On-Stage Self Versus Off-Stage Self

Excerpt from IT’S ALL ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS! New Ways to Make Them Healthy and Fulfilling, at Home and at Work by Karen L. Rancourt, Ph.D.


At our dinner parties, my husband and I often ask our guests if there are any books they’ve read that proved life transforming, that is, literally changed their lives. One such life-changing book for me is Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,1 assigned reading in a graduate sociology class I took in 1965.

Goffman’s main tenets are straightforward. He uses the metaphor of a theatrical production as a way to understand how we behave and interact. Using this model, one’s social life can be viewed as a performance in which each of us is constantly deciding how “to perform.” I can present my “on-stage self”, or I can present my “off-stage self.” Both have a direct bearing on relationships.

On-Stage Self

When I choose to present my on-stage self, it means that I imagine an audience in front of me, watching and evaluating my performance. I say and do things as if I am following a script. Regardless of the setting, I am aware of how I want others to perceive me, and I shape my behavior and interactions to try to get certain responses. My behavior is intentional, deliberate, purposeful, and typically “scripted”—I am careful and thoughtful about what I say and how I say it.

When I am “on stage,” social norms and expectations are very much at play.

For example, a young woman tells the mother of the guy she is dating, when she meets the mother for the first time, that it is a pleasure to meet her and that she has heard so many nice things about her. Never mind that the son has told her that his mother uses a broomstick to get around and that if she ever smiled her face would crack. The girlfriend is presenting her on-stage self, so she says nice things. She may have even practiced what she will say—she wants the mother to like her, and she wants this meeting to be pleasant. Her main objective is for social civilities and niceties to prevail, and she will carefully present herself in ways to achieve this outcome. She is on stage.

In addition to using our on-stage self in our personal life, there are many examples of on-stage behavior in the workplace. For example, during an interview when a job applicant is asked why he is interested in a particular job, his on-stage response is that he’s researched the company, liked what he’s learned, and feels there is a solid match between the goals of the company and the unique skills and experience he has to offer. He is not about to say that he’s desperate for a job and it’s the only opportunity he currently has on the horizon.

In both examples—the young woman meeting her date’s mother for the first time, and the applicant interviewing for a job—presenting their on-stage selves under the set of circumstances as laid out is appropriate. They have a clear and specific outcome they want to achieve, a specific impression they are trying to create. Neither the date’s mother nor the interviewer has earned the privilege of being on the receiving end of the date’s or the applicant’s off-stage behavior.

Off-Stage Self

When I am off stage, I can “be me.” I can let my guard down, I can be less inhibited, be more spontaneous, I can say and do things that I would not do when I am on stage. I am more likely to be off stage with people I have come to know and to trust. I feel safe enough to share my unfiltered thoughts without fear of being penalized or ostracized; I can be authentic, and I anticipate that I will feel accepted.

For example, when someone asks me how I am doing, if I am on stage, I say, “I am doing just fine, thank you for asking, and how are you doing?” When I answer that same question with my off-stage self, I explain that as a matter of fact, “I’m doing lousy, I’m having a tough time, I’m down in the dumps, and could use a hug.” Because I have chosen to be off stage, I feel comfortable and safe in speaking from the heart and providing the details.

Impacts of the On-Stage Self Versus Off-Stage Model

When first introduced to the on-stage versus off-stage model, many make the mistake of assuming it is deceptive and manipulative to be on-stage—that is, they are of the opinion that one should always be off-stage to ensure open and honest communications. I point out that being off-stage is a deliberate choice to share one’s deeper and more private thoughts and feelings, and that this more intimate level of sharing is a gift, not a requirement.

Each of us needs to retain total control over how authentic and intimate we choose to be at any point in any relationship. If I feel it is in my best interests, and I am comfortable being on-stage, then that is where I need to be for that particular interaction. No one should be able to “guilt me” to present my off-stage self; I will do that when I choose to “go there.”

On a personal level, I can say that understanding and using the on-stage self versus off-stage mode has been personally empowering and impactful; it helps me make emotional and behavioral decisions quickly and easily. In innumerable interactions with others, I have mentally dialogued with myself before behaving by asking: Is this an on-stage or off-stage situation for me?

The answer to that question has helped me respond in ways that, for the most part, have been appropriate. Being mindful in deciding whether to be on stage or off stage has decreased the chances of my creating confusion or embarrassment for either of us in an interaction because I am clear in my behavioral intentions.

This decision-making process also forces me to take the time to think before I act. As I mentally ponder whether I want to be on stage or off stage, I am more apt to say, “Let me think about that before I respond,” instead of responding just for the sake of responding, and later regretting the route I took. I am more confident with my texts, emails, voice messages, and real-time responses because I am being guided by my first order of business: to decide whether I want to be on stage or off stage.

Lest this seem time consuming, I have found that with practice, I have become very quick at making my on-stage versus off-stage determinations. In fact, I have learned to make them comfortably in real-time. Practice pays off!

In summary, I have found that this on-stage versus off-stage model, one that will be referenced throughout this book, can play an important role in how to think about relationships and how to manage them. In addition, this model is easy to understand, apply, and be immediately helpful.

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