Erving Goffman suggested that day-to-day interactions have much in common with being on stage or in a dramatic production. Dramaturgical analysis is the study of social interaction that compares everyday life to a theatrical presentation. Members of our "audience" judge our performance and are aware that we may slip and reveal our true character (Golt'man, 1959, 1963a). Consequently, most of us attempt to play our role as weUas possible and to control the impressions we give to others. Impression management (presentation of self) refers to people's efforts to present themselves to others in ways that are most favorable to their own Interests or image. For example, suppose that a professor has returned graded exams to your class. Will you discuss the exam and your grade with others in the class? If you are like most people, you probably play your student role differently depending on whom you are talking to and what grade you received on the exam. Your "presentation" may vary depending on the grade earned by the other person (your "audience"). In one study. students who all received high grades rAce-Ace encounters") willingly talked with one another about their grades and sometimes engaged in a little bragging about how they had "aced" the test. However, encounters between students who had received high grades and those who had received low or failing grades ("Ace-Bomber encounters") were uncomfortable, The Aces felt as if they had to minimize their own grade. Consequently, they tended to attribute their success to "luck" and were quick to offer the Bombers words of encouragement.
On the other hand. the Bombers believed that they had to praise the Aces and hide their own feelings of frustration and disappointment, Students who received low or failing grades ("Bomber-Bomber encounters") were more comfortable when they talked with one another because they could share their negative emotions. TIley often indulged in self-pity and relied on Iaqe-saving excuses (such as an illness or an unfair exam) for their poor performances (Albas and Albas, 1988)
In Goffmans terminology, [ace-saving behavior refers to the strategies we use to rescue our performance when we experience a potential or actual loss of face. When the Bombers made excuses for their low scores, they were engaged in face-saving; the Aces attempted to help them save face by asserting that tho:test was unfair or that it was only a small part of the linnl grade. Why would the Aces and Bombers both participate In face-saving behavior? In most social tnteractlons, all role players have an Interest In keeping the "play" going 50 that they can maintain their overall definition of the situation in which they perform their roles. Goffman noted that people consciously participate in studied nonobservnnce, a face-saving technique in which one role player ignores the flaws in another's performance to avoid embarrassment for everyone involved. Most of us remember times when we have failed in our role and know that it is likely to happen again; thus, we may be more forgiving of the role failures of others.
Social interaction. like a theater, has a front stage and a back stage. The front stage is the area where a player performs a specific role before an audience. The b.lck stage is the area where a player is not required to perform a specific role because it is out of view of a given audience. For example. when the Aces and Bombers were talking with each other at school, they were on the "front stage." When they were in the prideCY of their own residences, they were in "back stage" settings-they no longer had to perform the Ace and Bomber roles and could be themselves. TI'e need for impression management is most intense when role players have widely divergent or devalued statuses. As we have seen with the Aces and Bombers, the participants often play different roles under different circumstances and keep their various audiences separated from one another. If one audi- ence becomes a ,~rl"of other roles that a person plays. the impression being given at that time may be ruined. For example. homeless people may lose jobs or the opportunity to get them when their hornelessness becomes known. One woman had worked as a receptionist in a doctor's office for several weeks but was fired when the doctor learned that she was living in a shelter (Liebow, 1993). However. the homeless do not passively accept the roles into which they are cast. For the most part. they attempt-as we all do-to engage in impression management in their everyday life. The dramaturgical approach helps us think about the roles we play and the audiences who judge our presentation of self. Today. many people are concerned not only about the impressions they make in face-to-face encounters but also in. cyberspace (see "Sociology Works!"). However. the dramaturgical approach has been criticized for focusing
on appearances and not the underlying substance. 111 is approach may not place enough emphasis on the ways in which our everyday interactions with other people are influenced by occurrences within the larger society. For example. if some members of Congress belittle the homeless as being lazy and unwilling to work. it may become easier for people walking down a street to do likewise. Even so, Goffrnan's work has been influential in the development of the sociology of emotions. an important area of theory and research.