Have you ever seen someone in a wildly different context from where you normally interact with them? Was it awkward? As a kid, did you ever see your teacher at the mall and think, “wow, s/he doesn’t live at school?” In this post Sarah Nell explains how context (or what Goffman called “performance region”) influences our ability to successfully enact our roles.
I teach large sections of introduction to sociology, totaling over 250 students a semester. That’s a lot of faces, and twice as many eyeballs. It’s impossible to learn all of their faces, much less their names. But I try. I need their help, so I tell them: “If you want me to know your name, I will. If you see me on campus or around town, introduce yourself.” I always appreciate the connections when I can make them. With classes so large, it is likely that they will recognize me, but I may not recognize them. After all, there is only one of me, and I am the leader of the activity we share. I see students all the time, everywhere I go. In a small college town, this is an occupational hazard I have come to grips with. This post is not about what happens when students DO introduce themselves to me, but rather, when they don’t.
Spoiler alert: It’s awkward.
Inspired by a student many years ago, I ask students to document, in sociological observation essays, those moments in their everyday lives where sociology jumps out at them “all of a sudden”. Imagine my surprise (horror, really) when I read this: “All of a sudden, I found myself thinking about sociology when I was working as a lifeguard and saw my sociology professor [that’s me] swimming with her children.” Recalling a few times I’d spent swimming, and zero times running into a student, my mind raced, trying to imagine the faces of the lifeguards. Other than the uncomfortable situation posed by a student seeing me in a bathing suit, there was something greater bothering me.
Maybe he felt just as awkward as I did about seeing his professor in a bathing suit. I was mortified. But why?
I was mortified. But why? Was it because my student is a guy? Would I have been mortified if the student revealing this was a woman? Or would I just be merely embarrassed? Do women share a certain code that makes me less weirded out to be seen by a fellow woman in the most body-revealing outfit possible? Is it because I’m ashamed of my body? Is it because he did not acknowledge that he knew me, when he clearly did?
As I read his paper describing how I played in the pool with my daughter and her friend, I felt kind of violated by his vague “peeping tom” view of me, which I found extremely unfair. As a lifeguard, he was in his bathing suit too, so maybe it was just as weird for him. Maybe he hoped I didn’t recognize him. Maybe he felt just as awkward as I did about seeing his professor in a bathing suit, laughing, playing, and doing bad, underwater handstands. I’m sure he hoped I wouldn’t start drowning, or he’d have to save me, his professor in a bathing suit.
This was really driving me crazy; why did I feel so mortified by this? Then one day a student walked into my office when I had a mouthful of salad. A look washed over her face like she had interrupted an extremely private moment. I quickly chewed and mumbled something like, “no problem, come on in.” But that same feeling emerged. I wasn’t quite mortified by a student watching me chomp salad, but I felt uncomfortable. And then it dawned on me: the student had entered what Erving Goffman called “the back-stage region.”
Goffman’s influential theory of dramaturgy views all social life as theater-like. We all have roles to play, performances to give, and audiences who react to our performances. The “front stage” refers to the place where the performance is given. In my front-stage performance as a college professor, my costume is modest professional attire, and my stage is, quite literally, a stage upon which I stand with my props: a lectern, a slide projector, a computer, books, and some dry erase markers. The performance I give to my student audience involves discussion of ideas on which I am an expert. The setting positions me as an authority figure and the key performer in the interaction. According to Goffman, a successful performance is one in which my performance, appearance, and manner align with the audience’s expectations of the role “professor.”
My student, the lifeguard, and the one who caught me with a mouthful of salad both entered the back-stage region—a place where my performance-as-teacher was not “on.” The “back stage” is a place where the performer retires after the performance, and where the impressions given during the performance may be contradicted. As a professor, my office is a back-stage region relative to my on-stage performance in the classroom—the performance arena where my students and I maintain our roles of “professor” and “student.” However, when students come to visit, this back-stage area of respite can become a front-stage area for me to enact a similar performance of professor, albeit with a much smaller audience and probably a slightly different set of expectations.
What constitutes front-stage and back-stage regions is not rigidly defined, and depends on context and behavior. If I had been grading papers (an activity that aligns with my role as professor) in my back-stage region, the interaction would have been less awkward for the student who came to visit. Instead, I was involved in back-stage behavior in a back-stage region (eating lunch at my desk) that contradicted the performance this audience member expected. Here, it was easy to snap back into my front-stage performance as professor as soon as I swallowed the salad I’d been chewing. At the pool, there would be no snapping into that performance; it would be a ridiculous attempt in this setting. It may have been even more awkward if he leaned over the side of the pool and said, “I’m in your sociology class!” How would I manage my impressions as a professor while in a bathing suit?
There to enjoy a day of swimming with my family, my student, the lifeguard, observed my behavior in a back region. This back region was far beyond the back-stage of my performance as professor. As Goffman puts it, “the back region will be the place where the performer can reliably expect that no member of the audience will intrude.” At the pool, my identity and performance as a professor were completely irrelevant; I expect the back region to be student-free and instead I enact, in the front-stage, my performance of the role “parent at the pool.”
The reason I was mortified? Because I know that when he observed my back region behavior, he could have received evidence that threatened the legitimacy of my performance in my role as “professor.” In the end, I think I appreciate that my student, the lifeguard, did not acknowledge our shared presence. I am sure of it, actually. Even more recently, as I sank into the whirlpool at the same public indoor pool, I met eyes with a former student. He looked across the steaming, bubbly water and said, awkwardly, “Oh, hi there, professor. It’s weird to see you here.” The only reply I could muster was, “Yeah, it is.” And weird it was.
- Do you have any similar experiences of seeing someone in a setting different than usual? What happened? How did you feel? Did you acknowledge the awkwardness?
- Consider front-stage performances for which you are an audience member (e.g. at a restaurant, attending a religious service, visiting someone’s house that you don’t know very well). What might you observe in a back region that might contradict the performance you expect?
- If you have a job, what are the performance regions and who are the audience members? What do you do in the back stage that you would not want them to witness?
- In the article the author talks about dramaturgy and how she performs her role as professor. As a student, how do you perform your role in the classroom? What are your props, lines of dialogue, etc.
 Rusche, Sarah Nell and Kris Macomber. 2008. “’All of a Sudden. . .’ Exploring Sociology in Everyday Life.” Sociology through Active Learning: Student Exercises. McKinney, Kathleen, Frank Beck and Barbara S. Heyl (eds.), Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
 Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Pp. 107