Category Archives: Goffman’s Corner

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.

new rules on death

Many cultural rules are changing, but one that has proven particularly robust is the one that says we “mustn’t speak ill of the dead.”

And then along comes a piece in the Daily Telegraph by Stephen Pollard. Telegraph | Opinion | I can only speak ill of Sir Peter

Pollard lets fly:

“[Ustinov’s] politics were so vile, and his judgment so warped, that it beggars belief that his death should have been met with praise such as “great humanitarian”, “selfless” and “visionary”.

The cultural logic of the old rule is pretty clear. The dead are protected from criticism because, after all, they aren’t in a position to defend themselves. So attacks are cruel and mean. There is also a notion that says dying is actually the ultimate act of concession. For some reason, we find death mollifying. “Well, if you put it that way…” seems to be the spirit with which critics put down their weapons. I think there might be a third consideration. With death, a bell has sounded, we suspend all hostilities–as if death were the end of a rugby match. All is forgiven.

The cultural logic of the new rule comes from our general preference for full disclosure. We suppose that, generally speaking, the individual’s right to privacy is less important than the collectivity’s right to know. Private lives are part of the proposition, we seem to argue. We can’t really think about Foucault’s ideas, unless we know the appalling details of his private life.

Clearly, the argument is not always so grand as this. The gutter press reveals private details for the purposes of titilation. Grander institutions have a higher motive (we hope).

Pollard’s innovation (if it is an innovation), is, I think, a useful corrective against the addled “let us sing their praises” approach with which the dead are more usually remembered. After all, the obituary is a crucial moment of idea formation. (If it isn’t, we are we bothering?) How we remember someone is an important part of how we think about ourselves. I believe its true that the dead won’t mind, and the rest of us will think a little more clearly.

Here’s to Peter Ustinov, that bastard.