Goffman's Front Stage and Back Stage Behavior

Understanding a Key Sociological Concept

A man peering out from behind a stage curtain symbolizes Goffman's front stage and back stage dichotomy of behavior.
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In sociology, the terms "front stage" and "back stage" refer to different behaviors that people engage in every day. Developed by the late sociologist Erving Goffman, they form part of the dramaturgical perspective within sociology that uses the metaphor of the theater to explain social interaction.

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Erving Goffman presented the dramaturgical perspective in the 1959 book "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life." In it, Goffman uses the metaphor of theatrical production to offer a way of understanding human interaction and behavior. He argues that social life is a "performance" carried out by "teams" of participants in three places: "front stage," "back stage," and "off stage."

The dramaturgical perspective also emphasizes the importance of the "setting," or context, in shaping the performance, the role of a person's "appearance" in social interaction, and the effect the "manner" of a person's behavior has on the overall performance.

Running through this perspective is a recognition that social interaction is influenced by the time and place in which it occurs as well as by the "audience" present to witness it. It is also determined by the values, norms, beliefs, and common cultural practices of the social group or the locale where it occurs.

Front Stage Behavior—The World is a Stage

The idea that people play different roles throughout their daily lives and display different kinds of behavior depending on where they are and the time of day is a familiar one. Most people, consciously or unconsciously, behave somewhat differently as their professional selves versus their private or intimate selves.

According to Goffman, people engage in "front stage" behavior when they know that others are watching. Front stage behavior reflects internalized norms and expectations for behavior shaped partly by the setting, the particular role one plays in it, and by one's physical appearance. How people participate in a front stage performance can be highly intentional and purposeful, or it can be habitual or subconscious. Either way, front stage behavior typically follows a routinized and learned social script shaped by cultural norms. Waiting in line for something, boarding a bus and flashing a transit pass, and exchanging pleasantries about the weekend with colleagues are all examples of highly routinized and scripted front-stage performances.

The routines of people's daily lives—traveling to and from work, shopping, dining out, or going to a cultural exhibit or performance—all fall into the category of front stage behavior. The "performances" people put on with those around them follow familiar rules and expectations for what they should do and talk about with one another in each setting. People also engage in front stage behavior in less public places such as among colleagues at work and as students in classrooms.

Whatever the setting of front stage behavior, people are aware of how others perceive them and what they expect, and this knowledge tells them how to behave. It shapes not just what individuals do and say in social settings but how they dress and style themselves, the consumer items they carry around, and the manner of their behavior (assertive, demure, pleasant, hostile, etc.) These, in turn, shape how others view them, what they expect of them, and how they behave toward them. Put differently, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would say that cultural capital is a significant factor both in shaping front stage behavior and how others interpret the meaning of it.

Back Stage Behavior—What We Do When No One's Looking

When people engage in back stage behavior, they are free of the expectations and norms that dictate front stage behavior. Given this, people are often more relaxed and comfortable when back stage; they let their guard down and behave in ways that reflect their uninhibited or "true" selves. They cast off elements of their appearance required for a front stage performance, such as swapping work clothes for casual clothes and loungewear. They may even change how they speak and comport their bodies, or carry themselves.

Often, when people are back stage, they rehearse certain behaviors or interactions and otherwise prepare for upcoming front stage performances. They might practice their smile or handshake, rehearse a presentation or conversation, or prep themselves to look a certain way once in public again. So even back stage, people are aware of norms and expectations, which influence what they think about and do. In private, people behave in ways that they would never in public. 

However, even people's back stage lives tend to involve others, such as housemates, partners, and family members. One may not behave as formally with these individuals than standard front stage behavior dictates, but they may not fully let down their guards either. People's back stage behavior mirrors the way actors behave in the back stage of a theater, the kitchen within a restaurant or the "employee only" areas of retail shops.

For the most part, how one behaves front stage significantly differs from an individual's back stage conduct. When someone ignores the expectations for front and back stage behaviors, it may lead to confusion, embarrassment, and even controversy. Imagine if a high school principal showed up to school in her bathrobe and slippers, for example, or used profanity while speaking with colleagues and students. For good reason, the expectations linked to front stage and back stage behavior influence most folks to work pretty hard to keep these two realms remain separate and distinct.