“No one wants to date YOU!” I tell my students. “You can’t get anybody looking like you look, sounding like you sound, or acting like you act. Oh no.” Students brows scrunch up with a healthy mix of confusion and offense. I take a long pause and watch my students writhe in their seats before I say, “If you act like you on a first date, you can bet it will be your last date. You have to send your representative to a first date. Your representative is the ideal version of you.” With this we start a conversation about Goffman’s Presentation of Self and the ideal. 1
Dating is ripe for sociological analysis because it is full of unspoken norms, tension, and false presentations of self. It is easy to see the social construction of reality on a date because we are expected to construct a reality about who we are, about the world around us, and we are expected to construct a romantic experience for our partner. Dates, especially first dates, are a break from normality, so it is easy to see the familiar as strange- because first dates are strange. After I let my students know that I think they are love worthy, date-able people, I ask them to break up into small groups and answer the following questions.
When on a First Date:
What would you not tell your date about yourself or what would you not bring up in conversation?
What would you emphasize about yourself in conversations?
How might you behave on a first date that is different from how you behave normally?
How would you dress or present yourself physically?
After 10 to 15 minutes in small groups I ask the class to come back together. We review Goffman’s Presentation of Self and what he had to say about the ideal. I then ask the student to share their answers My goal here is to help them see Goffman in their responses. Students report that they dress nicely, use their manners, don’t talk about ex-partners or their problems, and never under any circumstances get angry unless they want to end the date immediately. I suggest to students that dates are an easy way to see how staging, costuming, and dialogue unfold like a well rehearsed play. Students universally agree. The ideal self (what I called our representative) goes on a date with another representative and they both work to create an ideal date. The artificiality of a first date makes it easy to see the effort put into constructing reality, but the goal of this exercise is to get students to see similar efforts to construct reality not just on dates, but nearly everywhere in society.
I wrap up the discussion by suggesting that there is a period in any romantic relationship where you actually haven’t fully met your partner. I joke with my class, “if you haven’t got into an argument with your partner, then you haven’t really met them yet.” Students heads nod and invariably a student or two tells a story of one of their friends who is getting married after only dating their partner for a short time. At least anecdotally, this seems to be a common occurrence for 20 somethings. This last semester one of my students rephrased my words-of-caution for young lovers. He said, “If you haven’t heard your partner fart then you shouldn’t marry them, because you haven’t met them yet.”
1. As my hip readers will already know, I stole the “no one wants to date you” bit from Chris Rock’s Bigger & Blacker.
John Smith — May 16, 2011
It would also be interesting to expand on this by asking students how the college hookup culture (http://contexts.org/articles/summer-2010/is-hooking-up-bad-for-young-women/) affects presentation of self (and judgments of others' presentations of self).