The Nature of Deference and Demeanor

In Erving Goffman’s, The Nature of Deference and Demeanor, Goffman explains the concepts of deference and demeanor and the active role they play in how individuals act and respond to specific situations. These actions are influenced by “rules of conduct” that form an individual’s identity and help them act accordingly to the cultural norms or a certain group or role in society. Deference is a “component of activity which functions as a symbolic means by which appreciations is regularly conveyed”(Goffman 1967). Deference can take the form of compliments, apologies, or criticism. Demeanor refers to an individual’s behavior, displayed through actions or presentation. Through the actions of deference and demeanor identities are formed by the actions and reactions of many individuals acting to a certain role, and by gaining feedback of their demeanor through deference

Goffman explains that society has placed “rules of conduct” on how an individual should act in the form of creating direct “obligations,” and indirect “expectations.”(Goffman 1967) This influences an individual’s demeanor, creating an identity that an individual molds themself into, depending on the obligations and expectations that are required. A doctor has an obligation to provide treatment to a patient, depending on the result of the demeanor. The patient gives the doctor deference, either positive or negative, which the doctor then responds to either by accepting the positive deference and appreciating it, or accepting the negative and changing to fix it, thus solidifying the doctor’s role to the patient through the effects of deference and demeanor.

An individual’s status in society, or a group determines the “rules of conduct” that they must present through their demeanor. If they present a good demeanor by fitting into this identity and follow the rules of conduct, then it should be granted that people in the same social group will give deference and compliments to that individual, one of the cause and effect examples Goffman gives, having compliments reinforce good actions, and criticism to thwart negative behavior.

Goffman places emphasis on certain roles, and explains that certain roles have “status position and power.” A doctor has more power over a nurse, so a doctor can display certain deference actions that would be unsuitable for a nurse. It would be unsuitable for a nurse to give commands to a doctor, but is not unsuitable for a doctor to give commands to a nurse. These actions are described as one way, or asymmetrical expectations. Symmetrical expectations describe the shared expectations of both individuals, both the doctor and nurse greet each other and say “Good morning”(Goffman 1967). These differences in power create defined boundaries and specific roles and responsibilities for individuals to carry out and respond to, pushing an individual to act in accordance to an identity that is specified by cultural norms, society values, and ethical laws.

Many of the examples Goffman uses take place in a hospital ward between doctors, patients, and nurses. This only goes on to explain certain situations in a specific controlled environment. In the present, identities, social norms, and rules of conduct are continuously changing. New generations are coming and going, and along with them, certain ceremonial rituals are being adapted, while most are forgotten. Goffman explains that substantial rules help form “law, morality and ethics,” and ceremonial rules shape our “etiquette”(Goffman 1967). Most substantial rules do not fluctuate, but as new generations grow old, ceremonial rules are easily influenced by mass media and seem to change on a daily basis. The interactions of individuals through behavior and dress are now influenced by music superstars, movies and the mass media. Many people take deference for granted, and are self-centered and show no gratitude or respect for other individuals.

Deference and demeanor shape identity and social norms by making individuals act in accord to certain “rules of conduct” social norms, and these rules of conduct create identities by form an individual’s decisions (deference) on how they act and dress to fit it. That deference keeps these identities shaped by either giving praise or lack or praise for that specific act. If an individual doesn’t like a certain role, he or she is free to make the decision to switch roles to a more comfortable setting where he or she can be given the appropriate deference for their demeanor.

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