Self-Presentation: The Public as Our Audience

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

Formality is rare in close friends.

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.

Our self-image

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.

They won’t see your legs in a Skype interview anyway.

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

Describes most of us.

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:

A. Ingratiation

“Sure, boss! Anything for you!”

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.

B. Self-promotion

“Just taking a bath here, nothing to see.”

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.

2. Self-verification

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.

This guy did self-verification before it was cool.

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.

Negative self-concept

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


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  1. Very interesting. For the longest time I had the worst time feeling the eyes of people on me. This was back in middle and high school. Of course it was normal since we go through an egocentric stage during adolescence. However I’ve also gone through a phase where I tell myself: “Don’t worry they’re not thinking about you, what would make you so special from everybody else?”. But then again that could just be me trying to flaunt my “humble” (not so humble) ego…

  2. A very interesting article that is quite well written. The different aspects of self-presentation was explored well with the various sub-sections that take it apart little by little so it’s easier to understand. It was great that you differentiated between the idea of self-presentation and self-verification: how people present a certain persona of themselves to others, versus how people present a persona they believe represents who they are to other people.
    The difference between the two may sometimes pass without people’s notice unless they know about how the person acts with them and with other’s. This is a great instance to observe with other people, and while some people do notice this occurrence, it’s fascinating to read the science behind the phenomenon.
    Regarding the article, there are a few grammatical errors that could use some revision, especially in the introduction to the article. Furthermore, keep the numbering of the subjects consistent because towards the end, the numbering for self-verification and it’s subcategories is gone. So just keep that in mind!
    Overall, a very interesting article that was great to read!

  3. This was a really good read. I feel like this is something that people kind of generally know on the surface, so I like how in depth the article was and how well it explained why we present ourselves differently and how. Each of the techniques were really interesting, and I like how there were examples for each. I think it’s also important not to necessarily be ashamed of doing some of these things, as the article explained it is just part of our human nature. But of course being honest and comfortable with yourself and who you are is still very important.
    I noticed a typo in the last paragraph before the conclusion, and the intro paragraph could use some rewording. Besides that, it was written really well!! Just a few minor things proof reading carefully would fix.

  4. I’ve always been interested in this topic – mostly because I’m one of the rare people who acts pretty much the same around everyone, so for years I never understood why people would act different from person to person. This explains it wonderfully, and I especially like the detail at the end that links self image and how others see us to things such as eating disorders and dangerous behavior. I saw a lot of this while doing a research paper for my psychology class about toxic masculinity leading to violence – because men are supposed to be tough and aggressive, and to bottle up their emotions. I’ve seen examples of this first hand to as I have a friend who bottles up all his feelings, then lashes out in private later. Absolutely wonderful article, very useful! This could definitely help some people!

  5. I found this article rather interesting and a great example of how general patterns can be presented in a well-researched manner without the fancier jargon or statistics. It was easy to understand and the inclusion of both sides of the story makes it that much more complete and seem a lot more objective and informative. I loved the breakdown of the topics and the inclusion of specific definitions with everyday examples. Although I do agree with one the comments about a little more additional proofreading required as there was one glaring typo and some room for better grammar.

    This topic overall was an interesting one because of course it’s relevant to essentially everyone who reads it whether it’s because they themselves have constructed and acted out their own “lies” or because they have seen other people do it. Personally, I don’t necessarily see this type of intentional deception in most cases as a bad thing because I think it helps to keep a certain standard of courtesy and respect in society, even when we do not feel like it, that is then enjoyed by most. There is the dark side of course when individuals take the appeasing a bit too far. They might do it because it’s their source of self-confidence or the appeasement of the group could give them a lot of resources etc. However, going a bit too far could mean going further and further from respecting the people in other camps and the truth that they may have to offer i.e. over-looking the consequences . An example being taking PC culture a little too far. Some things are ugly and hard, but they’re the truth and getting straight to the point sometimes is the only way or is the better way and it could definitely mean being truer to the self too.

  6. What an article. I completely agree with this. Because unfortunately, it ain’t just the money that makes the world go round, impressions count too. I think it’s a constant struggle to be yourself and yet maintain a certain level of social normalcy. Yet, these ‘impressions’ we often give in public also help create a sense of civility in modern society. If anything, I think this is about the only positive impact it has, and a big one in it.

  7. People generally act different when being observed to when they are not, but I like the way that this article hones into different theories as to why this may happen. This is a really interesting article, I like the way it was written and presented. Thanks!

  8. This is a nice well-written article. It causes you to look back on yourself and identify times where you presented to the world someone you weren’t. While reading, I thought of numerous examples from my middle school years and interviews I have participated in. The inclusion of the sub-heading helped make the text easier to follow along to and I overall enjoyed reading this article.

  9. Great read, in depth and the article flows. However, where are the references? For such an in depth article that rings true based on what knowledge I have, I have a hard time believing only one reference was used. Also, the reference is dated. 1996 is too old and it appears to be a general psychology textbook. Certainly there must be newer references out there somewhere!
    Its a bit discouraging because the article is really great, but can’t be taken seriously, or above opinion level-without some solid references as back up. Also, the original material that the article author built on, needs to be given credit. Like art, there is not a solely original idea in psychology.
    However, looking forward to reading more by this author.