Front-stage/backstage behavior

One of Erving Goffman’s brilliant insights is the extent to which people engage in presentations of self. Front-stage behavior is the display meant for ‘public’ consumption: witty, urbane, dangerous, smart, smooth, down-to-earth, intellectual, anti-intellectual. This depends on the audience, of course, and it is meant to make oneself look good. Backstage behavior is closer to the real self, less varnished, less an act…

The moments when the presentation slips – when customers walk into the kitchens, or ‘dirty laundry’ is aired in public – are moments of breakdown. We glimpse a ‘truer’ self lurking behind the façade.

Which brings us to Alain de Botton. His TED talk circulated round the interwebs recently, an appeal for a ‘kinder, gentler philosophy of success.’ These talks are front-stage-o-rama. But then there is this bit.

Caleb Crain writes a pretty scathing review of de Botton’s latest book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, accusing him of mocking, mean-spiritedness, and superficiality. And then posts a pointer to it on his blog. de Botton responds in comments with this:

Caleb, you make it sound on your blog that your review is somehow a sane and fair assessment. In my eyes, and all those who have read it with anything like impartiality, it is a review driven by an almost manic desire to bad-mouth and perversely depreciate anything of value. The accusations you level at me are simply extraordinary. I genuinely hope that you will find yourself on the receiving end of such a daft review some time very soon – so that you can grow up and start to take some responsibility for your work as a reviewer. You have now killed my book in the United States, nothing short of that. So that’s two years of work down the drain in one miserable 900 word review. You present yourself as ‘nice’ in this blog (so much talk about your boyfriend, the dog etc). It’s only fair for your readers (nice people like Joe Linker and trusting souls like PAB) to get a whiff that the truth may be more complex. I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make. I will be watching with interest and schadenfreude.

And yes, it was him and not someone posing as him. Most damning, in my mind, is when he notes: “It was a private communication to his website, to him as a blogger,” he said. “It’s appalling that it seems that I’m telling the world.”

You see, it takes a special kind of person to transform a bad review into ‘I will hate you till the day I die’, and a technologically-unsavvy kind of person to assume that his note was a ‘private communication to his website.’ As for his TED talk, his charming, self-deprecating wit, his exhortation to “…[H]old your horses when you’re coming to judge people. You don’t necessarily know what someone’s true value is. That is an unknown part of them. And we shouldn’t behave as though it is known”? Well, you judge how much he believes it.

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