Goffman and Veritas

June 9, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Slate ran an article  by L.V. Anderson decrying the tendency of Ivy League graduates to be vague about their educational credentials.  Asked where they went to school, they say, “New Haven,” or “Boston,” or “New Jersey.”

If . . . you refuse to tell someone you went to Harvard, that reflects poorly on you – it implies that, on some level, you buy into the overblown mythos of Harvard and the presumption of Ivy League superiority.

Anderson’s course of study, wherever it was, must not have included even a paragraph of Goffman. One of the basic ideas of Presentation of Self is that people seek to control the impressions others make of them, and they do this by controlling the information others get, for they what impression others are likely to make from that information. It’s not about what mythos Ivy Leaguers buy into. It’s about the mythos others have bought.

Ivy Leaguers have a very good notion, usually based on experience, of the impression that “Harvard” or “Yale” creates in others’ minds.  Alyssa Metzger in the Chronicle  sets the record straight.

When I would visit my former local bar in Philly . . . a reply of “In Boston” usually led to them returning to their beers with an “Oh cool … my friend’s sister goes to BU” . . .  If I said, “At Harvard,” it tended to lead to them turning on their stools to face me, wide-eyed, with an “Oh wow … you must be really smart.” I wasn’t Allyssa, I was SMART PERSON (TM)— more object than person.

Who wants to be seen as an exemplar of a stereotype? And stereotype we do, even those of us who should know better.  A few years ago (here) I reported a conversation from my playground days. I had gotten to know another playground dad (weekdays at the playground, the dad sample is avery small n). Brad was a Juilliard grad who was eking out a living as a conductor with a regional orchestra – five concerts a year. 

One day we were sitting on the bench, and Brad asked me where I’d gotten my Ph.D. I guess we’d never talked much about higher education. Harvard, I told him.

“I didn’t know that,” he said, surprised, “and I’ve known you all this time.”
“Don’t be impressed,” I said.
“But I am,” he said. From his voice and the look on his face, I could see that he meant it. I wanted to convince him not to be.
“Oh Brad,” I said, my voice rising in mock awe, “You went to Juilliard?! You must be this really great and talented musician. Juilliard – wow!” Or something like that.
He laughed.
“See what I mean?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. Then a pause. “But I’m still impressed.”

Harvard grads don’t want to lie. So they tell the veritas, just not the whole veritas. Yalies may shade the veritas in order to present themselves in the lux that best fits the situation.  But, as Goffman pointed out, that’s what we all do all the time.


PCM said...

Nice post.

I usually say I went to grad school at Harvard, since if we're talking grad school we're already talking about a certain level of academic nuance.

But saying "Princeton" instead of "college" is indeed an conversation stopper, or at least an unwelcome conversation changer. It's not false modesty as much as I simply don't identify with it.

"When I was in college" works plenty fine. If they don't ask, I don't tell. (That is in the genes... though my father was a big "Princeton" dropper.)

Regardless, as you get further from your college years, fewer people ask or care where you did your undergrad.

Jay Livingston said...

But if someone asks where you went to college, do you say, "New Jersey"? Does anyone? (You might also have noted that your father was not only a Princeton dropper. He also dropped "don't ask don't tell" on us.)