Book Notes: Erving Goffman – Interaction Ritual

Erving Goffman – Interaction Ritual, has a number of essays  on face to face behaviour. Goffman’s vivid prose made this a pleasure to read (see highlights) – I did not feel like I was reading a stiff, dry academic. This is not a cookbook of etiquette tips. Instead, these essays unearth the implicit rules of social interaction and enumerate them rigorously.

Knowing the rules helps turn everyday life into a game – I score points when I observe the rules, I advance or unlock different skill-trees when I put these rules into practice (I imagine different skill trees with schlock academic names, eg, three-set interaction, approach-opening, buying temperature, etc). Having a framework also helps put emotional distance on the mistakes I make because I can shift the blame from my self  to my performance.

Goffman discusses several ideas which I find myself unconsciously naming when I observe these in action – bowing my head at the cashier when I’m paying – deference; dressing smartly for work – demeanour; having my story challenged in conversation – face work. Summaries and highlights for each essay follow –

Where the Action Is

This is the best essay in the book. Goffman introduces the concepts of action and character and describes action as the sole means for men to create character for themselves, whether they find it through courting women, buying clothes, or kicking a football. Lacking action, men lack information concerning themselves – they fall short of significant expression.

Action is activity that is uncertain, consequential, and voluntarily taken, while character refers to how an inidividual manages himself during an activity – courage, integrity, composure being examples of character;  intelligence, speed, stamina etc being properties related to the task at hand. Mixing character and action, we have a character contest, a kind of interpersonal action that happens every day and where we have the chance to score points or be shot down.

Action is not be found at home or at work, but elsewhere. Goffman describes other avenues for action – sports, interpersonal action such as courtship or verbal/physical injury, or consumption and the mass media, a kind of diffuse action.


Any normal adult, if he so wills it, can be immensely disruptive of the world immediately at hand. He can destroy objects, himself, and other people. He can profane himself, insult and contaminate others, and interfere with their free passage… Personal development is the process by which the individual learns to forego these opportunities voluntarily, even while his capacity to destroy the world immediately around him increases.

Here is the Calvinistic solution to life: once the individual divides his day’s activities into ones that have no effect and others having a small contributive consequence, nothing can really go wrong.

When we look closely at … gamblers, front-line soldiers, we find that aliveness to the consequences involved comes to be blunted in a special way. The world that is gambled is, after all, only a world, and the chance-taker can learn to let go of it.

Action is much more the scene of male activity than of female … But, of course, females are involved in one kind of action in a special way; they are the fields of play for sexual and courtship action. Adult males may define a female as an object to initiate a sexually potential relationship with. The risk is rebuff, misalliance, responsibility, betrayal of prior relationships, or displeasure of other males; the opportunity is for the kind of confirmation of self that success in this area alone can bring.

Bargaining, threatening, promising – whether in commerce, diplomacy, warfare, card games, or personal relations – allow a contestant to pit his capacity for dissembling intentions and resources against the other’s capacity to rile or cajole the secretive into readability. Whenever individuals ask for or give excuses, proffer or receive compliments, slight another or are slighted, a contest of self-control can result. Similarly, the tacit little flirtations occurring between friends and between strangers produce a contest of unavailability – if usually nothing more than this. And when banter occurs or “remarks” are exchanged, someone will have out-poised another.

When a contest occurs over whose treatment of the other is to prevail, each individual is engaged in providing evidence to establish a definition of himself at the expense of what can remain for the other.

For the action-seeker, life is episodic. The rhythm of life is dominated by the adventurous episode, in which heights of actvitiy and feeling are reached through exciting and sometimes riotous behaviour. The goal is action, an opportunity for thrills, and for the chance to face and overcome a challenge … the action seeker pursues it with a vengeance, and lives the rest of his life in quiet preparation for this climax.

(on smoking) to various flavours can be added the extra flavour of not-giving-a-damn.

(on character) Because persons in all societies must transact much of their enterprise in social situations, we must expect that the capacity to maintain support of the social occasion under difficult circumstances will be universally approved.

Plainly, it is during moments of action that the individual has the risk and opportunity of displaying to himself and others his style of conduct when the chips are down. The self, in brief, can be voluntarily subjected to re-creation… here is the chance to show grace under pressure, here is the opportunity to be measured by Hemingway’s measure of men.

In our society, after all, moments are to be lived through, not lived.

Careful, prudent persons must therefore forego the opportunity to demonstrate certain prized attributes; after all, devices that render the individual’s moments free from fatefulness also render them free from new information concerning him – free, in short, from significant expression.

On Face-Work

This is interesting because it is an academic treatment of what the Chinese literally refer to as “face”.

A line is a pattern of verbal and nonverbal acts by which a person expresses his view of the situation and through this his evaluation of the participants, especially himself.

Face is the positive social value a person claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken.

Face is important because we tend to have an immediate emotional response to our face.

We maintain our face when the line we take is supported by others and the facts of the situation. When we are in face, we are confident and self assured. When we are out of face, we are flustered. Someone with poise is able to conceal his shamefacedness.

Face work refers to the actions we need to take to keep consistent with our face. Someone who is adept at face work is said to have savior faire, tact or diplomacy. We can choose to either avoid or correct threats to face. We need a repertoire of face saving practices for these threats.

Goffman goes on to describe defensive, offensive and cooperative face-work. Why the need for face work? Goffman argues that given that people have feelings for their face, and given that society requires its people to interact, face-work is crucial. Ordinarily, we call this people skills.


Approved attributes and their relation to face make of every man his own jailer; this is a fundamental social constraint even though each man may like his cell.

Usual objectives (of interaction) – gaining face for oneself, giving free expression to one’s true beliefs, introducing depreciating information about the others … are typically pursued in such a way as to be consistent with the maintenance of face.

Each person, subculture, and society seems to have its own characteristic repertoire of face-saving practices. It is to this repertoire that people refer to when they ask what a culture is “really” like.

What the person protects and defends and invests his feelings in is an idea about himself, and ideas are vulnerable not to facts and things but to communications.

Deference and Demeanor

A rule of conduct is a guide for action.  A rule of conduct may be an obligation or an expectation, and the two are intimately mated, for one man’s obligation is often the other’s expectation. Rules may be substantive or ceremonial. Deference and Demeanour are two components of ceremonial activity.

Deference refers to the activity where symbolic appreciation is expressed to affirm the relationship. Salutations, compliments, and apologies which punctuate social intercourse being examples. This is complicated by the many roles a pair of interactants may occupy with respect to one another.

Demeanor refers to ceremonial behaviour typically conveyed through dress, deportment, bearing, to express to people that a person has certain desirable/undesirable qualities – Is he a friendly person, can I interact with him?


(presentation and avoidance rituals are so-named because) the individual must guard and design the symbolic implications of his acts while in the immediate presence of an object that has a special value to him.

The individual must rely on others to complete the picture of him of which he himself is allowed to paint only certain parts. Each individual is responsible for the demeanor image of himself and the deference image of others, so that for a complete man to be expressed, individuals must hold hands in a chain of ceremony, each giving deferentially with proper demeanor to the one on the right what will be received deferentially from the one on the left.

While it may be true that the individual has a unique self all his own, evidence of this possession is thoroughly a product of joint ceremonial labor …

Alienation from Interaction

Conversation is an expressive act where we project an image of our character and attitudes through our gestures and words. Etiquette is how society governs this expression. Apart from its expressive function, conversation is primarily thought of as a social act. It is a declicate trance that involves joint spontaneous involvement. The speaker must modulate his spontaneity and encourage fellow interactants to be spontaneous as well. He must adhere to rules of conduct yet take enough liberties to ensure a minimum level of excitement. This is a difficult balancing act, so we expect alienation to be the norm rather than the exception.

There are three forms of alienation – attention is diverted from the conversation to the self, to other interactants, or to the interaction itself. Uneasiness is contagious because the initial offence draws attention away from the talk, which itself becomes an offence to the interaction. Spoken interaction between many kinds of people and on many occasions is necessary if men are to do society’s work.


As a main focus of attention talk is unique, however, for talk creates for the participant a world and a reality that has other participants in it. Joint spontaneous involvement is a unio mystico, a socialized trance.

While engaged in the interaction it will be necessary for them to have subjects at hand to talk about that fit the occasion and yet provide content enough to keep the talk going; in other words; safe supplies are needed.

Should one participant fail to help keep the interaction going, other participants will have to do his share of the work. An individual may acquire a reputation for this kind of labor, creating resentment.

Just as a witticism may do honour to the conversational moment, so the wearing of new or special clothing, the serving of rare or costly food, and the use of perishable flowers can draw attention to the unique value of a wider social occasion.

Embarassment and Social Organization

Embarrasment occurs when a projected image is threatened. Discomfiture is low status. One can either dispel it when it has occurred, or avoid it in the first place. The quality of dispelling it is referred to as composure or poise. One can also avoid embarssemnt to oneself or others. This is referred to as graciousness or tact. Removing embarassment is important because It affects the pleasure or displeasue of the social encounter and the amount of affection or hostility for the participants. The lack of embarassment helps other people to continue playing their parts.


In all these settings, the same fundamental thing occurs: the expressive facts at hand threaten or discredit the assumptions a participant finds he has projected about his identity. Thereafter those present find they can neither do without the assumptions nor base their own responses upon them. The inhabitable reality shrinks until everyone feels “small” or out of place.


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