"All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts" (William Shakespeare, "As You Like It")
Erving Goffman's "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life" takes a dramaturgical ,theatre like, approach to social interactions. The question that interests Goffman in how we manage the impression of ourselves within social interactions. He holds that in fact, in social interactions, we always "perform" ourselves. Our theatrical performance of who we are is never a solo act since it depends on the setting ("stage"), audience and the cooperation of other players. For Goffman, this turns any social interaction into a sort of negotiation on the meaning of the situation and the roles of people in it. This means that if I want to be something I need other people to relate to me as that something.
Like in theatre, it is not about what's real but rather about what is perceived as real. In "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life" Goffman demonstrates how we use different narratological and symbolic mechanism to shape the manner in which we are perceived and perceive others. For Goffman we do not only negotiate our "characters" but also cooperate in constructing them and setting the stage for them.
Erving Goffman's main point of interest in "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life" is the nature of social interaction. When we meet a person we always attempt to draw information about him such as social, economic and marital status, an assessment of his nature an traits, his abilities and so forth. The information we derive allows us to befit our conduct and expectation to that person.
For Goffman, the nature of our social interactions is managing these impressions the same way an actor manages his role on stage. An interesting point Goffman makes is that our social character is always divided in two: the impressions we (actively) make and the impression (passively) creates. One of the ways in which we attempt to present ourselves in everyday life is to have control over the definition of the situation, positioning other people in such positions that they will act in accordance with what we want (think of children playing).
From the other's point of view they perceive both the manner we try to appear (things we say, for example) and our actual appearance (which could include things we unintentionally give away). Bases on these modes of information people will decide if to cooperate with our definition of the situation or not. Goffman argues that this makes any social interaction a state of negotiation. All participants in the interaction create a "Modus Vivendi" of positions and roles which does not always express true agreement but rather the calculation of needs and abilities within the situation. In any case people can accept, deny or modify our performance of ourselves.
Goffman thinks society is organized by the principle that determines that everyone has certain social characteristics and it is his moral right to expect proper evaluation and treatment. This principle mandates another one holding that people have to be what they claim to be. If someone turns out to be something else, we denounce him.