Cold Sweat

Alan Bennett

  • Forms of Talk by Erving Goffman
    Blackwell, 335 pp, £12.00, September 1981, ISBN 0 631 12788 7

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).

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[*] Most recently in A View from Goffman edited by Jason Ditton. Macmillan, 289 pp., £15, March 1980, 0 333 24524 5.

[†] Picador, 285 pp., £2.50, 14 August, 0 330 26445 1.