My fellow blogger Lynn reminded us in one of her recent tweets of Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical sociology and the way we choose to present our self – that is a sense of who one might be, often shaped by the time, place, and audience. In Goffman’s world, where the actor succeeds, the audience will view the actor as they might want to be viewed. Usually, such performances are carefully constructed, practiced and used with self-confidence. It is an approach, that in my professional life, I am very familiar and comfortable with.
I was reminded of this last week when a young man called Daniel, bounded up to me and smiling broadly said ‘Professor, good to see you’. He said I probably wouldn’t remember him, but he was one of my former students and that he had graduated in 2013 and was now working as a Charge Nurse in a local emergency care service. Now over the 10 years I was Dean of the School at the University, some 7000 nursing students passed through the School. Remembering individuals tended to happen only where someone had done something outstanding, or the reverse, they did something unprofessional that brought them to my attention.
However, Daniel had a very clear memory of me during his time at the University. He recalled that I always wore black, nobody had ever seen me in anything else, I had clogs of different colours which created urban myths amongst the students as to whether specific colours related to my mood or had some other significance, and that I had a ‘thing about chickens’. However the memory that struck a chord with me was his recollection of his very first day at University. On that first day I would always meet all the students to welcome them to the University and to their taking the first steps on their chosen professional journey.
Essentially I was performing on my stage. I talked about the possibilities and opportunities that lay in front of them; I talked about a number of people who had shaped my view of the world (Carl Rogers, unconditional positive regard for others; Virginia Henderson, understanding the nature of intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships – self, and self in relation to others; and Michel Foucault, the importance of both revealing and understanding the silenced voice). I had delivered various versions of this welcome speech many times, but for Daniel it was the first time. He told me how his memory was one shaped by feeling inspired, motivated, and reassured that he had made the right decision in coming to the School. He told me that his group thought I was authentic and passionate about enabling others to create a future for themselves. After 7 years of study and practice it was warming that he still retained such a positive memory of his first day at the University.
I met Daniel at a husting event leading up to the recent the general election. I had been supporting my friend and colleague Jane who was standing for the first time as a parliamentary candidate for the Conservatives. In the main my support and help involved undertaking policy analysis, trying to make what was a dreadful election manifesto more accessible, palatable and applicable to members of her community, developing daily messages and so on. All this work was undertaken in the context of Jane’s strong belief in being authentic and true to herself, even where this might give rise to challenges and tensions between her beliefs and what was set out in the Conservative manifesto – the official line! Although difficult at times to negotiate these tensions, it was relatively easy for me, from a distance to provide advice, possible comments and responses.
The husting event was clearly different, and my friend would be very much on the stage. It was a bruising and hostile audience, largely made up of vocal and challenging Labour supporters. My friend did well in the face of much hostility. As a a performance it wasn’t one that was carefully constructed, practiced and used with self-confidence, but it was truly authentic and every response delivered with passion, and for me that what was important. Unfortunately, Jane did not get elected as the MP, but then the area hadn’t elected a Conservative MP for some 62 years – and against the national picture, she did double the votes, gaining nearly 30% of the vote and came a very respectful second. Staying true to one's self was and is important. Despite the disappointment I hope that with time, like Daniel, she holds some good memories of the opportunity she created. It was one she can be proud of and build authentically on, for the future.