Tag Archives: Goffman

Confessions of an anxious ballet pianist day #20: Too much attention


Souvenirs, novelties, party tricks. It’s a bit like playing for class.

In Why’s she looking at me like that? I mentioned Erving Goffman’s brilliant term “civil inattention” for the kind of social interaction where part of being civil is making it clear to others that you’ve acknowledged their presence, but you’re not going to demand interaction from them, or pay any more attention to them than they want. Sharing an elevator with a stranger, for example, or trying not to look down when you encounter a nudist. It’s the opposite of the kind of forced banter that you get at an M&S checkout when they ask things like “Hello sir. Have you enjoyed your shop with us today? Did you manage to find everything you were looking for?” when all you want to do is just pay and get the hell out of there.

There’s a parallel in playing for ballet class. Yes, you want to be acknowledged, for people to listen to what you’re playing, and to be appreciated – but you also want to be left alone to do your own thing. This is what 99.99% of ballet teachers do. In fact, I think it’s what attracts us ballet pianists to the job. We don’t want to be on stage at the Wigmore Hall, with an audience focused on every note we play. We want to be part of what’s going on, not the centre of attention.  We don’t mind being told to slow down and speed up, but we do want a bit of licence to play the occasional wrong note, or be forgiven for improvising badly, or picking a tune that no-one knows or likes. We want the freedom to stay in the background, and for dancers to tune in and out a bit, if they need to. The conventions of ballet class interaction are such that you and the teacher are intensely and closely connected at one level, but you stay in your own worlds, like the surgeon and patient in remote surgery.

But just occasionally, you get too much attention, and you squirm.  The worst I’ve encountered was decades ago when a guest teacher who I’ve never seen since came up to me before class and, after introducing himself,  told me that he wanted only improvised music for the entire class, no tunes. He kept turning to me and the dancers, giving a running commentary on each exercise and how it was going like a driving instructor taking someone on a motorway for the first time. In the middle of a frappé exercise, he gave the dancers a direction, then suddenly glared at me excitedly, and said “The harmony’s really important here!” (like I had a chance to do anything about it) and began to make the kind of face that he would make if I played exactly the harmony he wanted. A couple of counts later, it had turned into a disappointed grimace when he didn’t get it. I think it weirded-out the dancers as much as me.

Fortunately, that kind of prurient attention to music is so rare, I can’t think of any other examples in that league. “Civil inattention” to music and musicians is so effortlessly learned by being immersed in the ballet world, that it is second nature to most teachers, and that’s just fine the way it is. If you think that you should make the class pay more attention, or that we’re not appreciated enough, and you should make everyone stop and listen, think twice. The chances are, we’re happy in our corner being left alone. Carry on as you were.

Goffman and the office


The Guardian has published two articles on contemporary office design in the last two days – the first a diatribe by Jeremy Paxman, “If I were king for a day, I would ban open-plan offices,” the second a glowing vision of the future as if Paxman had never spoken: “Death of the desk: the architects shaping offices of the future.” Paxman cites the satirical programme W1A as an extreme, hilarious-if-it-weren’t-actually-true example of office design gone mad, the second article offers the architect’s defence.  With no hint of irony, it also describes new offices that will have a running track for employees, because with longer hours, workers need somewhere to “let off steam,” as if Google and others are doing their employees a favour. So much for the future envisioned in the 1970s where we’d have so much leisure, we wouldn’t know what to do with it.

The bit that really caught my eye was this: Philip Tidd of design and architecture firm Gensler says things are changing, and that “[y]our seniority in the organisation, your status in the organisation, does not need to be reinforced by how much space you get.” If that is the case, then I can only wonder at the ways in which seniority and status are reinforced in a building where all the stage and props have been removed. In The presentation of self in everyday lifeErving Goffman brilliantly describes and analyses how people use props, costumes, “stage” and “backstage” areas in their workplaces to “perform” their role.  Once you’ve read that, it seems hard to believe that you could take away the conventional material expressions of status and not see new ones resurface somewhere else.

When I temped in offices in between music jobs, I was staggered at the way people in apparently un-theatrical professions were prone to unwitting displays of ego (a point I have to make constantly to people who think that the theatre is a place of unbridled egotism – it isn’t, you can’t get theatre made that way). You always know which are the consultants in hospitals: they’re the ones dressed like something out of Jeeves and Wooster (the circus and medicine are two of the few remaining professional arenas where loud shirts and bow ties are still acceptable costume).  The executive may not have the corner office any more, but their status is probably even more prominently displayed in the car-park, where they’ll have one of the only allocated spaces. Or they’ll have a Brompton folding bike, and bring it into the office (something which would be frowned upon lower down the food chain, I suspect). In 2012, the intern is given the problem of storing the executive’s Brompton in a building that has no useful space to store stuff away discreetly, frittering away his time, or forcing him to leave the bike somewhere awkward.

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life amazingly timeless, such good observation and analysis that you have no sense that it was written 60 years ago. It encourages you to look out for precisely those activities and accoutrements of a perfomer (i.e. a normal person, performing their everyday life) that are either designed to be missed, or of which the performer is themselves unaware.  It’s not in Goffman’s book, but one situation that fascinates me is the so-called “open door” policy that some managers operate. Can there be anything more terrifying or status-affirming than having to judge whether it’s really OK to enter a manager or director’s office when the door is always open?

See also: great article on the pain of having to dress “appropriately” by Lauren Laverne.