Goffman’s corner

This will be a series of blogs devoted to the “cultural rules” of everyday life.

It is named for Erving Goffman. Goffman was born in Alberta in 1922. He got his graduate training from the University of Chicago. He taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania. He died in Philadelphia on November 19, 1982. Those interested in his work will find “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” (1959) a good place to start. Goffman was an inspired observer of “cultural rules.”

We are a postmodern culture, to be sure. But a surprising amount of social life is still constrained and scripted by cultural rules.

“Turn taking” is a good example. There is a rule in our culture that says that each person in a conversation may speak for only so long. He/she must then turn over the conversational lead to someone else.

You can test this rule in your next conversation. Hold your lead. Keep talking. Don’t let anyone in. It won’t be long before your friends begin to twitch their bodies and flash their impatience. Eventually, they will wrestle the turn away from you.

Watch for little (or large) expression of affrontery. Your conversational partners will be offended that you presumed to hold the conversational lead at their expense. You will have subtly challenged them. They will likely give you a couple of those “across the face” glances (where the looker looks not straight ahead, but across the face. This normally betokens resentment and or challenge and or scrutiny.) All you did was talk for a little too long. Ah, the very large implications that come from tiny little departures. Goffman understood this sort of thing right down to the ground.

Cultural rules have the interesting property of being active but, usually, invisible. We all obey the turn taking rule. But if you asked someone to describe a conversation, they would probably not ever make reference to the rule. If you asked them to describe why they were, in the case of your withholding the conversational turn, unhappy with you, almost certainly, they won’t be able to report that “you talked too long.” These rules remain invisible even when broken.

Moments of social change will sometimes encourage us to make these rules explicit. The feminism of the 1970s was a time in which we began to notice that there was one set of turn taking rules for men and another for women. But once the rules are reworked, they tend to slip once more below the surface of consciousness.

So why treat cultural rules here?

Two reasons.

First, this is one of the things that anthropologists can bring to the party. Despite Goffman’s magnificent efforts, we don’t all know about the operation of these rules.

Second, cultural rules are a place to spot underlying shifts in what and who we are as a culture. This is a good observation platform.

As Virginia Postrel was saying today in her post, there is so much noise in social life, it is sometimes hard to tell what indicates a trend and what does not. But the contemplation of cultural rules can sometimes feel like a submarine world. It is, sometimes, stiller, quieter, and easier to read.

2 thoughts on “Goffman’s corner

  1. Anonymous

    Maybe the issue is that the world may be postmodern in many ways and one can have conversations about what it is to be living in a postmodern world, but it is incredibly difficult to sustain a postmodern conversation other than as a party trick.

    I agree that there are cultural rules, but it is because they are invisible that it is easier to assume a shared culture until those rules are broken. Take your example of a party : it will no doubt include talkers and listeners, some who will talk for ‘too’ long and others who do more listening.

    So what a quiet unassuming anthropologist may be able to bring to a party is not only an uncovering of the rules, but an interpretation of them as key to what actually defines a conversation.
    Those who hold forth longest are often those who view conversation not as an exchange but as a forum for debate based on clever argumentation. Conversation is perhaps simply situated along a continuum that goes from idle gossip (perhaps the closest one will get to a postmodern conversation) to antagonizing and divisive debates. And a good party will often consist in maintaining equilibrium while moving along that continuum where conversation has a place and its rules that are partly set up in contrast with the place and rules of other forms talk (not all of them being an exchange).
    In short, if the party is to be a success, it is the host and hostess (or at least one of the 2)(admittedly, a polite guest would also do) who need to be good anthropologists, subtly highlighting the rules without discouraging freedom of expression.
    But this would be close to suggesting that cultural rules are in fact the social rules of politeness that only become cultural if content is suitably intellectual… (I’m getting stuck)

    I am not much of an anthropologist and haven’t done the necessary readings, but perhaps the case would have to be made with a dinner party full of anthropologists. I am quite sure some will hold forth from starters through to dessert and the listeners and prompters will quickly fall into their role of both making conversation (in a literal and positive sense) and encouraging the speaker to dig him/herself into an ever deeper hole. Can an anthropologist go to a party and be both the one who holds forth and breaks the rules and the one who plays the game by the rules?

  2. Helen DeWitt

    Oral v written rules. If you have a conversation there is a very brief span of time within which you may reply without breaching the social fabric. If you don’t know what to say you can’t wait 4 years before committing yourself to an utterance. Whereas it’s possible to miss the boat in commenting on a blog and turn up 3 and a bit years later & throw in your 2 cents’ worth.

    In your post on cloudiness, which I’ve also only just read, you talked about the outdated Geertzian model of the self. Problem is, there are a lot of social rules that require one to act as if one had a Geertzian self. If one comes into contact with the police, with a psychiatric institution, one is required to put on a successful performance of a Geertzian self. The alternative is not very cloudy; the alternative is being locked up, which isn’t nice.

    I like Goffman very much; when I was hauled off to a psychiatric ward at a hospital in Niagara Falls I did not know what answers I should give, at short notice, to the questions put. I thought: I don’t really need a lawyer, I need a sociologist.

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