What Masks Signify

Decades ago, the sociologist Erving Goffman had the answer

A version of this article was originally published October 2, 2021 in The American Scholar

In the spring of 2020, when masks abruptly became a common sight in the United States, they introduced a new element into our social relations. They hampered our ability to communicate, muffling our voices and hiding our smiles. But they also gave us new criteria by which to form impressions of the people we saw at the park or in the grocery store. In addition to judging each other’s clothes, hair, smartphone habits, and so on, we could now also judge strangers based on how well they followed epidemiological guidance.

As the pandemic wore on, and masks became politicized, they sent increasingly specific signals. Faithfully wearing them became the badge of a pro-science progressive, while a bare face suggested the opposite. Masks with verbal messages on them—Black Lives Matter, “Nevertheless, she persisted,” the names of high schools and sports teams—allowed the lower halves of our faces to take on the role previously delegated to car bumpers. Then there was the rise of the anti-mask mask, with phrases such as “This is dumb” or “I only wear this so I won’t get fired.”

Contemplating these dynamics, I occasionally found myself wondering what Erving Goffman would have made of them. Goffman, one of the most celebrated sociologists of the 20th century, was famous for his rigorous analysis of social interactions, especially the ways in which we strive to both control the impressions we give others and to read the impressions they give us. In his 1959 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, he reflected repeatedly on the masks that we all employ in face-to-face encounters. In social life, he wrote, we are all performers: “Behind many masks and many characters, each performer tends to wear a single look, a naked unsocialized look.” When the normal course of events is disrupted, people may get “an image of the man behind the mask.” Using the term metaphorically in the 1950s, he could not have known that 60-odd years later, Americans would be donning material face-coverings en masse. Now, our masks are literal andfigurative: physical accessories that also give social cues.

As I read more of Goffman, I came across other passages that made me stop short, with their uncanny mix of the strange and the familiar. American society of the 1950s had more formal rules and clearer hierarchies, and it was far more homogenous. Social interactions occurred at soda fountains and sock hops, not on Snapchat or TikTok. But Goffman was a scholar of the stagecraft of social life, as well as its stigmas and status anxieties, all of which are decidedly still with us.

Returning to Goffman’s work today reveals both what has changed and what has not—or, more precisely, how the same impulses he identified play out in a United States defined by new technologies, dramatic cultural shifts, and now, the behavior adjustments induced by a global pandemic. Looking back at Goffman’s life can also shed light on some of these changes. He came from humble origins and succeeded in climbing the American social ladder, but he would, in certain respects, be starkly out of place in present-day society. At this moment, when the rules about masks—and about so much else in public life—are in flux, it’s an opportune time to glimpse the world through Goffman’s eyes.


Goffman was born in 1922 to Russian-Jewish émigrés, in a rural area of Western Canada where anti-Semitism was the norm. When he missed school for the High Holidays, he made up excuses for his absences rather than admit his religious background. Adding to his social challenges was his short stature—as an adult, he was just a couple of inches over five feet tall. These characteristics seem to have made him acutely sensitive to the gradations of social hierarchies. As one friend recalled, “Being a short Jew in worlds dominated by tall ‘goyim’—he was pissed off and this shaded all of his perceptions and analysis.”

Not that those disadvantages seem to have held him back. He studied sociology at the University of Chicago, where he became a top student, and he was known as “quite a Romeo,” according to one account. He eventually married a fellow student named Angelica Schuyler Choate, whose father was the wealthy founder of the Choate prep school, thus marrying into the WASP elite. Goffman’s side of the family was evidently not invited to the wedding. (There is no full biography of Goffman, but I am drawing on UNLV sociologist Dmitri N. Shalin’s 2013 article “Interfacing Biography, Theory and History: The Case of Erving Goffman.” That paper in turn drew on the Erving Goffman Archives, which includes remembrances by his family, colleagues, and friends.)

As a professor at Berkeley and then at the University of Pennsylvania, Goffman published a series of influential books analyzing how people conduct themselves in the public sphere. “The issues dealt with by stagecraft and stage management are sometimes trivial but they are quite general; they seem to occur everywhere in social life,” Goffman wrote in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Performances could be deceptive—Goffman was fascinated by con men—but they weren’t necessarily so. At the benign end of the spectrum, a performance might essentially be a matter of ensuring that the way we present ourselves aligns with who we think we are. Goffman quoted another sociologist, Robert Ezra Park, arguing that our chosen masks can represent “our truer self, the self we would like to be.” Indeed, Goffman went so far as to suggest that our masks are what distinguish us from other species; they make us human.

Social life, then, is a sort of game: in navigating an arcane set of rules, we try to set forth images of ourselves and to decode the images presented to us. While this idea now sounds fairly commonplace, Goffman was one of the first sociologists to dissect the specifics of this game. His writing could be dry and academic, but he had a gift for capturing concepts in pithy phrases. He coined the term impression management to describe our constant (if not always conscious) efforts to influence how we are perceived. These efforts, however, are limited by the constraints of observable realities and our place in the social hierarchy. Goffman, for instance, might have sometimes been able to pretend he wasn’t Jewish, but when he entered a room, it was not possible to pretend to be tall.

Goffman also explored how people behave differently in different contexts. In the public-facing “front region,” he observed, people follow the formal rules appropriate to the setting. A restaurant’s dining room, for example, is the front region, where the tables are immaculate, and servers and busboys are deferential. In the “back region” or “backstage,” either alone or with others on the same “team,” Goffman wrote, “the performer can relax, he can drop his front, forgo speaking his lines, and step out of character.” The restaurant’s kitchen is the backstage where workers discard their solicitous demeanor, make fun of the customers, and shoo away pests.

In 1963, Goffman published a slim book that focused specifically on those at the bottom of the social hierarchy. In Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, he analyzed the “situation of the individual who is disqualified from full social acceptance” in the mainstream of society. His summary of the characteristics that give rise to stigma is worth quoting at length:

First there are abominations of the body—the various physical deformities. Next there are blemishes of individual character perceived as a weak will, domineering or unnatural passions, treacherous and rigid beliefs, and dishonesty, these being inferred from a known record of, for example, mental disorder, imprisonment, addiction, alcoholism, homosexuality, unemployment, suicidal attempts, and radical political behavior. Finally there are the tribal stigma of race, nation, and religion, these being stigma that can be transmitted through lineages and equally contaminate all members of a family.

Goffman was himself intimately acquainted with stigma, Shalin, the UNLV sociologist, notes. Not only did he encounter anti-Semitism, but his wife also suffered from mental illness; the year after the book was published, she killed herself.

In a personal sense, Goffman was an enigma. He was extremely private, never wrote autobiographically, and ordered his papers to be sealed. The testimony collected in the Erving Goffman Archives, however, paints a portrait of a man who was capable of kindness but who could also be callous and cold.

His curiosity about the rules of social life outweighed his desire to adhere to them. He had a penchant for conducting micro-experiments on people he came across in everyday life. Once, a new graduate student at Berkeley showed up unannounced in Goffman’s office, introduced himself, and stuck out his hand. In the words of another student who was in the room, Goffman stood up and regarded the hand. “Goffman just let him stand there with his hand out. Then very softly he said, ‘I am busy Mr. Jones.’ When the man left, Goffman said to me, ‘He doesn’t understand, we are students of those kinds of things.’”


Goffman’s interests were wide-ranging—his subjects also included mental institutions and gambling—and it would be intriguing to see how his observations hold up in many domains today. But it is particularly tempting to invoke Goffman in reference to the Internet, since that is where so much of our self-presentation now takes place. (The sociologist David H.P. Shulman applies Goffman’s work to today’s world in his 2016 book The Presentation of Self in Contemporary Social Life, and the cultural critic Jia Tolentino cites Goffman in her analysis of the Internet in her 2019 book Trick Mirror.)

Not only do many of Goffman’s insights still apply; they seem prescient, because online, impression management feels that much more explicit and unrelenting. You can, as is well known, curate the life you present on Facebook, displaying an existence made up exclusively of vacations and promotions, sunsets and parties, leaving out the rejections and the nights spent alone eating Cheetos. On Instagram, you can filter your selfies, generating images that may bear only a passing resemblance to your actual face.

People have always selected what kind of information about themselves to volunteer; they have always taken artificial measures to look good. But physical, face-to-face presence provides all sorts of additional cues that are unavailable on our screens. Goffman distinguished between the impressions that people intentionally give and those they involuntarily give off. For instance, he wrote of one housewife, who, in serving dishes to a guest,

Would listen with a polite smile to his polite claims of liking what he was eating; at the same time she would take note of the rapidity with which the visitor lifted his fork or spoon to his mouth, the eagerness with which he passed food into his mouth, and the gusto expressed in chewing the food, using these signs as a check on the stated feelings of the eater.

In the realm of the Internet, though, we have far less context; it’s hard to fact-check the “likes.”

At the same time, as Shulman notes, we have seen another trend that seems at first glance contradictory: a blurring between the front region and the backstage. The examples are so endless that it’s hard to know where to start. Celebrities and ordinary people disclose details about their lives, ranging from childhood abuse to digestive issues, that most Americans would at one time have taken pains to hide. In the workplace, disputes that previously would have occurred behind closed doors now take place on Twitter, as colleagues call out each other and employees call out their bosses. YouTube videos show us the literal backstage of Broadway shows. Sometimes, in truth, Facebook users do post about their rejections and their nights at home eating Cheetos; Instagram users post photos of their zits and unruly body hair. In many cases, people are striving to be as authentic as possible, and this can be healthy and liberating, but of course the authenticity is part of a performance.

This blurring—which overlaps with the blurring between public and private—is not entirely new. Goffman himself indicated that there was always leakage between the front regions and the backstage. But the leakage, in recent decades, has become a deluge. The contributing factors have been myriad: confessions on Oprah and Jerry Springer; Internet forums that enabled people to find others with the same sexual fetish or skin condition, thereby alleviating their shame; the advent of cell phones, which allowed our private conversations to spill out into streets and cafés. In countless ways, for better and for worse, we began to bring our private lives out into the public sphere and allow the public access to our private spheres.

In an aside in Presentation of Self, Goffman noted that the risk of leakage from the backstage to the front region was particularly pronounced in the realm of radio and television broadcasting. Here, the backstage was “defined as all places where the camera is not focused at the moment or all places out of range of ‘live’ microphones.” Inevitably, there were mishaps when people did not realize they were on the air. “For technical reasons, then, the walls that broadcasters have to hide behind can be very treacherous, tending to fall at the flick of a switch or a turn of the camera.”

We are all broadcasters now. Often, we voluntarily share video of ourselves, but also, in a world where security cameras are ubiquitous and nearly everyone post-puberty has a smartphone, we never know if we are on camera or near a hot mic. These days, it is hard to be confident that anything will remain backstage. During the pandemic, with many people working from home via Zoom, the line between onstage and backstage eroded even further, as evidenced by Room Rater (a Twitter account that evaluates the home décor of public figures) and the experience of Jeffrey Toobin.

It’s hard to imagine Goffman in the 21st century. He did not allow his lectures to be tape-recorded or, with rare exceptions, his photo to be taken—rules he’d have trouble enforcing today. And some of his insensitive behavior would no doubt invite castigation on social media.

And yet, he’d presumably be pleased by the decline in the casual anti-Semitism that was once so widespread. He’d be struck that, in general, the stigmas he identified have been aggressively challenged. The ascendant ethos holds that instead of stigmatizing physical disabilities, mental illness, and homosexuality, instead of the “tribal stigma of race, nation, and religion,” we should stigmatize discrimination based on those characteristics: people who use racial slurs, not their victims, should be “disqualified from full social acceptance”; the baker who refuses to serve a gay couple, not the couple themselves, deserves a “spoiled identity.”

The new ethos comes with its own ethical pitfalls. A spoiled identity is a severe penalty, and as recent public discourse has already exhaustively covered, there is a fine line between holding people accountable and treating them in an overly punitive and arbitrary way. But in principle, it certainly seems like progress to stigmatize bigotry rather than stigmatizing what we can’t control. Consistent with this new ethos, we have not stigmatized those who contract Covid-19 through no fault of their own, as other societies might have, but some of us do shame those who neglect to take sufficient precautions—which brings us back to masks.


If the pandemic has been an accidental sociological experiment, the results seem to support Goffman’s hypotheses. Even when people were not socializing, many were still focused intently on self-presentation—posting photos of freshly baked sourdough bread or of tidy closets they finally had time to clean. The virus gave us new behaviors to laud as socially valuable—physical distancing, handwashing, mask-wearing, and more recently, getting vaccinated. By the same token, it gave us new grounds for stigma: the refusal to do any of the above.

From Goffman’s time to ours, what is constant is that people perform and judge one another; what changes is the nature of how we wish to present ourselves, what we deem worthy of sharing and in need of hiding, what we consider good reasons for shunning. All of this varies not only across time, but also across places and even cultures that coexist within a place. In a country as racially and politically diverse as ours, different stigmas collide and conflict. Indeed, even as masks were held up as a sign of good citizenship, some Americans were harassed for wearing them—blamed for the virus or suspected of being criminals—based on racial stereotypes.

Now, at this uncertain stage of the pandemic, the semiotics of masks are evolving and ambiguous. There was a window this spring and summer when it seemed that our masks would imminently become artifacts, reminders of an aberrant year. Clinging to them even seemed to take on a new meaning: ideological stubbornness. But with the rise of the Delta variant, wearing them may again indicate simple prudence.

With all the changing circumstances, the changing instructions, and the sheer fatigue, it’s hard to know when, where, and whether to wear masks, and how to interpret the choices of others. But outdoors, at least, in many parts of the country, the consensus seems to be that we’re relatively safe, and most people have determined that a naked face is again both medically and socially acceptable.

Goffman often used the word face, like the word mask, in a figurative sense, as in the common expression of “losing face.” But just as we’ve been compelled to wear literal masks, we might consider the preciousness of literal faces. We might marvel at the way the subtlest differences in the angle of an eyebrow—or the curve of a lip, the flare of a nostril, the set of a jaw—can convey utterly distinct emotions.

There’s something touching about the limited control we have over our faces, both their features and expressions. Sure, we can rub in creams, apply lipstick, remove or grow facial hair, inject chemicals, even undergo surgery. And we can arrange our mouths into a sympathetic frown or a polite smile. But in the end, our faces “give off” impressions, as Goffman would have put it, despite our intentions. Even when we leave behind our face-coverings, we are still wearing masks, as Goffman would be quick to remind us. But those masks are hardly perfect or impenetrable.


Source: The American Scholar

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