May 04, 2020

When Back Stage becomes Front Stage: Goffman’s Dramaturgy in the Age of Teleconferencing

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Nearly eight years ago, I blogged about how we might reconsider Erving Goffman's front stage/back stage distinctions in the age of social media. As I now teach, attend meetings, and visit with family members using teleconferencing, I have been thinking about what actually constitutes “back stage” right now.

Erving Goffman wrote in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life that, “back regions are typically out of bounds to members of the audience” (p. 124). That was in 1959, when he could not have foreseen that we would have the technology to share audio and video with hundreds of people at a time from a device that could fit in the palm of our hand.

For Goffman, social interactions were largely “front stage” and in public spaces: working and being in school typically happens in places where we might carry ourselves differently than we do when we are at home. We probably have clothing that we wear in these spaces that looks different from what we wear when we are lounging at home.

Out of necessity, our front stage actions are taking place in spaces that we used to consider back stage. A colleague of mine detailed how she created a teleconferencing studio in her home in this post, and there are no shortage of tips for how to apply make-up and what to wear while teleconferencing. The Washington Post reported that sales of tops have recently outpaced the sales of pants at one major retailer.

What is back stage today? Certainly it could include all that we keep off camera; Zoom even has a setting to put a photo or another virtual background up to block the view in the background if we want. But in my informal observations, I have noticed that it is almost impossible to keep things that might have previously been easily kept back stage. Small children or pets may interrupt meetings by crying or barking or otherwise seeking attention.

Rather than “failed performances,” these intrusions can be endearing or as Goffman put it, indicate that our performance is “sincere”(p. 18). During these challenging times, seeing the full humanity in our colleagues, professors, and students may be comforting. One of my students said that he enjoys seeing my cat’s tail occasionally intruding on the scene on my desk.

Meetings might stop for everyone to say hello to a toddler who runs to their parent and appears on camera. In one meeting, everyone wearing some form of informal (or “back stage”) clothing (mostly pajama bottoms or shoeless feet) was asked to share.

Never before would I have thought that anyone at work ever seeing my pajama bottoms, but it created a moment of solidarity. From seeing an authority figure with tussled hair and no tie to seeing someone’s kitchen or living room, these glimpses of back stage can help us feel connections during this time of social distancing and uncertainty.

There are, of course, still appropriate back stage and front stage boundaries to be maintained, but they have shifted in recent weeks. Sharing—or not sharing—one’s health status or the health status of a family member might be different now. As the number of claims for unemployment jumped by about ten million in a recent two-week period, sharing that someone has lost a job might become more common and feel less shameful that it might during a period of low unemployment.

How else might the rise in teleconferencing shift the boundaries between front stage and back stage?

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