How are you presenting yourself to others? What impression are you making? Sociologist Erving Goffman developed the social role theory, which states that we manage other people’s impressions of us by how we present ourselves to them. In his 1959 groundbreaking book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman says that as we manage other people’s impressions of us (he coined the phrase impression management), we assume and play many roles, much like actors on stage.
Impression management is defined as “a person altering or changing his/her self-presentation to create appearances to satisfy particular audiences.” Goffman says that people are the actors “performing” on a stage, using a variety of props if they choose to use them, and that they can perform for an audience or just for themselves. The essence of impression management theory is that we all play various roles in our lives. We often play several different roles throughout each day.
Roles have certain clothing and accessories that accompany them. Think of the costumes actors wear as they perform. Some roles are more closely aligned to who we are underneath it all, and other roles are a far stretch from who we truly are. It’s why we often buy a new suit to wear to an important client presentation; we want to embrace the role of a successful business executive. Goffman also says that impression management can either “hide negative attributes or enhance a person’s status” or “increase or decrease a person’s position of status.” For instance, your role as spouse is very different from your role as supervisor at work. You may manage impressions less at home than at work because you have the freedom to be your true self at home. The roles that we play require us to wear masks. Behind the mask is our real identity. With roles come expectations. As a supervisor, for example, there are certain expectations that come with that role. For instance, it is expected that the supervisor will oversee the work of direct reports, will keep in constant contact with them to measure their progress, and will offer guidance when needed.
It is important for us to understand impression management because we assume so many different roles — business professional, volunteer, community leader, friend, spouse, committee member or neighbor — and so do the people around us. Some many people manage their impressions so tightly that they become something other than who they truly are inside. When managing impressions, remember to be your authentic self. How are you presenting yourself? How are you managing impressions?
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