May 04, 2020

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

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Several years ago, I blogged about the age of social media might have blurred Erving Goffman’s “front stage” and “back stage” distinctions. As I teach, attend meetings, and “visit” with family members via teleconferencing, I have been thinking about what actually constitutes “back stage” today.

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 hands.

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 would at home. We likely have clothing that we wear in public spaces that is different from what we wear when we are lounging in our homes.

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 and proves that there is 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. For example, most teleconferencing platforms have a setting to include a virtual background to hide what our actual homes look like. But in my informal observations, I have noticed that it is almost impossible to keep things back stage like they used to be. 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 humanity in our colleagues, professors, and students may be comforting. One of my students said that he enjoys seeing my cat’s tail occasionally appear on screen during meetings.

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

Never before would I have thought that anyone at work would see 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 connected 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 during the pandemic. Sharing or not sharing one’s health status, or the health status of a family member, is different now. When the number of claims for unemployment jumped by about ten million in the spring of 2020, sharing that someone has lost a job became more common and perhaps less shameful than it might be during a period of low unemployment.

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

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