On the night of April 18, three days after the Boston Marathon bombing, a side-drama to that story unfolded between three men as they criss-crossed the city, a performance staged partly in the theater of culture.
Just before 11 p.m., Danny, a young Chinese man on a work visa in the U.S., was carjacked at gunpoint by the Tsarnaev brothers, two immigrants from the Northern Caucasus. As recounted by Danny to The Boston Globe, the ordeal was a gruesome variant of the ethnic interactions that play out in America every day, with the players assigning and assuming their roles based on stereotypes.
“Maybe you think all white guys look the same,” said the older Tsarnaev, Tamerlan, warning Danny not to remember the brothers’ faces as he was chauffeuring them around Boston.
“Exactly,” lied Danny, who later identified the men to the police.
“You are Chinese,” said Tsarnaev. “I am a Muslim.”
“Chinese are very friendly to Muslims,” Danny said. “We are so friendly to Muslims!”
The exchange is surreal, especially Tsarnaev’s non-sequitur about identity. Islam is a religion, which means being Muslim doesn’t contrast with being Chinese (however friendly disposed, China is home to an estimated 20 million Muslims).
In fact, Tsarnaev imagined himself as a jihadist, a self-image that helped propel him through a heinous crime. In his perverted reading of the faith, killing Americans is a thing Muslims do. The Chinese Danny, in turn, obliged the views of the Chechen with the gun, so he would live to see another day. Both men were staging a performance, projecting identities to each other. Their encounter was a high-stakes version of what since the 1950s has been known as “impression management.”
In his seminal work “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,” the sociologist Erving Goffman shows how most people put on acts of some sort — a personal front to influence how we are seen, or to live up to what others expect.
“A status, a position, a social place . . . is a pattern of appropriate conduct, coherent, embellished, and well-articulated,” writes Goffman. “Performed with ease or clumsiness, awareness or not, guile or good faith, it is nonetheless something that must be enacted and portrayed, something that must be realized.”
Reading Goffman’s history of pretense is a little like dropping acid and then attending the World Economic Forum: Suddenly everybody is naked, and people look funny doing what they do.
Goffman sneaks backstage in our shows of identity, revealing — at times to comically subversive effect — how we are hamming it up to look artsy, cosmopolitan or competent, super-smart or ridiculously busy, or in some other way cooler than the next guy. Some acts may have little substance but, according to Goffman, impression management can help “sustain a definition of a situation in front of a given audience.”
Moreover, there are performance teams — groups of people who are staging the same projection. Goffman cites foreign diplomats who, representing their country abroad, can function as “a single team putting on a single worldwide performance.”
All this makes me wonder if we sometimes “act culture.”
To some extent all cultures are narratives — imagined communities upheld from the inside and outside. When we say that the British are gentlemen, that Arabs are proud and that schedules and younger sisters shouldn’t be left alone with Puerto Ricans, we are generalizing from something observed to give structure to a complex world. We confirm with a pleasing “there you go,” and ignore any deviation. Stereotyping itself becomes a facet of our national identity.
As a result, many cross-cultural encounters entail a positioning, as we project to each other “I am not that kind of culture X” or indeed, “I am exactly that kind of culture X.” Both performers adjust their narratives, stressing their “French-ness” or “Chinese-ness” in attitude, manner and speech, in response to the other’s expectations.
Around the globe, people have done this for as long as cultures have interacted. As education and work mobility become increasingly global, anyone living abroad should consider how they wish to be perceived, and how to position themselves against cliche. The expatriate life can be a presentation, a sustained performance and an exercise in impression management — and nowhere more so than with an audience as susceptible about culture as in Japan.
“In work situations I go full-on American,” says Steve, a business English instructor in Tokyo. “In conversation and role-plays, I deliver the goods with a healthy portion of affectation, speaking and acting in a way that people associate with America. As a professional, I am to understand that part of my work is providing my students with some measure of fantasy — the American brand, if you will. They can escape for an hour into this fantasy, with me as their tour guide donning the American mask.”
But there are also Americans like David. A reflective, mild-mannered teacher who asks questions and listens politely, he doesn’t exactly live up to the brand. “One of my students complained that I wasn’t really American,” David recounts with a laugh. “He changed to a teacher from New York, who would talk the entire lesson and give off this opinionated confidence. That was the image the student wanted!”
Goffman uses the term “audience segregation” to explain moments when we alter our public self depending on who is watching. An American may act funny or assertive in exchanges with Japanese people, who often like their foreigners exotic and in turn assume passive roles. With an audience of Frenchmen, however, the American may play up his sophistication or otherwise emphasize competence.
Acting your culture can be fun, but positioning an audience is unfair. In a defensive image compliance, we may submit to a negative stereotype: Consciously or not, we turn into our own cliche. A Japanese man, positioned as meek long before he opens his mouth, may clam up on a Westerner, thinking, “You figure all Japanese are shy? I’ll show you a shy Japanese!” As a tragic extreme of such defiance, we may get Tamerlan Tsarnaev “acting Muslim” the way bigots worldwide have defined it.
In an example from the 1930s, the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth tells of Russians in Paris who are feeding the local stereotype. Seemingly idle and indifferent to time, the way the French may imagine their Russians, they can’t be bothered to fix a stopped clock on the wall of an emigre coffeehouse:
“And even those amongst them who, in their own country, might have had a sense of punctuality and exactitude, seemed now, in a foreign land, either to have lost it or to be ashamed of displaying it. Yes, it was as if those emigrants were consciously demonstrating against the calculating . . . deliberations of the European West; as though they were at pains not only to remain real Russians, but also to play at being ‘real Russians,’ to live up to the European conception of what real Russians should be.”
Other identities are rejected, as I learned in a class on Black Culture at San Francisco State University. The lone white guy in a lecture hall full of black people, I witnessed a discussion on Ebonics, the English vernacular used by some African-Americans. My jaw dropped when a young man flared up: “Ebonics is ghetto talk! I am not jive-talking, fist-bumping MTV black. I’m not that person. I speak standard American English!”
Of course, he took flak from some other students. But I was fascinated to see that the black community too was struggling with identity issues — that there might be projections, adapted or resisted, of what being African-American is supposed to look like. Soon after that I saw an Indian on campus with an armful of books, horn-rimmed glasses, and a shirt that said, “No, I can’t fix your computer.”
So what are the lessons of culture self-presentation? We must decide that for ourselves, depending on our positions as actors and audience. Cultural differences enrich our lives and are worthy of celebration. But the insidious effect of stereotypes is that they assign to others an identity, a role terribly hard to negotiate.
Culture should not be a corset: We should be able to be American, Japanese or Danish-Nigerian in any fashion we happen to choose. At the same time, less investment in our own identity can help others become their own more authentic and complex selves.
Unless, of course, you get carjacked by a jihadist — then it’s time for full-on impression management!
Send all your comments and story ideas to email@example.com.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.