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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: January 15, 2007
Latest Update: January 15, 2007

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Index of Topics on Site Remembering Not To Use Backstage Words in Messages

In Presentation of Self in Everyday Life Goffman describes people communicating and acting in roles as if they were on a stage, as Shakespeare once suggested in "all the world's a stage." The stage metaphor is a good one. When we are in a group of people that gathers frequently, and shares many daily activities, that group serves us as a backstage. The group we work with everyday, the group we live with, family, neighbors and friends, the group we play or exercise with, all these are backstages in which we are comfortable because we know each others' foibles and expectations.

There is language that belongs exclusively to this backstage group. "Good Dog" is an expression, for example, that belongs to our Dear Habermas backstage. Long ago, Pat and jeanne and Susan, learned the value of supportive emotional language. But we were also doing labor intensive work and had little time to spend on congratualing one another on our good work. We were all working hard. And when you're working hard, you often forget to take care of a group's socio-emotional needs. If we had all belonged to one work group, a socio-emotional leader would have developed. That probably would have been Pat. But we were scattered across the country, each occupied in her own work group.

Since we knew that socio-emotional needs are as important as task needs to a growing community or face-to-face group, we adopted jeanne's "good dog" as a shorthand means of encouragement, providing the socio-emotional support that jeanne needed. It worked for jeanne. Whenever she was discouraged or overwhelmed, she asked for a "good dog." Michael and Kathleen brought her a colossal St. Bernard toy dog, that rode in the back of her SUV for a long time. At various times, they also brought her a red doggie bowl with GOOD DOG printed on it, and a tiny doll house red doggie bowl with GOOD DOG printed on it. both have a place of honor in her home. Susan often adds a string of "good dogs" to her e-mails to jeanne. Soon jeanne will have good dog reminders all around her. Like photographs, these reminders become icons of memories, good memories that keep us going.

jeanne's "good dogs" are sneaky strokes. Gestures or phrases that signify a very personal response to another, a response that offers encouragement, as a metaphoric gesture that evokes all the right socio-emotional support we need to give one another. "Good Dog" works for jeanne because it evolved from a memory of hers, one of her husband and dog at obedience training, where neither was providing the praise that would cement the training. Good way for families and work groups to find their own "good dog" phrase, by sharing memories that made them realize the need for such shorthand phrases.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why does a group need a shorthand way of offering socio-emotional support?

    Consider that most groups have tasks that must be completed. Consider also that we are living in a fast-paced world in which few of us have adequate discretionary time. With time constraints like that the first things we neglect are the socio-emotional needs of the group. They're like the art and music that were taken out of our schools as soon as the budgets were stretched to the limit. If the group has developed a shorthand way of providing socio-emotinal support, that leaves us more time to get the tasks done. The shorthand may be as simple asa word or phrase that reminds us of a funny experience the group shared, a memory of something that held them together.

  2. What, exactly, is a "sneaky stroke"?

    A sneaky stroke is a socio-emotional assurance to another that you are seeing them as a person, that you are actually attending to what their concerns are. Examples:

    • The Rabbi handshake, in which the Rabbi clasps your hand, then brings his other hand to lay on top of your clasped hands. It provides a parent-like assurance that the Rabbi means to protect and guide you, and is highly supportive.
    • Taking a second or two to look right into the eyes of the person you are greeting. This, too assures the meeting of two people, as deeper than the casual meeting of two role players, who are not stopping to see each other as humans with stories.
    • Letting someone know you were listening by asking a question like: "If I understand, you are saying that . . . . Is that right?" This is a great technique to use with teachers. Assures them you are paying attention.
    • Finding something the Other has done to offer praise, hoping that praise for one task will lead to the doing of another task you'd like done. Telling Mother thanks for putting a favorite treat in your lunch bag, instead of demanding "Don't forget my favorite treat."


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