Last week’s 3 Longs & 3 shorts featured a piece on how millions of people across the world are giving up on speaking to their native language and instead switching to speaking more widely spoken languages such as English, Chinese, Hindi and Arabic. That led us – and many of our clients – to ask the question “in this age of choice, why do so many people voluntarily give up their native language?”. This question is partly answered by this long read in Aeon from Lucy McDonald is a lecturer in ethics at King’s College London.

Ms McDonald’s piece focuses on the research published by “pioneering sociologist Erving Goffman realised that every action is deeply revealing of the social norms by which we live.” More specifically, Goffman understood that “Every encounter is shaped by social rules and social statuses; ‘whether we interact with strangers or intimates, we will find that the fingertips of society have reached bluntly into the contact’. Such interactions contribute to our sense of self, to our relationships with others, and to social structures, which can often be deeply oppressive.”

In practical terms therefore how we behave, how we speak, what clothes we wear, what beliefs we espouse, what clothes we wear, etc are heavily shaped by our need to have a constructive relationship with those around us and if that means speaking the same language as everyone else, our default response sems to be ‘so be it’.

Ms McDonld gives a simple example of how such social interactions work: “Think back to the last time you fell over in a public place. What did you do next? Perhaps you immediately righted yourself and carried on exactly as before. I bet you didn’t, though. I bet you first stole a furtive glance at your surroundings to see if there were witnesses. If there were, then you may well have bent over and inspected the ground as if to figure out why you tripped, even if you already knew why. Or maybe you smiled or laughed to yourself or uttered a word like ‘Oops!’ or ‘Damn’. At the very least, I bet your heart rate increased.

These behaviours seem irrational. If you were uninjured, why do anything at all after the stumble? For some reason, such public mishaps – stumbling, knocking something over, spilling something, pushing a ‘pull’ door, realising you’ve gone the wrong way and turning around – provoke an anxiety that compels us to engage in curious behaviours.

This is because, the sociologist Erving Goffman shows us, there is nothing simple about passing through a public space. Instead, we are always expected to reassure strangers around us that we are rational, trustworthy and pose no threat to the social order. We do this by conforming to all manner of invisible rules, governing, for example, the distance we maintain from one another, where we direct our eyes and how we carry ourselves. These complex rules help us understand ourselves and one another. Break such a rule, and you threaten a ‘jointly maintained base of ready mutual intelligibility’.

When you fall over, you fail to comport yourself in an acceptable way, and so immediately pose a threat. ‘Is she dangerously out of control?’ others might wonder. ‘Is she a menace?’ Fear of social punishment – from a dirty look to outright ostracisation – will prompt you to engage in what Goffman calls ‘remedial work’, an attempt to show that you’re not a problem after all.

Looking at the ground signals that you didn’t choose to move strangely – you were subject to an unexpected obstacle. Smiling signals that you see the incident ‘as a joke, something quite uncharacteristic’. And swearing signals that, since you can use language, you are compos mentis, and that your fall was a blip in an otherwise ordinary life. In performing such a ‘normalcy show’, you re-establish yourself as an insider, and order is restored.

Goffman realised that behaviours of this kind, much as they might feel like it, are not the results of idiosyncratic anxieties, of excessive self-consciousness or awkwardness. Instead, they are sensible responses by people appropriately attuned to the complexities of the social world.”

Some of Marcellus’ clients might feel that all of above is a statement of the obvious. Well, it wasn’t in the era that Goffman worked in. “Erving Goffman was born in 1922 in Alberta, Canada, to Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. After completing an undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, he began graduate studies in sociology and anthropology at the University of Chicago. His fieldwork led him to Baltasound, a village on Unst in the Shetland Islands, Scotland. Here he developed his unique version of ethnography. The resulting thesis, ‘Communication Conduct in an Island Community’ (1953), displayed the innovative methods and perspective for which Goffman would become famous….

In perhaps his best-known book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956), Goffman developed a dramaturgical analysis of interaction, taking seriously Shakespeare’s suggestion that ‘All the world’s a stage’. Just as an actor behaves differently on stage from in the wings, so too does each of us alter our behaviour depending on the context. When we are in the presence of others, we strive to present ourselves as occupying a particular social role, be that an employee, an employer, a teacher, a student, a neighbour. We use our bodies and our words to give off certain strategic information. Goffman called this ‘the frontstage’.

When we leave these social settings, we step out of our costumes and enter ‘the backstage’. The backstage typically involves barriers to perception – when in the wings of the theatre, the kitchen behind the restaurant, or the bathroom of the house hosting a dinner party, we are hidden from others, and no longer need to tightly control the image we give off. Sometimes the backstage infringes on the frontstage; we might be caught in a state of undress, or overheard muttering malevolently about a colleague. This causes acute embarrassment because the identity we try to cultivate on the frontstage is undermined.

Goffman’s dramaturgical metaphor is sometimes misunderstood. He did not claim that we are all frauds constantly misrepresenting ourselves. Rather, his point was that being a member of society required constant work – a constant process of impression management, of making oneself intelligible to others through subtle cues and gestures. Just as a character in a play is the result of an actor’s hard graft, so too is a person’s identity the product of an ongoing creative project, performed to and with an audience.”

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Note: the above material is neither investment research, nor financial advice. Marcellus does not seek payment for or business from this publication in any shape or form. Marcellus Investment Managers is regulated by the Securities and Exchange Board of India as a provider of Portfolio Management Services. Marcellus Investment Managers is also regulated in the United States as an Investment Advisor.

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