All The Worlds A Stage! Really?
Is it true that all the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players? Yes, I would say so. And I do. Often. Particularly when faced with the occasional person who suggests that consciously using communication skills techniques is like ‘acting’ and therefore inauthentic. As people will sometimes use the words ‘actor’ and ‘acting’ as derogatory terms to describe a person who behaves in a fake way, strutting around without grace, dignity, truth or focus, I am quick to politely offer that the word acting actually means:
• To consciously take action with purpose to do something
• To exert energy or force
• To be employed or operative
• To operate or function in a particular way in order to perform specific duties
• To produce an effect
• To behave or conduct oneself in a particular fashion.
If we apply the above definitions to the word acting it becomes fairly obvious that all of us are indeed actors. Authenticity then is just a matter of personal commitment, intention and resolve coupled with the ability and skill to take effective action to communicate with others and achieve our goals in life and work.
The sociologist Erving Goffman also believed the worlds a stage and that we humans are the cast and crew of a global, theatrical performance. We know this because he said so repeatedly in a scholarly book he published in 1959 called ‘The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life’. Goffman believed that society is not homogeneous. He suggested that people are forced to act differently in different settings with each of us having personal and professional roles that we are required to fulfill. These time-honoured roles are offered to us through our traditions, cultures and society as a whole and have specific feelings, thoughts and behaviours attached to them.
Goffman recognised the blatant analogy between the ‘acts’ of behaviour that people put on in their daily lives and how actors portray characters in the theatre. This insight then led him to develop his dramaturgical analysis of human behaviour. For example, becoming a parent is an important role to play in a child’s life and requires that we feel, think and behave responsibly and with care towards our children. Professional roles such as teachers, doctors and lawyers equally require us to think, behave and dress in particular ways. Even as far as sometimes having to learn a script to deliver and perform our duties. Therefore Goffman named his theory of interpersonal interaction the dramaturgical approach.
The foundations of his assertions are that we human beings are not passive creatures waiting for things to happen to us but rather we are active in the process of developing behavior and constructing society by devising our own codes of dress and conduct. We want to guide and control how other people perceive us by the way we appear and behave. For example, everyday most of us will do basic things like brush our teeth, comb our hair and put on clothing (costumes) before we leave home in order to appear acceptable to others. It is vital then that we know how to effectively manage the impression we make in order to consciously create the impact we choose.
In his book Goffman describes social interactions between people in theatrical terms. There is the Front stage where people appear in public with others in their respective societal roles - from the school gates to the boardroom. Each person will have prepared to present positive self-concepts and desired impressions on the front stage of life. There is also the Back Stage. This is where we can be out of site of the audience and re adjust our attitude, energy and approach. While we are back stage we will feel free to let our guard down and behave as if we are out of view. Finally there is the Off Stage area. This is the hidden, private area where we can be ourselves and drop our societal roles and identities.
The professional dramatic actor's role is to tell stories that help us look at our lives from different perspectives. Their skill is in being able to convince the audience that the emotions, thoughts and behaviours we see on the stage and screen are genuinely felt and as near the truth as possible. The most talented actors are able to speak the words they learn in a way that feels fresh, spontaneous and as if they have just thought of them - despite the fact that they have learned a script. This requires much preparation and rehearsal. If we really care about the personal impact we make in the world then the professional actor's process is almost identical to preparing for a meeting, a presentation, an interview or even a first day in a new job.
As most of us will have a role to play professionally and personally we need to prepare while we are off stage. We need to align and prime ourselves physically, emotionally, intellectually and intentionally to meet the demands and expectations of our roles. Even on occasions when we might not naturally feel like it. Therefore as an adult, learning to master the tools and techniques that professional performers have developed to communicate a message in front of an audience on a stage is as natural and authentic as learning to walk and talk as a child.
Though quite dense, stodgy and dated in style Goffman’s book still presents an intriguing perspective. However he doesn’t offer any practical solutions to compliment his insights. So it’s a good job we wrote Communicate With Charisma. A perfect modern day companion to Goffman’s classic tome.