In the Dynamic Identity project the partners chose to take Erving Goffman’s conception of self-presentation as a starting point. Two aspects in this conception stand out. The fist one is the idea that we all play roles that are different for different contexts. The second one is the idea that we try to control our self-presentation by consciously sharing information about ourselves (“giving information”) but that this information is added to, and sometimes undermined by unconscious information we share with others like nonverbal communication and by information on us that is shared by others. This last mode of shared information on us is dubbed information “given off”.
For students during the Dynamic Identity pilots Goffman’s conception of self-presentation often came as an embarrassing revelation. Many sniggered when they heard that we play different roles in different situations and grinned nervously when hearing about information given off. It obviously hit a nerve.
I interpret the reactions that occurred in all three project countries – Poland, Greece and the Netherlands – as an uneasy awareness that there is a problem with our current dominant paradigms. The first paradigm is that there is a fundamental human need to present one’s self as consistent (Cialdini, 2003), resulting in a need for a consistent practical identity (European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies to the European Commission – EGE, 2012).
The second paradigm is the norm to be authentic. Patterson notes: “Authenticity now dominates our way of viewing ourselves and our relationships”. (Orlando Patterson quoted in Rosenzweig, 2014)
The conceptions of playing different roles in different situations and of the possible friction between information given and given off clash with the paradigms of consistency and authenticity. Many students have struggled with consistency and authenticity and seem relieved when they hear that their messy everyday life experiences are ok. Nevertheless, the paradigms are so strong that when asked in pilot questionnaires about whether they learned that self-presentation involves playing roles and both given and given-off information a surprising amount of students answers that they didn’t.
The paradigms of consistency and authenticity are under pressure as a result of globalization and technology. In his work Zygmunt Bauman delves into the effecs of globalization. According to him (2004) the whole idea of consistency is hopelessly outdated. We now live in what he calls “liquid times “– times in which situations change so fast that no routine or even reflection can set it. In order to be open to new opportunities we need to reconfigure our identities non-stop, writes Bauman. Consistency in these times would be only in our way – we need to be fluid too.
Bauman (2005) sarcastically laughs at the idea of authenticity in these globalized, liquid times: “More often than not, the voyage of self-discovery peters out in a global fair in which recipes for individuality are peddled wholesale”. He concludes that the task of being authentic is impossible to fulfill: “In a society of individuals everyone must be individual; in this respect, at least, members of such a society are anything but individual, different or unique. They are, on the contrary, strikingly like each other in that they must follow the same life strategy and use shared … tokens that they are doing so. In the question of individuality, there is no individual choice.”
Besides globalization technology is a second factor undermining the paradigms of consistency and authenticity. On social media like Facebook our self-presentations are forcibly poured into identical profile templates that can only be personalized to a certain extent. Social media supply us with very poor instruments to be authentic. Features like Facebook’s timeline in addition erode our consistency. Because of the longer period of time that is covered by this timeline anyone can find in our profiles simultaneously different narrations about who we are and how we see the world. Within our profiles the strings of updates do not convey the image of a consistent or continuous self-narrative. And, the options for others to give off information on us are much larger online than they are offline. This means that others online are capable of very effectively undermining the authenticity and consistency of our self-presentations.
No wonder that students who partially live online and are raised in a radically globalized world would feel tinges of insecurity about preserving consistency and authenticity.
The implementation of the various roles that we play is heavily defined by the culture we live in. Goffman (1959) provides numerous descriptions of how similar role playing mechanisms are played out differently in different cultures. In everyday life though, most of us are not conscious of the roles that we play. Although most will agree with the fact that we act differently in a shop by ourselves and in a bar with friends, not many of us live in full consciousness of this.
The least conscious of the roles we play and the imprint of the cultures we live in are the indigenous, according to Bauman (2004). The indigenous automatically belong to the dominant group in a country from the moment they were born and thus rarely are confronted with the need to explain their self-presentation. This is different for immigrants or others who do not easily fit in the dominant culture: they continuously have to explain their self-presentation. Bauman writes about them: “There is always something to explain, to apologize for, to hide or on the contrary to boldly display, to negotiate, to bid for and to bargain for”.
The paradigms of authenticity and consistency are partially to blame for this watershed between indigenous and others. Patterson claims that authenticity divides: “Within sensitive individuals it breeds doubt; between people it promotes distrust; within groups it enhances group-think … and between groups it is the inner source of identity politics.” (Orlando Patterson quoted in Rosenzweig, 2014)
Authenticity is used as an argument by indigenous to preserve their dominant culture without making amendments to others: authenticity is non-negotiable for outsiders because it only relates to internal factors. Consistency is used as an additional argument for keeping things as they are by indigenous. An example of using both arguments to preserve a current state of affairs even though others object to it is an infamous quote by the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in the discussion about whether black faced helpers of the Dutch Santaclaus (“black Petes”) are acceptable: “Black Pete is black. And I cannot change that. Because the name is Black Pete.”
An alternative for the current paradigms of consistency and authenticity is presented by Rosenzweig (2014). He proposes the concept of sincerity: “Authenticity generally means acting in accordance with our inner selves. We’re authentic when we express what we truly feel. Sincerity is about behaving in accordance with the demands of the role. We’re sincere when we meet our obligations and fulfill our responsibilities.”
This interpretation of sincerity is fully in line with Goffman. In Goffman’s view there are two ways of playing one’s roles: sincerely or cynically. Playing one’s role sincerely means that one does everything to convince the audience at hand of the realness of one’s performance. A cynical performance on the other hand is the result of an actor not even trying to convince the audience.
It might sound now that putting up a sincere performance is cynical in a different way, because it is not authentic – here it is again. But although sincerity does not equal authenticity this does not mean that the roles played are not real. Goffman explains: “… the performer can be fully taken in by his own act; he can be sincerely convinced that the impression of reality which he stages is the real reality. When his audience is also convinced … only the sociologist or the socially disgruntled will have any doubts about the ‘realness’ of what is presented.”
While the dominant paradigms of consistency and authenticity divide the indigenous and the others the concepts of fluidity and sincerity create an equal playing field for all. These alternative paradigms do not allow for some to defend their self-presentations without reflections while others are forced to over-reflect. These paradigms require all to be able to deal with diversity and otherness.
According to Bauman (2005) the presence of others everywhere as a result of globalization has consequences: “we mix daily with others who … ‘do not necessarily speak the same language (literally and metaphorically) or share the same memory or history’. Under such circumstances, the skills we need more than any others in order to offer the public sphere a reasonable chance of resuscitation are the skills of interaction with others – of conducting a dialogue, of negotiation, of gaining mutual understanding and of managing or resolving conflicts inevitable in every instance of shared life.”
Bauman concludes: “This is indeed how education should be so that the men and women of the liquid modern world can pursue their life goals with at least a modicum of resourcefulness and self-confidence, and hope to succeed.” A second effect is “making the fast changing world more hospitable to humanity”. It is a way out of our current “landscape of ignorance”. “Ignorance leads to paralysis of the will. One does not know what is in store and has no way to count the risks.”
In our workshops we do not only accept the paradigms of fluidity and sincerity, we also promote the skills that enable us to interact with others. Being conscious that we play different roles and that we are responsible for how we play these roles is our starting point. According to us we need to be able to deal with others and with the differences between the roles we play and the potential gap between information given and information given off. We believe that on this basis the skills mentioned by Bauman – conducting a dialogue, negotiation, gaining mutual understanding and managing or resolving conflicts – can be effectively developed.
Zygmunt Bauman: Identity. 2004
Zygmunt Bauman: Liquid Life. 2005
Robert Cialdini: Influence. The psychology of persuasion.
EGE: Opinion 26: Ethics of Information and Communication Technologies, 2012: http://ec.europa.eu/archives/bepa/european-group-ethics/docs/publications/ict_final_22_february-adopted.pdf
Erving Goffman: The presentation of Self in everyday life. 1959.
Phil Rosenzweig: Left brain, right stuff. How leaders make winning decisions. 2014