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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"Front stage" and "back stage" are concepts within sociology that refer to different modes of behavior that we engage in every day. Developed by 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

The American sociologist 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. Within this perspective, 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 a person's "appearance" plays in social interaction, and how the "manner" of a person's behavior shapes interaction and fits into and influences the overall performance.

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

You can read more about Goffman's seminal book and the theory he presents within it , but for now, we zoom in on two key concepts.​

Front Stage Behavior—The World is a Stage

The idea that we, as social beings, play different roles throughout our daily lives, and display different kinds of behavior depending on where we are and what time of day it is, is familiar to most. Most of us, whether consciously or unconsciously, behave somewhat differently as our professional selves versus our friend or party selves, or our at home and intimate selves.

From Goffman's view, "front stage" behavior is what we do when we know that others are watching or aware of us. In other words, it's how we behave and interact when we have an audience. Front stage behavior reflects internalized norms and expectations for our behavior that are shaped in part by the setting, the particular role we play within it, and our physical appearance. How we 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 our daily lives that take place outside of our homes—like 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" we put together with those around us follow familiar rules and expectations for what we do, what we talk about, and how we interact with each other in each setting. We engage in front stage behavior in less public places too, like among colleagues at work and as students in classrooms, for example.

Whatever the setting of front stage behavior, we are aware of how others perceive us and what they expect of us, and this knowledge informs how we behave. It shapes not just what we do and say in a social setting, but how we dress and style ourselves, the consumer items we carry around with us, and the manner of our behavior (assertive, demure, pleasant, hostile, etc.) These, in turn, shape how others view us, what they expect of us, and how they behave toward us as well. 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

There's more to Goffman's notion of back stage behavior than what we do when no one's looking, or when we think no one is looking, but this example illustrates it well and helps us to easily see the difference between it and front stage behavior.

How we behave back stage is freed from the expectations and norms that shape our behavior when we are front stage. Being at home instead of out in public, or at work or school, is the clearest demarcation of the difference between front and back stage in social life. Given this, we are often more relaxed and comfortable when back stage, we let our guard down, and we might be what we consider our uninhibited or "true" selves. We cast off elements of our appearance required for a front stage performance, like swapping work clothes for casual clothes and loungewear and maybe even change the way we speak and comport our bodies.

Often when we are back stage we rehearse certain behaviors or interactions and otherwise prepare ourselves for upcoming front stage performances. We might practice our smile or handshake, rehearse a presentation or conversation, or plan the elements of our appearance. So even when we are back stage, we are aware of norms and expectations, and they influence what we think and do. In fact, this awareness shapes our behavior as well, encouraging us to do the things in private that we would never do in public. 

However, even in our back stage lives we often have a small team with whom we still interact, like housemates, partners, and family members, but with whom we observe different rules and customs from what is expected when we are on the front stage. This is also the case in the more literal back stage environments of our lives, like the back stage of a theater, the kitchen within a restaurant or the "employee only" areas of retail shops.

So for the most part, how we behave when front stage versus back stage varies quite a bit. When a performance typically reserved for one area makes its way into another confusion, embarrassment, and even controversy can ensue. For these reasons most of us work pretty hard, both consciously and subconsciously, to make sure that these two realms remain separate and distinct.