Front Stage/Back Stage

Erving Goffman considered to be one of the most influential sociologists of the twentieth century had a theory around the terms “front stage” and “back stage”.

The “front stage” is how one engages in behavior when they know others are watching. The “back stage” is what we do when nobody is looking. I have witnessed people, particularly politicians and famous people, whose behavior is a bit different when nobody is looking.

As we are in the throes of the Democratic race for the nomination, it is something I think about when it comes to any candidate. I noticed it the other night when I watched the post-wrap-up of the brutal display of journalism from CBS news. Many candidates weren’t sure if they were on the air yet and once they did their body language changed.

Years ago, we were at a fundraiser for Al Gore when he was running for the Democratic Presidential nominee. It was at someone’s apartment. At the end of the evening, we were the last to leave and were chatting with the husband of the couple who lived there. Gore did not know anyone was still there. He walked around the corner and saw Fred and me and his entire body language changed in a millisecond.

On the way home, we talked about what we both witnessed and how that moment changed everything for us. Everything is so played out for the media that I just wonder about the “back stage”.

Comments (Archived):

  1. LE

    Very true and comes in many sizes and colors.When I sold my first business I remember the day after the sale (when I was there for a few months for required consulting). Most of the sales people I had dealt with walked right past my office and paid no attention to me. Very noticeable. And about roughly 1/2 of the employees behavior changed toward me as well. I was no longer the boss and it was if I didn’t matter.Another example is writers for media. Back when I was into that they’d be all over you when they needed something for a story. Then later ‘poof’ forget getting any interaction or replies.I have actually a theory on this and it involves my cat. Cat doesn’t think forward or backward only in the moment. Cat doesn’t know of any behavior for future benefit or even what has happened (if not traumatic in some way) in the past. Doesn’t think ‘oh I might want a treat later on but not now so I better let owner pick me up or I might not get the treat’. They are (as I like to say) ‘of the moment’. They are very immediate focused in how they interact (kids are generally like this as well).I am wondering what your experience has been with people you have invested on this topic. How has their behavior changed over time ‘once they don’t need you anymore’?

    1. Gotham Gal

      There are people over the years who have changed but none that I have invested in. Those people were personal friends and perhaps they weren’t who I thought they were.

  2. LE

    Funny I could tell precisely in advance when my daughters boyfriend was going to break up with her. It was so super obvious. All I did was compare his behavior the first few times we had met him vs. the last few times. I could see that so clearly it was scary. The relationship lasted let’s say 6 more months but very clear to me the ‘delta’ in behavior (how he acted toward me) very obvious. (Same with employees quitting back in the day super obvious they don’t make the same eye contact and so on).The other hint actually though came early on. My daughter wanted us to drive to where she was. She didn’t want to drive down with the boyfriend. My way of thinking you go to the parents if you are a guy it’s not only what you do it’s respectful and it says ‘I care about your daughter’. You don’t make parents come to you. If you really like a girl you stop at nothing to make things happen. He didn’t do that. To me a very clear signal.

  3. William Mougayar

    Trump is a master at front stage setup.About 9 years ago, I was walking on 5th Avenue around 7:30am on my way to a breakfast mtg, and suddenly someone motioned me to get off the sidewalk and continue walking on the street.I was walking by Trump Tower, and they had blocked the sidewalk with cameras and a carpet from the lobby to the street. Trump was taping a 20 sec video statement about some city related issue, where he comes out of his building, walks towards the street and says something.I stopped to watch as a small crowd gathered. Trump did at least 4 takes of that scenario. After each one, the videographer would show him the replay and they would talk, and he would turn around and redo the segment. I recorded it on my iPhone just for fun.

  4. LE

    I never forget when I met my now ex brother in law way back.He was dating my ex wife’s younger sister at the time.So both of them are on a bed laying back in my soon to be sister in laws bedroom.He didn’t even budge at all. Literally just laid there when I walked in no interest whatsoever in saying hi or acknowledging me.Next time I met him was at a bar-barbecue. He had found out that I owned my own business and ‘made money’ and ‘drove a nice car’ (at that age you know it doesn’t take much to stand out and impress, right?). His entire behavior changed and he was all over me. You could see it in his face and attitude remarkable change.Now all of us have this behavior to some degree and in some way. We judge a book many times by it’s cover. Then we find out something about the book and we may very well go in the other direction.

  5. William Mougayar

    Trump is definitely a populist.

    1. Pointsandfigures

      Steve Jobs was famous for doing multiple takes and reworking presentations. Obviously not a politician, but very worried about image…

      1. LE

        Worrying about details, if you understand enough to know what you are doing is always and literally in every case what you want to do.I can detail any number of times when I cared about things (to your point about Jobs) that paid off very well. One example was when a news reporter showed up at my office (00′) to take a picture of me for a story in the paper. The story wasn’t about me but they needed a shot. Before they arrived I re-arranged (and moved) my monitors in a way to provide a better shot. [1] I also had a ladder handy knowing the photographer would probably get a better shot from that angle. (He used it). They took the pictures and the photo editor liked them so much it became the lead for the story (2 photos appeared). The story and the picture then was syndicated to over 20 papers. Was actually the ‘big story’ in the business section. Every time it appeared (over months) in a new newspaper I’d know because orders would come in from that area. This one little act of caring about the details provided a huge amount of business and money. And since what I was doing was residual in nature (in this business) I got payback for literally 10 to 15 years (at least). This was not the first time that I did this type of thing. In another business years before they were coming to take a photo so I had people make up a prop that I knew they would end up using. Was featured in both news and a tv story. Totally fabricated also literally same day (was a book cover).In personal life: My wife now. I focused immensely on the details both in writing emails to her prior to and after meeting, and also the first date. Literally not only the restaurant (that’s obvious, right?) but the lighting in the restaurant. (Reason: I was much older and wanted to not appear as old as I was).’Little’ things do matter. I think in the internet age that is something that has been lost mostly.I had maybe only one experience years ago walking into Trump tower (before he was President). I remember noticing immediately how the girls working at the sales counters were trying to act busy not just standing and waiting for people to walk up. Very obvious that was done for a specific reason (and the reason made sense). No question who was behind that happening and made sure it continued to happen ‘or else’. Was very obvious. The little things I have found matter (at least in ‘traditional’ business).[1] Think of those trading desk photos with multiple monitors.

      2. William Mougayar

        True but that’s professional marketing. His product followed and met / exceeded expectations. Politicians are more like foxes.

  6. Steven Kane

    I read Goffman way back when in college.I remember just enough to ruin me for the rest of my life.?

    1. Gotham Gal


  7. jason wright

    We all do this to a greater or lesser extent. Inside our own private spaces we are probably (and hopefully) at our greatest personal ease, being our true selves. Being out in public exposes us to being observed, and in basic terms i equate that to the feeling of being looked at by a potential predator. We’re possibly seeing a basic animal instinct at play that comes from somewhere back there in the lambic/ reptile brain, but it’s a signal passing through the more complex frontal cortex of the human brain and mind and showing itself in this sort of calculating modern behaviour. Politicians must feel like they’re being hunted, and they don’t want to be eaten! I wonder what an MRI scan would reveal? Rene Girard said that his mimetic desire idea may have a clinical founding in the structure of the human brain. Apparently neurologists think they have identified a cluster of ‘mirror neurons’ that fire when a baby performs a motor action, and that same cluster fires when the baby observes another person performing that same action. Philosophically Foucault said that “visibility is a trap”, meaning that if we think we are being observed (even if we are not) we modify our behaviour. I think he was saying that the more we think we are being observed the more we create a form of self surveillance inside our heads and that that conditions our actions and conduct. It’s more insidious than any totalitarian state because it is happening in the ‘free’ West right now.