Self-representation is, whether we know it or not, a part of our daily lives. In fact, try comparing mentally how you act while you’re alone with and without a camera recording you. How do you look? Would the discomfort of being watched change your overall behavior and actions?
How we behave when we are alone contrasts with how we behave in front of others. Here we explore a bit about self-presentation.
Our comfort zone
Before we tackle public behavior, let us first look at “private behavior”. Our comfort zone is where we feel that we can do whatever we want without fear of criticism or judgment. It can either be a zone of privacy or a zone of familiarity.
In our zone of privacy, we are “alone”. That is, we are secure and certain that within a certain proximity, we are the only sentient being around. There is no sense of being watched, no sense of incoming intrusion; just pure solitude. Thus, we can have a messy room, walk around in our underwear, cuss frequently, or laugh boisterously without giving a damn about it. After all, there is no-one to judge us. Of course, if you know you’re being watched, you don’t have privacy.
In our zone of familiarity, we are “with acquaintances”. That is, we are secure and certain that within a certain proximity, only the people who are close to us and are not a bit strangers to us are around. Formality between close friends is rare; we often do socially unacceptable things in their presence and don’t feel bad. This is because family and friends have accepted us for who we are and we don’t feel the need to act sophisticated to impress them.
How we present ourselves to others is a very important aspect in physical interactions. In fact, most people are overly concerned about the image they display to those around them. Marketers have exploited this kind of consumer behavior, and this explains the abundance of fashion industries, cosmetic counters, diet centers, gyms; as well as drugs and products that grow hair, whiten teeth, freshen breath, remove wrinkles, fade blemishes, whiten skin, and inhibit aging.
In a similar fashion people are also concerned with the impressions they convey through their public behavior. A quarreling husband and wife can scream for hours at each other in the comfort of their own home, but will definitely try to act civilized when walking together in a crowded mall so as not to turn heads.
But why do we do this? What are we after anyway? What are our goals for behaving in such a manner?
The Two Faces of Self-presentation
Self-presentation is the set of methods and strategies we selectively utilize in certain situations to shape and regulate the self-image we present to other people. In other words, it is a set of plans on how we want other people to think of us. An act of self-presentation may be conscious (flexing) or unconscious (voice pitch), accurate or misleading (our self-description), and intended for ourselves (flaunting) or for the audience (flattery). We have two goals in mind:
1. Strategic self-presentation
The first goal, strategic self-presentation consists of our efforts to shape others’ impressions in specific ways in order to gain influence, power, sympathy, approval, or favor. You may not have noticed until now, but strategic self-presentation is everywhere: in personal ads, political ads, commercial ads, resumés, pink-collar employees, even on your friends’ profile pictures. The objective matters not; people will try to control their self-presentation in part via body language and nonverbal behaviors. For instance, men may surrender their seat to women they desire to appear gentlemanly. The bottom line is, almost everyone and everything you see in public are hiding behind a curtain of lies.
The specific identities people try to present vary from one person and situation to another. However, there are two strategic self-presentation goals that are particularly common in society:
Ingratiation, coined by Edward E. Jones, describes the acts of behaving in a particular way so as to appease or satisfy a target audience thus rendering them more susceptible to control or manipulation. The primary goal here is to “get along well” or “be liked”. For instance, we may start doing favors out of the blue for people in power so as to get privileges, flatter people whose resources we are after, or act so well-mannered in front of the opposite sex for them to fancy us.
When we do this, we are after the reward power of the audience. We are expecting something in return for our supposed acts of “kindness” or “thoughtfulness”, which are often either half-hearted or forced. Agreeing with someone too much is also an act of ingratiation.
Self-promotion describes the acts of behaving in such a way so as to garner greater respect and admiration for oneself from the target audience. The primary goal here is to “get ahead” or “be acknowledged”. For example, we may emphasize our accomplishments (how minor they may be) and dismiss our failures so as to be hired for a job, drive around in a loaned Lamborghini to impress our friends, or participate too eagerly in class so as to flaunt our knowledge and competence.
When we do this, we are preserving our dignity from the audience. We are expecting them to think highly of us because of our highlighted feats, qualities, or status which are often either exaggerated or outright false. Behaving in the presence of a figure of authority (like a professor or your boss) is also an act of self-promotion.
On the surface, these goals seem too easy. When people want to be liked, they simply put their best foot forward, nod and smile a lot, and express agreement. If these aren’t enough, they may resort to compliments, favors, and apple-polishing. When people want to be admired, they talk about themselves and show off their knowledge, skill, or status immodestly. If this isn’t enough, they resort to derogating others and overestimating their abilities.
There are, however, tradeoffs for both. Ingratiation tactics need to be subtle; otherwise people will notice the attempt and think you’re after something. Similarly, if you blow your own trumpet too much, you will be seen as arrogant and self-absorbed.
Strategic self-presentation can be disastrous as well. People who are obsessed with their public image will often overlook the consequences of their actions. A woman who is desperate to look slim may suffer from eating disorders and anorexia; men who want to appear brave may drive recklessly and get injured; and teens who smoke, drink, and do drugs to impress peers may find themselves sickly and in prison.
Self-verification is the desire to have others perceive us as we genuinely perceive ourselves. People, according to psychologist William Swann, are highly motivated to verify their existing self-concept from the viewpoint of others. In other words, we tend to be passionate to proving to other people who we are according to who we think we are.
If society labels us one thing, and we believe that it is an accurate description of ourselves, we accept it (“I know I am, right?”) since our perceived self-image is the same as the audience’s. However, if we are labeled incorrectly, whether such was positive or negative, we would go to lengths to prove them wrong (No, I am not!) since we disagree with the audience’s perception of ourselves.
For example, a student who is labeled as a dunce but believes that he is a genius will try to prove to his classmates that he, in fact, is a genius. Another is a woman who, after being called fat, takes and writes down meticulous measurements of her body to prove that she isn’t. However, a scrawny man who believes he’s a bodybuilder will enthusiastically agree with anyone who says he is very muscular, even if he is not.
Self-verification is desirable if we have a positive self-image, but what if we don’t? What if we are prone to drowning ourselves in a sea of self-pity, pessimism, and helplessness? Do we need to express such self-deprecation to the world as well? Nobody is perfect and we all have faults, but must we verify those faults? What happens when self-verification clashes with self-enhancement was what William Swann wanted to know.
According to his experiment involving a self-concept questionnaire, results show that people would rather reflect on and learn more about their positive qualities than their negative ones. However, self-verification is still very powerful, and can at times overwhelm our need for self-enhancement. Though we want to make a good impression, we also desire an accurate representation compatible with our own self-concept.
In the end, the world is our stage, and we are there to impress the audience. “Acting appropriately” is just another way of saying self-presentation. Nobody has a personality that fits all situations in his/her life, ergo we must adjust some of our mannerisms to fit the occasion. Whether you’re shy, polite, rambunctious, logical, or apathetic, you have experienced deceiving the world with your public alter ego at one point in time, but so did the rest of us. After all, that’s how society works.
Brehm, S. & Kassin, S. (1996). Social Psychology. Houghton Mifflin Company