Goffman on Emotions: The Pride-Shame System



This essay proposes that Goffman's basic method was the intuitive recognition of generic examples of social interaction. This focus on examples, when considered from the point of view of two of Cooley's general propositions, helps explain the meaning of Goffman's metaphor of theatrical performance, and his insistence on the risk of shame in all interaction. These ideas make sense following Pascal's emphasis on the intuitive element in finding new knowledge, and Spinoza's part/whole idea. This latter approach leads to what will be called the Goffman/Cooley conjecture: we run the risk of shame in all human interaction. Although they didn't explain why, it seems that the pace of modern alienated societies punishes the mammalian urge that humans have for connectedness (pride) with others. These ideas seem to be supported by studies by Helen Lewis and Norbert Elias, and by my own recent study of Ngrams. As Elias's study proposed, virtually all shame is hidden in modern societies. The idea of hidden shame requires a new definition of shame that is quite different than vernacular usage.

  •  Seated one day at the organ,

  •  I was weary and ill at ease,

  •  And my fingers wandered idly

  •  Over the noisy keys.

  • I know not what I was playing,

  • Or what I was dreaming then;

  • But I struck one chord of music,

  • Like the sound of a great Amen.

  • The Lost Chord (Adelaide Anne Procter, 1858)


This essay seeks the central meaning of Goffman's most popular work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), explains why it is so popular, and how crucially important it is to understand it. In my view, this book establishes Goffman's genius because of his ability to find and gather chords, invisible to others, that might allow us to understand and rebuild our relationships and our social structure.

The first step is to examine Erving Goffman's work in the context of ideas derived from Pascal and Spinoza. Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), a seventeenth century French scientist and philosopher, proposed a unique solution to the problem of finding new knowledge. In his book Pensées, first published in 1660, he proposed that advances in understanding require both “the spirit of finesse” (intuition) and “the spirit of geometrie” (system) in more or less equal measure (Pascal 1982). Intuition creates new ideas, while system is needed to test their validity, and refine them if they are valid. As will be suggested below, Goffman was extraordinarily strong on intuition, but weaker on system.

Pascal's contemporary, Benedict Spinoza (1632–1677), one of the first philosophers of science, outlined what amounts to a method for studying the human world. He argued that human beings are so complex that to even begin to understand them, one must move rapidly back and forth between “the least parts and greatest wholes.” What he called least parts were concrete particulars: greatest wholes are abstract ideas, concepts, and theories. (Sacksteder 1991; Scheff 1997). William Blake stated a similar idea in one sentence: “Art and science cannot exist but in minutely organized particulars.” (c. 1820). This idea brings together the seemingly separate worlds of science and art, particularly literary art.

Everyone uses Spinoza's method unthinkingly in daily life. Everyday discourse would be impossible to understand in any other way, since, if taken literally, it is fragmented, ambiguous, and incomplete. In this case, the least parts of discourse are the words, gestures, and paralanguage, and the greatest wholes the meanings constructed from these least parts. Again, Goffman seems to have been strongest on the least parts, his examples, but less interested in the greatest wholes that would organize his examples. In using the part/whole method, one can begin with the parts, the empirical route, or with the wholes, the theoretical route. Goffman seemed always to start with the parts, the many concrete examples of human interaction that make up the major part of all his writing. The question arises: without much concern for the wholes, how did he decide which parts should be the object of attention?


When I was a graduate student at Berkeley, Goffman responded to a question I asked without actually answering, during my first visit to his house in the foothills. Although it was a large, three-story house, it seemed to me that every room was filled with books. I inquired, “Are these books where you get your examples?” In lieu of an answer, he told me the following story.

The English novelist Muriel Spark was being interviewed about her novel The Bachelors (1960) which describes the lives of men of varying ages and stations in life in remarkable detail. When asked how a middle-aged unmarried woman could possibly know about such men, her answer was “A lifetime of combing lint.”

Not only then, but until many years later, I did not know what to do with his “answer.” My question arose because of what I thought was a plethora of examples in his lectures. I was one of his TAs in a large (about 400 students) undergraduate class. The students seemed to understand and enjoy the examples, but I could not decide what they were supposed to be examples OF. Nevertheless, the students in the class seemed to understand and appreciate these examples. In that class, we TAs (five graduate students) were astonished when he got a standing ovation at the end of the last class.

In my later attempts to read his Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (PSEL) (Goffman 1959), I had the same problem for many years. Nevertheless, the popularity of PSEL, his most example-laden book, has persisted. In paperback it has sold well over a million copies, and its current Amazon rank (#7,383 on October 17, 2013), 54 years later, is surprisingly high for an old academic book. As skilled as Goffman was with examples of particular everyday moments, he seemed to me careless about connecting them to general propositions. What led his lectures, this book and so much of his other writing to be so highly appreciated?

Recently I thought of a reason. In my impatience with his lack of attention to general propositions, I was not sufficiently appreciative of the intrinsic value of his examples. Awareness of the details of particular moments is rare almost to the point of nonexistence, as the novelist Milan Kundera (1995) made strikingly clear:

Try to reconstruct a dialogue from your own life, the dialogue of a quarrel or a dialogue of love. The most precious, the most important situations are utterly gone. Their abstract sense remains (I took this point of view, he took that one. I was aggressive, he was defensive), perhaps a detail or two. But the acoustic visual concreteness of the situation in all its continuity is lost.

And not only is it lost but we do not even wonder at this loss. We are resigned to losing the concreteness of the present. We immediately transform the present moment into its abstraction…

We can assiduously keep a diary and note every event. Rereading the entries one day we will see that they cannot evoke a single concrete image. And still worse: that the imagination is unable to help our memory along and reconstruct what has been forgotten. The present—the concreteness of the present—as a phenomenon to consider, as a structure, is for us an unknown planet: so we can neither hold on to it in our memory nor reconstruct it through imagination… (128–29)

Goffman had a great and rare gift: recognizing generic moments in the human world. Goffman's basic data gathering was the precise recognition of these moments, even though he probably didn't know why. That is, his understanding was intuitive, showing what Pascal called finesse. It is for that reason that he became, like Muriel Spark, a lint-comber. His students and his readers recognize these moments as real life because the details are right. Goffman's primary method was to take a first step toward organizing particulars by recording them in his writing.

It seems to me that each of his particulars, the external and interior dialogues that make up his examples, is, as Kundera might agree, like finding a lost chord, the sound of a great amen. Most of us do well to stumble upon such chords a few times in our whole lives. Goffman seemed to gather them up almost effortlessly.

My next step was to find a single instance in which Goffman was able to relate a large group of examples to a single proposition, relating parts to wholes, as Spinoza proposed. More specifically, I looked for an instance where he related a large number of least parts, his examples, to a single abstract idea or proposition. After many years of reading and rereading, I found a sentence that seemed to me to relate not only to a specific chapter of examples, but to the central theme of the whole book:

There is no interaction in which participants do not take an appreciable chance of being slightly embarrassed or a slight chance of being deeply humiliated. (Goffman 1959:243)

This statement occurs only in passing toward the end of the book. It asserts unmistakably that ALL interaction carries the risk of embarrassment/humiliation. This generalization helps explain Chapter 6 (Impression Management). The reason we spend such time and care managing our impressions (our appearance, talk, lifestyle, and so on), Goffman suggests, is to avoid embarrassment as best we can. It occurs to me now that he may have hit upon this proposition when rereading his own chapter on impression management—after the fact, so to speak. This proposition also relates to the basic theme of PSEL, his metaphor of human life as a theatrical performance. The book's core idea is that we are all usually actors, performing for other(s).


In a way that seems to be quite the opposite of Goffman's style, C. H. Cooley (1922) was stronger on general propositions than concrete examples. The first part of this quotation explains much of Goffman's metaphor of theatrical performance by stating it as a proposition:

We live in the minds of others WITHOUT KNOWING IT. (1922:208).

Human life, as Goffman suggests, is like a theatrical performance, because at an early age we learn to live in the minds of others, seeing ourselves through their eyes. Unlike G. H. Mead (1934) in his concept of “role-taking,” and Goffman's metaphor of the theater, in the last part of the quoted sentence, Cooley goes on to say that most humans usually don't know that they are living in the minds of others. At an early age, in order to understand other's talk, we learn to go in and out of imagining what is going on in the minds of others so rapidly that we forget that we are doing it.

In modern societies, we not only learn a language, but also learn to be extremely quick in using it. The pace of talk in traditional societies, on the other hand, is much slower (Scheff Submitted).To understand the need to be judged competent in conversation, or at least not ridiculed, consider the complexity and ambiguity of ordinary everyday discourse. Human languages in actual usage are almost always fragmented, incomplete, and context dependent, with most commonly used words having more than one meaning. For these reasons, even simple discourse would be impossible to understand directly, taken literally. We understand the speech of others to the extent that we can take on, however briefly, their point of view. This necessity gives rise to complex multi-processing.

G. H. Mead (1934) proposed that the self is made up of movement between one's own self and the point of view of other(s). He called it role-taking: it makes the various and highly complex human languages possible, as opposed to the small instinctive vocabularies of other mammals. Humans can imagine the point of view of another person or persons, which helps explain much of the humanness of the human mammal. The imagination is not always accurate, but, judging from the speed with which modern societies function, it is accurate enough, enough of the time, to keep the wheels spinning. Even when inaccurate, role-taking sometimes fulfills the vital function of taking the person outside of themselves.

Most role-taking by adults appears to occur at lightning speed, so fast that it disappears from consciousness at an early age. In modern societies, particularly, which strongly encourage individualism; there are many incentives for forgetting that one is role-taking. Each of us learns to consider ourselves a stand-alone individual, independent of what others think.

Children learn role-taking so early and so well that they forget they are doing it. The more adept they become, the quicker the movement back and forth, learning through practice to reduce silences in conversation to an unbelievably short time. The body of work in conversation analysis, even in early studies like Wilson and Zimmerman (1986), helps us understand how overlooking the whole inner process is possible.

Wilson and Zimmerman recorded and analyzed adult dialogues nine minutes long from seven conversations (fourteen different people). They reported that the average length of silences varied from 0.04 to 0.09 seconds. How can one possibly respond to the other's personal comment in less than a tenth of a second? If one were allowed a whole minute's silence, rather than a tenth of a second, the pace of response would be six hundred times slower.

Apparently one needs to begin forming a response well before the other person has stopped speaking, perhaps even during the first few fractions of a second. Humans seem to be capable of multi-processing, in this case, in at least four different channels: listening to the other's comment, imagining its meaning from the speaker's point of view, and from their own point of view, and forming a response to it. These four activities must occur virtually simultaneously. There may be even further channels, such as imagining the other person's response to our forthcoming comment.

These reactions could give rise to very rapid back and forth between two or more channels: a vast interior drama could occur in each person unknowingly in a dialogue, before each response. One crucial implication of this colossal speed of response is that we are not actually responding to the whole message: we are too hurried to dig in to the words, paralanguage, and gestural components of the comments. In virtually all communication, we do not really connect with the other(s), one aspect of the alienation which characterizes modernity. This idea will help to make sense of Goffman's insistence on the risk of shame or embarrassment.


Most people might think Goffman's proposition about risk of shame in all interaction preposterous, but perhaps it depends on how shame is defined. The propositions of Cooley and studies such as those by Norbert Elias ([1939] 1994) and Lewis (1971) provide support for Goffman's idea. Cooley's concept, the looking glass self is, in essence, a theory of the pride/shame system.

Elias and Lewis conducted studies which suggest the widespread occurrence of shame in modern societies. Elias's extensive study of modernization ([1939] 1994) involved a textual analysis of etiquette and educational manuals over a 500-year period of European history in three languages. Close examination of these texts showed that, as shame replaced physical punishment, it also became increasingly invisible. Shame controls much of our behavior, but we do not allow ourselves to talk or even think about it.

A study of Freud's writings, both his cases and his own letters, by the psychologist Michael Billig (1999) also used a close textual analysis to reconstruct the psychoanalytic theory of repression. This study showed that repression seems to be caused by social practices: parents teach children to avoid certain issues (such as sexuality and anger) by distracting them to the point that the children learn to distract themselves. My own study of historical changes in the frequency of the word “shame” in Ngrams (discussed below) also supports the basic idea: hidden shame is a key to understanding modernity.

Goffman does not cite Cooley, even though he was surely aware that he had laid the groundwork for the idea that human life is haunted, if not controlled, by shame, the generic emotion whose siblings are embarrassment and humiliation. In his discussion of “the looking-glass self”, Cooley proposed that both inner and outer human life produce emotions, and that both social and self-process often lead to either pride or shame.

[The self] seems to have three principal elements:

  1. The imagination of our appearance to the other person
  2. The imagination of his [or her] judgment of that appearance
  3. Some sort of self-feeling, such as pride or [shame]. (p. 184)

The paragraph from which these lines are taken proposes a way in which social relationships give rise to a self, which in turn leads to emotions. Cooley's approach implies that social interaction usually generates pride or shame. Although the actual term he uses in line #3 is “mortification,” his examples all involve the word shame itself. The definition of the looking glass self suggests how, in three steps, either pride or shame might be present much of the time.

What about pride? Cooley's and Goffman's treatment of this emotion are quite parallel: Goffman completely ignores it, Cooley, after initially introducing it, also ignores it. Cooley's examples all concern shame rather than pride. Goffman provided hundreds of examples of impression management, but none ending in genuine pride. Searching the text of PSEL, I found sixteen mentions of either shame or embarrassment, but only three of pride. Moreover, all the pride mentions were in quotes by other authors, where pride was largely incidental. Goffman himself uses only shame terms. Why did Goffman omit pride completely, and Cooley slightly less so? Is Goffman's insistence that the risk of shame is present in all human affairs defensible? Neither Cooley and Elias, nor Lewis takes it quite that far.

Although neither Cooley nor Goffman name the kind of civilization they analyzed, it is clear that they mean the current one, a modern, rather than a traditional society. Perhaps, modernity gives rise to their single focus on shame. Building upon their insights, this essay proposes that shame is a fundamental aspect of human existence, a signal of disconnect and alienation. As indicated above in the discussion of the speed of response, relationships in modern societies strongly tend toward alienation, and therefore to the ubiquity of shame.


Modernity is built on a base of individualism, the encouragement to go it alone, no matter what may be the cost to relationships. People learn to act as if they were complete in themselves and independent of others. This disposition may be constructive and creative but it may also imply alienation and the hiding of emotions, especially shame.

An emphasis on individual rationality is key to most institutions in modern societies. Another is the suppression of the social-emotional world in favor of the cognitive world of thought and behavior. One outcome of this suppression is that emotion vocabularies in modern languages are ambiguous and misleading, so that they tend to hide alienation. For example, in the English language, love is defined so broadly that it is often used to hide disconnection—Women Who Love Too Much (Norwood 1985). The women studied for this book explained that they were passive in the face of their husbands' violence because they loved the men too much to leave: pathological passivity is hidden behind a positive term. There are also many other ambiguities, confusions, and deceptions. Since shame is elaborately hidden and disguised, a close examination of verbal, gestural, and contextual details may be needed to uncover it.

In traditional and Asian societies, the central importance of shame is taken for granted. Indeed, in some Asian societies, such as Japan, it is seen as the central emotion. In a traditional society like the Maori, shame (whakamaa) is also treated as the key emotion. Most of the approach to shame and relationships in this essay would be seen as platitudinous by the Maori, news from nowhere (Metge 1986). But in Western societies, treating shame as highly significant in everyday life is counterintuitive and even offensive. Western societies focus on individuals, rather than relationships. Because of his emphasis on self-reliance (in contrast to blind conformity), Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) was one of the prophets of individualism: “When my genius calls, I have no father and mother, no brothers or sisters” (Emerson 1841:18). In extreme contrast, in a traditional society, there is nothing more important than one's relationships. Modernization has freed individuals from their relational/emotional world. Emotions have been de-emphasized to the point of disappearance. But shame and relationships do not disappear: they just assume hidden, disguised, and ultimately destructive forms.

Individualism is the dominant theme of all relationships in Western societies. This disguises the web of personal and social relationships that sustain human life. The myth of the self-sustaining individual, in turn, reflects and generates the suppression and hiding of shame and pride. Since pride and shame, or at least their anticipation, are the predominant emotions in social interaction, suppression supports the status quo, the myth of the self-contained individual. To honor Goffman and Cooley's early development of the idea of the all but ubiquitous presence of hidden shame in modern societies, I will call this idea the Goffman/Cooley conjecture: a pride/shame system functions in most social interaction.

One implication of their conjecture is that as we become aware of the massive amounts of emotion and disguising of emotion, especially shame, that occur both in social interaction and in solitude, we can make visible what is otherwise invisible, the state of any given relationship or set of relationships.


The confusion of English vernacular is obvious in the case of pride, since both dictionaries and usage imply two contradictory meanings (Scheff 1997; Tracy et al. 2009). The first meaning is negative: pride is interpreted as egotism. (“Pride goeth before the fall”). When we say that someone is proud, it is likely to be condemnatory. False pride might be a better name for this kind of self-feeling, to distinguish it from true pride. Indeed, it appears that false pride is just one more way of hiding shame. The second meaning is positive: a favorable view of self, but one that has been earned. This kind of pride is genuine, authentic, justified. However, even adding these adjectives doesn't completely eliminate the negative flavor. In English, the word pride is tainted by its first meaning, no matter how impressive the justification.

Individualism also causes endless obfuscation about shame. The primary confusion is the practice of leaving out the social component that arises from the looking glass self: viewing ourselves negatively because we imagine that we are viewed that way by another person or persons. Both in vernacular and scholarly usage, shame is typically assumed to be solely an internal matter, condemning oneself. But the looking glass self contains both the internal result and the external source. The typical definition of shame in current psychology involves gross dissatisfaction with self. Cooley's usage includes this part, but adds the social component, imagining, correctly or incorrectly, a negative view of self by others. Cooley's idea of the social source of shame and pride suggests that these emotions are signals of the state of a relationship. As indicated above, whatever the substantive basis for shame, the actual violation or occasion, a universal, mammalian, cross-cultural component is the state of the bond: true pride signals a secure bond (connectedness), shame a threatened one (disconnect). Since shame is first of all a biological response in the body, it begins at birth. In later life this definition virtually always includes the substantive cause of shame, whatever it might be, since the causes of shame themselves are usually shared with one's society.

Modern societies produce alienation at many different levels, so emotions and relationships are deeply hidden. Shame, in particular, becomes invisible, even for most social and behavioral researchers. A taboo is implied in the many studies of shame that do not use the forbidden word at all. Instead, the focus is on one of the many shame cognates (Retzinger 1995, lists hundreds). One such cognate is the word awkward, as in “it was an awkward moment for me.” A further way of hiding shame is to behaviorize it: there are many studies of feelings of rejection, loss of social status, the search for status attainment, and the search for recognition.

In ordinary discourse, the use of alternative words for shame (“I feel inadequate, useless, weak, etc.”) is one way of hiding shame. Another way is what Helen Lewis (1971) called “bypassing,” complete suppression. A person may feel upset for a few seconds, but quickly distract himself/herself by thinking about or doing something else immediately. Many people find the idea of invisible emotions preposterous, because they confound emotion with feeling. They will acknowledge, however, knowing of incidents in which an obviously angry person seemed unaware that she or he was angry. Many similar incidents are reported by hospice workers with people in mourning who complain that they feel no grief.

I have recently conducted a study of the occurrence of shame and other emotion terms in the entire contents of millions of digitized books from 1800 to 2000 in five languages. This data is called Ngrams by its makers, Aiden et al. (2011), who use Google's program that has digitized millions of books. This program searches the total interior of books in many languages. Online one can search the frequency of occurrence of any word over many years. Although searches of earlier years are now available, the largest numbers of books occur in the period 1800–2007. My initial finding is that the use of the word shame has decreased threefold during the last 200 years in American and British English, French, Spanish, and German books. The first three graphs are particularly impressive, since change is very similar; the decline in frequency is smooth and constant for most of the period. The meaning of these findings is somewhat complex, however. One reason is that vernacular “shame” has meanings that do not refer to actual shame: “What a shame!” means exactly the same thing as “What a pity:” “Shame on you” is another example, since it can be used as a joke.

Lewis's (1971) study of emotion events in psychotherapy sessions reported that shame episodes occurred more frequently than all the other emotions combined. The study has received many citations, but these usually ignore or misinterpret her main findings, particularly her finding about the high frequency of shame episodes. She once complained to me that people praise her book but do not read it. Similarly, groups headed by Paul Gilbert and Andrews (1998) and George Brown et al. (1995) have published several studies of shame, but with little response. In his study over hundreds of years of European history, Elias (1994) identified two main themes: as physical punishment decreased, shame became increasingly dominant as the main agent of social control; and as shame became more prevalent, it also became almost invisible because of taboo. What I consider to be the main finding of his study has been more or less neglected, even by Elias's most devoted followers. A similar case can be made about studies of stigma. Although this word literally means shame, only a few of the thousands of studies make that connection.

However, Evelin Lindner has been able to generate a worldwide following for the study of almost identical themes. Her success may be due, at least in part, to avoiding the s-word, both in the title of her organization (Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies), and in her books (2000, 2006a, 2006b). In her most recent work (Lindner 2010), however, she refers to shame as well as humiliation. Another instance is the work of Robert W. Fuller (2006, 2003) and Fuller and Gerloff (2008). He has been speaking to large audiences all over the world using title words like Lindner's and avoiding the s-word entirely. The taboo on shame may have weakened in the last twenty years among researchers, since the downward slope for the word shame has slowed in the Ngrams. But it continues to exert a powerful influence: shame is still close to being unspeakable and unprintable.


Cooley's explication of his looking-glass idea implies that it goes on unconsciously. We only realize it, he states, in extreme or unusual situations:

Many people of balanced mind…scarcely know that they care what others think of them, and will deny, perhaps with indignation, that such care is an important factor in what they are and do. But this is an illusion. If failure or disgrace arrives, if one suddenly finds that the faces of men show coldness or contempt instead of the kindliness and deference that he is used to, he will perceive from the shock, the fear, and the sense of being outcast and helpless, that he was living in the minds of others without knowing it, just as we daily walk the solid ground without thinking how it bears us up. (1922:208)

In the following passage, Cooley explains how the looking glass self generates shame:

The comparison with a looking-glass hardly suggests the second element, the imagined judgment, which is quite essential. The thing that moves us to pride or shame is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves, but an imputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this reflection upon another's mind. This is evident from the fact that the character and weight of that other, in whose mind we see ourselves, makes all the difference with our feeling. We are ashamed to seem evasive in the presence of a straightforward man, cowardly in the presence of a brave one, gross in the eyes of a refined one and so on. We always imagine, and in imagining share, the judgments of the other mind. A man will boast to one person of an action—say some sharp transaction in trade—which he would be ashamed to own to another. (1922:184–85, emphasis added).

The implications of Cooley's approach would be more easily understood if he had provided detailed examples. In the following passage, Cooley refers to particular, though fictional, events in novels, but without quoting any of them in detail:

In most of [George Eliot's] novels there is some character like Mr. Bulstrode in Middlemarch…whose respectable and long established social image of himself is shattered by the coming to light of hidden truth. (1900:208)

Cooley's statement and example, since they are both abstract, give only a slight sense of how catastrophic the shattering of the social image is, and how far it reaches. In the novel, Bulstrode's wife, Dorothea, although blameless, stands by her disgraced husband. The novel provides detailed particulars so that the reader is alerted to the full shape and force of public humiliation. Using Bulstrode's instance to make his point is somewhat of a departure from Cooley's tendency to abstain from description. However, he does not go so far as to quote the passage and comment on how its details relate to his thesis.

Here, for example, is a quotation from the novel showing one way Bulstrode's disgrace also implicates his wife. Cooley could have used it to illustrate some of the particulars implied by his thesis:

When she had resolved to [stand by her husband], she prepared herself by some little acts which might seem mere folly to a hard onlooker; they were her way of expressing to all spectators visible or invisible that she had begun a new life in which she embraced humiliation. She took off all her ornaments and put on a plain black gown, and instead of wearing her much-adorned cap and large bows of hair, she brushed her hair down and put on a plain bonnet… (Eliot, 1900:338, my italics)

Dorothea prepares for a public stripping of her dignity by discarding her socially acceptable appearance, replacing it with what might have been tramp, prison or funeral clothing. By only referring to events like this one, rather than quoting them, Cooley was unable to present the full force of his ideas.

Goffman, on the other hand, freely used a great multitude of concrete examples. His wealth of detailed events seems to be the key to his popularity and his importance. They remind readers of their own instances: “That's like me!” They can also be used to illustrate many of Cooley's theses. Here is a Goffman instance that illustrates Cooleyean themes, with numbers added to help the reader keep track:

Knowing that his audiences are capable of forming bad impressions of him [1], the individual may come to feel ashamed [2] of a well-intentioned honest act merely because the context of its performance provides false impressions that are bad. Feeling this unwarranted shame, he may feel that his feelings can be seen [3]; feeling that he is thus seen, he may feel that his appearance confirms [4] these false conclusions concerning him. He may then add to the precariousness of his position by engaging in just those defensive maneuvers [impression management] that he would employ were he really guilty. In this way it is possible for all of us to become fleetingly for ourselves the worst person we can imagine that others might imagine us to be. (1959:236, numbering added)

This instance is somewhat difficult to understand because it is so complex. It would have helped if Goffman had been even more detailed. Suppose a jokester colleague at the office creates a forbidden sound by pressing a whoopee cushion just as you sit down at your desk. You are embarrassed (2), because you imagine that your colleagues think it was you who made the sound (1). Even though you are not the culprit, you blush (3) because you imagine the others in the office think it was your inappropriate action (4).

In this paragraph, Goffman suggested four very brief internal steps, three of which involve living in the mind of the other. Perhaps, it was examples like these that led Bourdieu (1983) to call Goffman “the discoverer of the infinitely small.”


This essay has proposed that the central theme implied by Goffman's book, PSEL, is that humans are usually performing for others, rather than just being themselves, because they are attempting to be accepted as a fellow member of the tribe, or at least not be rejected. The next step is that Goffman's work is popular because his examples show concrete aspects of human behavior, perhaps helping readers reclaim lost moments in their own hurried life, thereby enlarging their being. And it is also still important because it implies that hidden shame is a key for understanding modernity. To the extent that he was right, our civilization would need to begin to bring shame out into the open.


I am grateful to Dmitri Shalin and to an anonymous reviewer for their comments on an earlier draft.


  • Thomas Scheff is Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is past president of the Pacific Sociological Association, and past chair of the Emotions Section of the American Sociological Assoc. Some of his publications are Being Mentally Ill, Microsociology, Bloody Revenge, Emotions, the Social Bond and Human Reality, Goffman Unbound!: A New Paradigm and Easy Rider. His most recent is What's Love Got to Do with It? The Emotion World of Pop Songs. 2011. Paradigm Publishers. He is interested in creative teaching and integration of the social, political, behavioral and clinical human arts and sciences, and particularly, the integration of these disciplines into new directions of thought and effort.