until our show gets canceled and we can throw away our mask. For example, we may stop working, divorce our partner, or graduate.

Image and concealment

According to Goffman , in this social dramaturgy people always try to present an ideal image of themselves in their dealings with others. This is because we think it’s better to hide certain parts of ourselves:

  • We hide the process of learning our role: we are like a teacher who, after spending hours preparing a lesson, stands in front of the class as if he has always understood the subject so well. In other words, we prefer to give others only the end result of our rehearsal. We don’t show others how many ‘takes’ we needed to know our role. Or how many times we practiced our text until we finally knew it by heart. These are all things that happen ‘behind the scenes’.
  • We hide all the dirty work it took to get where we are. Our character can be incompatible with everything we’ve done to get praise. For example, imagine a politician who won a political campaign by selling his integrity. He had to do everything to get to the top.
  • We hide the things that can prevent us from performing our role. To do this, we keep criticism to ourselves. In addition, we make sure that we respond to insults in a way that cannot ruin the image we want to give of ourselves.
Man and woman with half mask

Merchants of Morality

As Ervin Goffman said, “ In their capacity as performers, individuals try to maintain the impression that they meet the many standards by which they and their products are judged. Because these standards are so numerous and so pervasive, the individuals who are performers reside in a moral world far more often than we might think. However, as performers, these individuals are not concerned with the moral issue of realizing these standards, but the amoral issue of giving the persuasive idea that these standards are being achieved. Our actions therefore largely have to do with moral matters, but as performers we don’t worry about it morally. As performers, we are traders of morality ”. Could this be true?

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