He who always wears the mask of a friendly man must at last gain a power over friendliness of disposition, without which the expression itself of friendliness is not to be gained—and finally friendliness of disposition gains the ascendancy over him—he is benevolent.
“Sincerity” is detrimental to one’s job, until the rules of salesmanship and business become a “genuine” aspect of oneself.
— C. Wright Mills
We all do a certain amount of acting. But we may act in two ways. In the first way, we try to change how we outwardly appear. As it is for the people observed by Erving Goffman, the action is in the body language, the put-on sneer, the posed shrug, the controlled sigh. This is surface acting.1 The other way is deep acting. Here, display is a natural result of working on feeling; the actor does not try to seem happy or sad but rather expresses spontaneously, as the Russian director Constantin Stanislavski urged, a real feeling that has been self-induced. Stanislavski offers this illustration from his own experience:
At a party one evening, in the house of friends, we were doing various stunts and they decided, for a joke, to operate on me.
Tables were carried in, one for operating, the other supposedly containing surgical instruments. Sheets were draped around; bandages, basins, various vessels were brought.
The “surgeons” put on white coats and I was dressed in a hospital gown. They laid me on the operating table and bandaged my eyes. What disturbed me was the extremely solicitous manner of the doctors. They treated me as if I were in a desperate condition and did everything with utmost seriousness. Suddenly the thought flashed through my mind, “What if they really should cut me open?!”
Now and then a large basin made a booming noise like the toll of a funeral bell.
“Let us begin!” someone whispered.
Someone took a firm hold on my right wrist. I felt a dull pain and then three sharp stabs. I couldn’t help trembling. Something that was harsh and smarted was rubbed on my wrist. Then it was bandaged, people rustled around handing things to the surgeon.
Finally, after a long pause, they began to speak out loud, they laughed, congratulated me. My eyes were unbandaged and on my left arm lay a new-born baby made out of my right hand, all swaddled in gauze. On the back of my hand they had painted a silly, infantile face.2
The “patient” above is not pretending to be frightened at his “operation.” He is not trying to fool others. He is really scared. Through deep acting he has managed to scare himself. Feelings do not erupt spontaneously or automatically in either deep acting or surface acting. In both cases the actor has learned to intervene—either in creating the inner shape of a feeling or in shaping the outward appearance of one.
In surface acting, the expression on my face or the posture of my body feels “put on.” It is not “part of me.” In deep acting, my conscious mental work —the effort to imagine a tall surgeon looming over me, for example—keeps the feeling that I conjure up from being part of “myself.” Thus in either method, an actor may separate what it takes to act from the idea of a central self.
But whether the separation between “me” and my face or between “me” and my feeling counts as estrangement depends on something else—the outer context. In the world of the theater, it is an honorable art to make maximum use of the resources of memory and feeling in stage performance. In private life, the same resources can be used to advantage, though to a lesser extent. But when we enter the world of profit-and-loss statements, when the psychological costs of emotional labor are not acknowledged by the company, it is then that we look at these otherwise helpful separations of “me” from my face and my feeling as potentially estranging.