Forms of Talk 
by Erving Goffman.
Blackwell, 335 pp., £12, September 1981, 0 631 12788 7
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I am meeting my father at the station. I stand at the barrier as the train draws in and see him get off. As he walks along the platform he catches sight of me and waves. I wave back and we both smile. However, he still has some considerable distance to cover before reaching the barrier. Do I keep a continuous smile on my face during that period, do I flash him an occasional smile or do I look away?

I am waiting in an office for an appointment. A secretary sits at the desk. I shift in my seat and the leather upholstery makes a sound that could be mistaken for a fart. I therefore shift in my seat again, two or three times, making the same sound deliberately in order to demonstrate that I have not inadvertently farted. The secretary looks up inquiringly. She may just be thinking I am uncomfortable. She may, on the other hand, be thinking I have farted, and not once but three times.

I am attending a funeral. It is crowded with mourners, many of them friends and acquaintances. I do not greet any of them but put on a grave face and avoid meeting their eyes. I am just taking my seat when a woman in the row behind leans forward to say an effusive hello.

‘ “We were expecting you yesterday, Princess.” Petrov said to Kitty. He staggered as he said this and then repeated the movement, trying to make it seem as if it had been intentional.’ (Anna Karenina)

‘He pulled down over his eyes a black straw hat the brim of which he extended with his hand held out over it like an eye-shade, as though to see whether someone was coming at last, made the perfunctory gesture of annoyance by which people mean to show that they have waited long enough, although they never make it when they are really waiting, then ... he emitted the loud panting breath that people exhale not when they are too hot but when they wish it to be thought that they are too hot.’ (Remembrance of Things Past)

Common predicaments and awkward moments with a particular appeal to any reader of the works of Erving Goffman. There was a time when I imagined those readers were few. As with all the best books, I took Goffman’s work to be somehow a secret between me and the author, and incidents such as I have detailed above our private joke. Individuals knew they behaved in this way, but Goffman knew everybody behaved like this and so did I. Only we were both keeping it quiet. I wasn’t even sure Tolstoy or Proust quite knew what they were about, though Tolstoy was instancing ‘body gloss’ and Proust (I think) ‘impression management’. These days, any first-year student of sociology would know and the books I once thought so private are piled promiscuously on any campus counter at the start of every term.

Goffman is now Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, a far cry from that hotel in the Shetlands where, back in the days of rationing, he did his first fieldwork. Actually, anywhere would be a far cry from that hotel and not just geographically. It still crops up from time to time in Goffman’s books, furnishing him with the stuff of sober insights into region behaviour, say, or impression management, but without his ever acknowledging that, as a catering establishment, it was straight out of Will Hay. In the kitchen, mould would sometimes form on the soup; wet socks dried on the steaming kettle; and while the manager habitually kept his cap on, the women sat with their feet on the table and the scullery boys spat in the coal bucket. Only the passage of a rich pudding galvanised this Dostoevskian crew, all sampling it by the aggressive fingerful before it was borne through the doors and across the great divide into the front area of the hotel. Which side of those contentious doors did the wee student eat, one wonders. And what?

That puir Mr Goffman hasna eaten his trifle. And he didna touch his soup. At this rate he’ll niver mak a dominie.

But he did, and a doctoral thesis, ‘Communication Conduct in an Island Community’, was what he made of them. But what can they have made of him, those gobbing scullery boys, that manager with his cap on, who can never have seen a sociology student before in their lives? They weren’t that common in 1950. It was a novel beginning. And a novel.

Sociology begins in the dustbin and sociologists have always been licensed rag-and-bone men trundling their carts round the backyards of the posher academic establishments. The Benjamin Franklin Professor has done the rounds of more backyards than most, scavenging in anthropology, psychology and social administration, besides picking up a lot of useful jumble ‘on the knocker’: his books are larded with strips of personal experience, enlivened with items from newspapers, the annals of crime and the dustbins of showbiz. It’s this (and the look of so many quotations on the page) that makes his work initially inviting and accessible to a general reader like me. He writes with grace and wit and raises the odd eyebrow at those in his profession who don’t, though he can’t be too censorious of jargon, having invented a lot himself. He coins new usages and re-tools terms, giving them a fresh thread for the job in hand: ‘flooding-out’, ‘cooling’, ‘keying’, ‘face’ and ‘frame’ are all terms he has made his own – it was hearing ‘interaction’ in common use that woke me up to the fact that the word (about Goffman) had got round. Having coined a phrase, Goffman doesn’t wait to see it debased, but tackles a new problem and tools a new terminology to go with it. The vocabulary is custom-made. Those who follow in his footsteps do not do it quite as well. In Forms of Talk, he quotes (and not disparagingly) a ‘very useful analysis of error correction’ by Schegloff et al., which argues ‘for a distinction between correction as such and the “initiation of a reparative segment” ... And further, that “other-correction” is very rare, “other-initiation” less so ... that remedial work overwhelmingly occurs in one of four possible positions: faulted turn, faulted turn’s “transition space”, third turn, and (in the case of other-initiation) second turn.’ It could be David Coleman warming up for a commentary on slalom surfing (Coleman, incidentally, puts his foot into a footnote in Forms of Talk).

Systematic Goffman is not. He writes in a vivid, impressionistic way which he concedes is often, as in much of Forms of Talk, tentative and exploratory. This (and his charm) makes more orthodox colleagues uneasy and some attempt has been made to show that, stripped of his style and wit, in his conceptual nakedness, he is but a sociologist like the rest.* Maybe. But no other writer in this field so regularly startles one into self-recognition. We skitter anxiously from cradle to grave like a tart between lamp-posts. I won’t make you feel bad so long as you don’t make me feel bad. That is the social contract. And there is nothing much to be done about it. Goffman’s work, as he admits in Frame Analysis, ‘does not catch at the difference between the advantaged and the disadvantaged classes’ (he loses points there in British common-rooms, I’ll bet), adding: ‘I can only suggest that he who would combat false consciousness and awaken people to their true interests has much to do because the sleep is very deep. And I do not intend here to provide a lullaby but merely to sneak in and watch the way people snore.’

I go to sociology, not for analysis or explication, but for access to experience I do not have and often do not want (prison, mental illness, birthmarks). Goffman treats these closed areas as lying alongside normal experience (or the experience of ‘normals’) in a way that makes them familiar and accessible. The approach is robust, humane and, despite his disclaimer, moral. ‘The normal and the stigmatised are not persons but perspectives,’ he writes in Stigma, ‘and it should come as no surprise that in many cases he who is stigmatised in one regard nicely exhibits all the normal prejudices held towards those who are stigmatised in another regard.’ And again:

The most fortunate of normals is likely to have his half-hidden failing, and for every little failing there is a social occasion when it will loom large, creating a shameful gap between virtual and actual social identity. Therefore the occasionally precarious and the constantly precarious form a single continuum, their situation in life analysable by the same framework. Hence persons with only a minor differentness find they understand the structure of the situation in which the fully stigmatised are placed – often attributing this sympathy to the profundity of their human nature instead of to the isomorphism of human situations.

Goffman may claim to be just watching people snore, but now and again they get a good dig in the ribs for it.

Whole novels take place in footnotes. This is a note about the strengths and weaknesses of the lover’s position in an adulterous relationship:

Over time, the errant spouse is likely to find reason to goad her husband with what she has done, or, perhaps more commonly, to confess in order to provide evidence that sincere effort is now being made to give the marital relationship another chance. This betrayal of the betrayal is sometimes not betrayed, in which case it is the lover, not the loved one’s spouse, who ends up in the dark, not knowing who knows what. There are two other possibilities. The errant spouse may secretly confess that she has confessed, thus restoring a little of the lover’s prior edge. Or the re-established marital couple can agree to inform the lover that the affair has been confessed (and is presumably over) and that the informing has been jointly sanctioned. All in all, then, your seducer often ends up having no say in what is said. (Frame Analysis)

A note on the candidness of cameras:

At the state funeral of President Kennedy participants who were away from the immediate bereaved and the centre of ritual did what is quite standard in these circumstances: they got caught up in little conversations or ‘aways’ ... they smiled, laughed, became animated, bemused, distracted and the like. The transmission of this behaviour by the roving camera discredited their expression of piety otherwise displayed. (Frame Analysis)

Sharper than George V, he spots a button undone:

Young psychiatrists in state mental hospitals who are sympathetic to the plight of the patients sometimes express distance from their administrative medical role by affecting shirts open at the collar, much as do socialists in their legislative offices ... What we have in these cases is a special kind of status symbol – a disidentifier ... telling others not what he is but what he isn’t quite. (Encounters)

Forms of Talk is a collection of papers, the longest of which, ‘Radio Talk, a Study of the Ways of Our Errors’, takes as its subject ‘bloopers’, the verbal slips of radio announcers and their routines of recovery. The veteran of mouldy soup and dog-eared trifle is taking it a bit easier these days. He hasn’t sat glued to his set gleaning gaffes: the bloopers are taken from records and books produced by Kermit Schafer (another backyard there). It’s maybe just as well. To maintain the flow while addressing a vast, unseen audience is terror enough. To suspect that somewhere out there is Erving Goffman, waiting for one to fall down (if only to see how one picks oneself up), would be to risk multiplying the occasions on which one would be likely to do so – thereby playing into the hands of any passing ethnomethodologist.

Goffman shows that the special pressure upon a radio announcer to maintain the flow furnishes insights into forms of face-to-face talk where no similar pressure exists. I suspect that he already knew what he was out to demonstrate before he embarked on the study and he doesn’t in the end tell us much more than we know already. Though what we know is what he has already told us. Still, he manages to have a lot of fun on the way. Words with sexual or scatological double meanings he terms ‘leaky’. Examples: balls, can, behind, big ones, parts, fanny – footnoted ‘Does not leak in Britain.’ Actually ‘can’ does not leak in Britain, but no sweat. An instance of a leaky utterance (in an appropriately watery context) – BBC announcer at the launching of the Queen Mary: ‘From where I am standing I can see the Queen’s bottom sticking out just over her water line.’

One of the pleasures of reading Goffman is in taxonomy: items that one has had lying around in one’s mind for ages can be filed neatly away. Like a caption I saw years ago and am delighted now to dignify as a leaky utterance: a newspaper picture of a drama group headed ‘Blackburn Amateurs examine each other’s parts.’ And another (which ought to be in Goffman’s book if only because the reasoning behind the remedial work is so complex and ultimately futile). Dorothy Killgallan, an American columnist, began a radio talk: ‘Tonight I am going to consider the films of Alfred Hitchcack ... cock! ... CACK!’ I wouldn’t like to see Mr Schegloff et al. let loose on that one.

Goffman remarks that there is often a possibility after a verbal slip ‘that hearers will be left with ambiguity as to actual or feigned obliviousness, as I was on hearing an announcer unfalteringly say: “She’ll be performing selections from the Bach Well-tempered Caviar, Book Two, and also from Beethoven, Sonata in G Minor.” ’ There was once a performance of The Seagull at the Old Vic in which Dorn, delivering the final line, ‘Konstantin has shot himself,’ instead came out with ‘Konstantin has shat himself.’ The audience looked at each other in wild surmise, then deciding they had better not believe their ears, began to applaud – and more vociferously than if no mistake had been made.

Fruitful are the ways of our errors and frightful too: we spend our lives in a twitter of anxiety and potential embarrassment and there is no such thing as idle conversation. In the first essay in Forms of Talk, entitled ‘Replies and Responses’, Goffman analyses this seemingly simple exchange:

A: Do you have the time?

B: Sure. It’s five o‘clock.

A: Thanks.

B: (gesture) T’s okay.

Goffman detects possible offence in ‘Do you have the time?’ ‘Sure’ is a promise that no such offence is going to be taken. ‘Thanks’ is gratitude not merely for the information but that the request for it has not been taken amiss; and ‘T’s okay’ is a final assurance to the questioner that he remains undiminished by the encounter. Thus both parties go on their way with their sense of self intact. ‘If you want to know the time ask a policeman’ becomes Ivy Compton-Burnett meets Gilbert Ryle.

In philosophy I would find this kind of analysis arid and dispiriting. With Goffman it is different. Funny and perceptive though he is about forms – whether in talk, behaviour or social organisation – forms are never his central concern. In philosophy what we do with words is about what we do with words. In Goffman what we do with words (or what we do with our hands and feet) is about what we are. Central is the self, ‘that sacred object which must be treated with proper ritual care and in turn must be presented in a proper light to others’.

Two men in a park:

A: Do you have the time?

B: Sorry. I haven’t got a watch.

A: Never mind.

B: (walking away, then stopping and calling back) But thank you for asking.

Too late, B had become aware that he was being asked not so much for the time as a way to spend it; his lack of a watch was neither here nor there. While he might quite properly wish to turn down A’s implied request, the last-minute reassurance of his ‘But thank you for asking’ showed that, while it might be right to leave someone disappointed, one ought not to leave them crestfallen.

We must love one another or die – of embarrassment. Life is a perilous path across the social quicksands and no effort must be spared to save each other from the ultimate fate, when the swamps of confusion close over our heads leaving that last clutching hand clawing the air to the echo of an apologetic voice: ‘Sorry. Did I say the wrong thing?’

In the second essay, ‘Response Cries’, Goffman takes to pieces remarks of the nature of ‘Oops’, ‘Ouch’ and ‘Ugh’. Under the heading ‘The threat startle, notably Eek! and Yipe!’ he writes: ‘A very high open stairwell, or a walk that leads to a precipice, can routinely evoke yipes from us as we survey what might have been our doom ... A notion of what a fear response would be is used as a pattern for mimicry.’ Goffman notes that these particular response cries may be ‘sex-typed for feminine use’ but my response would still be ‘Uh huh.’ I can’t offhand recall negotiating any very high open stairwells with a member of the opposite sex, but were I to do so I trust she wouldn’t come out with ‘Yipe!’ I’d prefer the non-sex-typed response ‘Shit!’ ‘Yipe!’ might find her five storeys down and the focus of some response cries herself. If I must needs be on the top of Blackpool Tower in mixed company I’d prefer less modish ladies who would utter response cries typed for feminine use like ‘Goodness me!’ ‘Heavens above!’ or plain, downright ‘Ooh!’ Certainly not ‘Eek!’ And the fact that the Goffman girls may, as he points out, be consciously imitating the language of comics is no excuse. I’d rather they didn’t.

I don’t think it’s simply that ‘Eek!’ and ‘Yipe!’ are American terms that haven’t caught on here yet: an element of taste enters into the use of response cries and this Goffman is missing. There is something suspect (and potentially ridiculous) about those in the vanguard of slang. (‘Far out!’) Goffman doesn’t actually discuss the currently fashionable response cry of disgust ‘Yuk!’, but even when used as a pattern for mimicry, I always find it very wince-making. The nightmare would be to find oneself on the edge of Beachy Head with someone who, in the course of looking over, managed also to step in a cowpat and thus had occasion to say all three: ‘Eek!’ ‘Yipe!’ and ‘Yuk!’

Maybe Goffman’s heavy-footnoted helpers are to blame. Messrs Carey, Draud, Fought, Galman, Grimshaw, Jefferson, Sankoff, Sherzer and Smith, who presumably (though not, I hope, in a body) haunted steep drops and precipitous stairwells logging the necessary shrieks. Of course, the sort of person who visits Niagara Falls or the top of the Empire State Building may be typified precisely by the fact that he does say ‘Eek!’ – as distinct, say, from those who ascend to high points requiring more character and effort. Walkers do not say ‘Yipe’ on the summit of Great Gable, for instance. Still less (ugh) ‘Wow!’ I personally associate such exclamations with ‘zeebs’ – a species I lack space to describe, but one of the characteristics of which is compulsive and inappropriate response cries. Enthusiasts for hi-fi, they frequently lapse into the accents of The Goon Show. More often men than women, they can be recognised by the battery of pens on display in their breast pockets. They say ‘Hail, friend’ instead of ‘Hello’, not ‘Goodbye’, but ‘Farewell’, and depart with an in appropriateness of gesture and a gangling unco-ordinated gait that, to adapt Goffman, could be called ‘lack of limb discipline’.

Forms of Talk is harder to read and less varied than some of the earlier books. The text is tough going and there are fewer truffles in the footnotes, with Goffman dodging up snickets, pressing himself into ever shallower entries, perhaps to evade his admirers.

I have just been reading Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana, recently reissued with a nice introduction by Bruce Chatwin. Byron’s splendid book is made rather than marred by his unrepentant snobbery. Chatwin, who travelled the same road thirty years after Byron, in 1962, looks back with a different snobbishness that I found less engaging: he regrets, as travellers are wont to do, those who came after – in this case, the droves of young people who took to the road in the Sixties and Seventies headed for Nepal. In ‘Where the action is’, one of his best essays (collected in Interaction Ritual), Goffman remarks: ‘When persons go to where the action is they go to the place where there is an increase, not in the chances taken, but in the chances that they will be obliged to take chances.’ These days, it is true the chances are that one will be obliged to take more chances in wilder places than Nepal (Patagonia, say). And maybe the hippies are to be blamed for not perceiving that, or not perceiving it sooner. But Chatwin to Patagonia, a mod to Brighton on Bank Holiday – Goffman makes them kin.

Some must escape his net. Dukes wouldn’t find much here to interest them, except some clue as to how the other half live. Or ‘die’ – which they never do, of course, being dukes: indifference to the impression one makes is a constituent of aristocracy and (in a different sense) of royalty. ‘There is only one man in the whole world who walks,’ said Diderot, ‘and that is the sovereign. Everybody else takes up positions.’ An actor must not forget his lines (or show distress, should he do so). Royalty must never seem to be embarrassed because that would embarrass us. Except that democracy, or television, is altering this. Royalty must now be seen to be ‘human’. Or (since they are taking part in a performance) be seen to seem ‘human’. Still, blushes cannot be performed. Watching the Queen returning from the royal wedding, trying to manage the happy chatting of Earl Spencer, on the one hand, and acknowledge the frenzy of the crowd, with the other, was to detect someone in grave danger of ‘flooding out’. And though it is given to few of us to drive through the streets of London in an open landau to the cheers of a delighted throng, the situation elicited fellow-feeling because it was one we had all at some time or other experienced.

Of Goffman himself I know nothing. I take it, as much from his first name as his second, that he is Jewish, which may be significant, in that so much of his work, like Freud’s, is to do with ‘passing’ or fitting in, and some of it is a gloss on Maurice Samuel’s remark that ‘the Jews are probably the only people in the world to whom it has ever been proposed that their historic destiny is – to be nice.’ About face we are all Jews.

His footnotes, his followers and (I am presuming) his Jewishness link Goffman with another founder of a school, Namier. There is a passage in England in the Age of the American Revolution that bears on the interests of the Benjamin Franklin Professor: ‘A man’s status in English society has always depended on his own consciousness. Whatever is apt to raise a man’s self-consciousness – be it birth, rank, wealth, intellect, daring or achievement – will add to his stature; but it has to be translated into the truest expression of his sub-conscious self-valuation: uncontending ease, the unsought grace of life.’ Goffman would endorse the phrase ‘uncontending ease’, while having more to say about it being the ‘unsought grace of life’, since so much of his work has been to show how strenuously (and unknowingly) we do seek it.

Death is all the rage at the moment, particularly in America where whole sections are devoted to it in the livelier bookshops. Coincidentally, or not, capital punishment in America is being patchily resuscitated. Goffman hasn’t contributed much to the literature of physical as distinct from social extinction, but in Frame Analysis there is a fine passage (again relegated to a footnote) about the hypocrisy implicit in the expectation that a man will die well on the scaffold. It also makes nonsense of Goffman’s claim not to be a moralist.

Such ceremonialisation of killing is sometimes contrasted to the way in which savages might behave, although I think it would be hard to find a more savage practice than ours – that of bestowing praise upon a man for holding himself to those forms that ensure an orderly and self-contained style to his execution. Thus he (like soldiers in the field) is being asked to approve and uphold the action which takes his life, in effect setting the first above the second. That sort of lie is fine for those who write or preach or legislate in one or another of the names given to society. But to accept death politely or bravely is to set considerably more weight on moral doctrine than is required of those who formulate it.

It’s not often that one gets such a clear moral note from the watcher at the bedside. A corresponding passage in fiction is the final scene of The Trial when Joseph K. is about to die. His executioners pass a knife from one to the other until it dawns on K. that in order to spare their feelings he must grasp the knife and execute himself. He doesn’t and feels guilty for failing to do so. It is his final failure for he is then killed. He has ‘died’. Then he dies. Much of Goffman could be a commentary on Kafka. One puts it that way round, the artist before the academic, but the truth one finds in Goffman’s work is the truth one goes to fiction for.

A final word, on book-reviewers. Goffman is summarising (in a footnote in Frame Analysis) an article by Walter Gibson from College English. (Not quite a backyard but certainly a sub-basement of the stack.) Gibson, he says, ‘took up the case in regard to book-reviewing, suggesting how much of that literary form consists in using the works of others as a target of response which will confirm for the reader that he has found a brilliant, many-sided critic who appreciates that the reader is the appropriate recipient for this response. Writing then breeds a presumed (Gibson calls him mock) writer who, in fact, is likely to be vastly different from the actual writer, and a presumed reader who, on the same grounds, is likely to be vastly different from the actual one. The posturing of the writer, Gibson argues, calls out a posturing from the reader – a mutually affirmed affectation.’

So there we both were, this presumed reader and me, just having a nice little zizz of mutually-affirmed affectation when in creeps this American guy, sits down and starts watching. The first click of his ballpoint and, I tell you, we didn’t get another wink.

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