thoughts on impression management, feminism, pronoun use, and social justice

Deegan (2013) critiques Goffman’s (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life as a model of patriarchal use of language and irony, “to perpetuate gender inequality” (p. 79). In Deegan’s conversations with the sociological giant, Goffman laments that he struggles to find a good alternative to the pronoun “he” and that feminists have missed the irony in his use of examples that stereotypically depict woman as subordinate. In turn, Degan suggests using “he/she” or gender neutral pronouns such as “congressperson”. She also makes a strong case for how irony in a patriarchal world perpetuates oppression. Such “joking around” fails to challenge repressive behavior and places the repressed in the awkward position of feeling obligated to laugh at a joke at their own expense, which validates repressive social structures. Irony used in this way is an impression management strategy used by the patriarchy to explicitly acknowledge social injustice while simultaneously reinforcing the power structure.

The feminist movement has made substantial strides since the 1970s due, in no small part, to rethinking how to use language in a way that questions established social hierarchy. This feminist approach to social change is paralleled in other social movements with similar results. Take, for example, the fight for marriage-equality. Whether it was strategic or a consequence of the legal and language structures of the time, the homosexual community adopted terms such as “partner” or “life-partner” to describe what they viewed to be a relationship of equivalent status to that of “husband” or “wife.” Similar to “congressperson,” “partner” is a more general noun that neutralizes the (often fast and strong) urge to code gender. The effect has three consequences for the role of impression management in social change. First, when conversations about relationship status are unavoidable, it helps the homosexual actor retain control and power over the observers’ impression of their relationship and sexual orientation. Generally, it is rude to pry further into their relationship, thus using “partner” to answer relationship questions maintains the “line” of conversation and the actor’s power. Second, the use of more general nouns subtly cues the audience to question the status quo. By neutralizing gender, the noun “partner” introduces a state of uncertainty in the mind of the observer, which naturally leads to questions such as “Am I using the right noun?” Or “Why did they say it that way?” These questions break the automaticity of oppressive assumptions about the relationship between sexual orientation, language, and status. The third consequence of adopting a more general noun is that it enables subtle displays of solidarity with the movement. Many heterosexual couples started using the noun “partner” to describe their wife or husband. Couples that use “partner” synonymously with “husband/wife” are both reshaping the meaning associate with the word and signaling that they endorse the movement. These couples are also normalizing this meaning of “partner,” which blurs the social order repressing the homosexual community.

This analysis sheds light on how strategies of impression management have social justice implications. How can other contemporary groups facing social repression, such as the transgender community, manipulate language and gesture to effectively manage and reshape the impression of others? In a recent conversation, a friend expressed annoyance with what he called, “political correctness” training. His employer required a discussion about changing perspectives on the use of gendered identifiers, such as “he/she”, in the direction of third more neutral term such as “they.” To my surprise, he lamented that this would completely change how we use language. The transgender community faces a different (and perhaps more difficult) set of challenges than those faced by feminists and marriage-equality advocates, but I suspect that the use of “they” or similar terms will follow a similar trend to the use of “partner” and “congressperson.”


Deegan, M. J. (2013). Goffman on gender, sexism, and feminism: A summary of notes on a conversation with Erving Goffman and my reflections then and now. Symbolic Interaction, 37, 71-86. doi: 10.1002/symb.85

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.