Performance Awareness

Adam Blatner

December 26, 2006

Performance awareness, as I am using the term, involves the awareness that one’s behavior is being noticed and to some degree evaluated by others. It might also involve the awareness of someone watching (or listening) that the performer seems to be aware of his or her performance. The point of this essay is that it is useful for people—everyone, not just actors—to more clearly recognize when and how they are performing. To this end, this paper will identify the variables operating in performance; and offer some context that can make these ideas more meaningful. In a related essay on this website, I note the way performance awareness develops from infancy into adulthood--see the development of performance awareness.

Some social psychologists and anthropologists, such as Erving Goffman or Victor Turner, have used the concept of performance more in a descriptive way, noting how people behave within a general social system of agreed-upon signs and symbols. This approach uses what is known as a “dramaturgical model” for understanding the nature of social and cultural interactions, viewing people as if they were actors in a play. This approach has advantages, but also limitations, especially insofar as it under-emphasizes the degrees to which the people involved are specifically aware of their own performance or feel free to reflect on and modify their own performance. So this essay emphasizes the individual and social psychological dimensions that come with a slight raising of consciousness about such dynamics.


Seeing everything as performance is too generalized and thus uses its utility. It’s better to recognize that much behavior is, for all practical purposes, non-performance. Behavior done alone tends to be non-performance, and routine transactions in public are low in this dynamic. There is a related category of behaviors that are performance only insofar as they adhere to common social norms, such as behavior on a public transportation vehicle. As long as one stays within certain parameters, no one is noticing how “well” one is performing that role—i.e., it performance only in the sense of sociological description, but not in the sense of performance awareness. In other words, if there is no awareness of being perceived and evaluated, it is hardly useful to consider it a performance.

The audience may be someone actual and present or someone imagined. The imagined other might be a real person not present, someone from the past or future, or a person-like other “being,” an ancestor spirit, a saint or guru, or some divine figure. It may be one’s ancestors or guardian angels, one’s tempting devils or chorus of wished-for admirers—and so forth. Thus, some people’s behavior, even when alone, may be significantly performed for a watching and judging God or some other spiritual entity. Thus, the dynamic of performance depends on the degree and type of self-consciousness of the performer.

Variables of Performance

To illustrate how the degree of performance can fluctuate in time, I might be, say, just doing a task, unaware that there is anyone watching, unconcerned about how others will assess my behavior. I construct these sentences on my computer’s word-processing program, and most of me is just trying to get my thoughts clear and finger movements accurate. (This would be closer to non-performance.) As I re-read what I am writing to see if it makes sense, I begin to imagine the viewpoint of the reader. At this point, I am engaging in a mild type of performance. I edit these words, take out redundancies, re-structure sentences. Sometimes it occurs to me that the reader is not just following my thinking, but may (or may not) be impressed with my style, and the cleverness—nay, brilliance—of my observations! Aha! I’m in performance mode!

In other words, the degree of performance may vary according to the extent that I reflect on how these words will be received. So, it’s not an either-or, on / off phenomenon; there are many degrees and types of awareness. Also, sometimes these impressions, thoughts and assumptions are mistaken. They may be flat wrong, over- or under-estimating the type and degree of awareness–especially by the supposed audience.

A person may become aware that one’s own behavior is a performance, or that another person’s behavior is a performance. This awareness can vary in intensity from vague impression to sharp focus and conscious intent. Some variations include:

Based on our becoming more aware of the potential impact of our behavior on others, we may choose to change some behavior from it being a vague “acting-out” of some half-unconscious impulse to either stopping it, or perhaps doing it more intentionally and even dramatically, the better to effect our purposes. This might involve becoming more aware of our own nonverbal telltale facial expressions and gestures, voice tone and posture, and so forth.

If we become aware that others are performing, we may wish to reinforce it by paying attention in a less distracted, more nonverbally coherent way. Some medical students and physicians are being helped to better their “bedside manner” by learning this skill. In other settings in which we recognize that we’re bored, we might wish to gently shift our behavior to minimize the shock to the performer as we move away or change the topic. This is considered tact or graciousness.

We may wish to modify the tendency towards stage fright or over-self-consciousness, countering its inhibiting power and turning again to the techniques we’ve learned to overcome these inhibitions. Actors do things like imagining that the audience is all naked.

We may exaggerate our presentation in certain ways, and play down certain other behaviors, as do public speakers who wish to exercise the power of their rhetoric, their art of persuasion.

We may recognize that we are off stage, and observe the layers of pretense and facade that can fall away, melt away, in less formal situations. (Some folks have a hard time doing this, and it may be helpful to consciously engage in a de-role-ing process.)

We may find an optimal level of performance is a good thing in informal, home situations–just enough so that we make sure we express appreciation and affection to those who need these gestures. (All too often, alas, people fall into taking each other for granted, neglecting these little expressions of grace, courtesy, and sweetness. A little bit of performance-awareness can be helpful: Hey, there are people around you who want to know that you know they exist and that you like them! Awareness of awareness.)

These and other examples illustrate the way having the idea of performance in your mind can serve as a category for self-management. The goal is not to amplify this dimension so that one becomes paralyzed by self-doubt, but rather to find the optimal ranges for its exercise. Indeed, recognizing how many situations are not performances—noticing the many situations in which no one else really cares, for example—can be helpful a bit in reducing patterns of social phobia.

Most people hardly think about these things, other than in passing, and with little explicit analysis. The culture as a whole has only begun to recognize this profoundly important dimension of social psychology. The point here is that the more one knows about the differences in degree and type of awareness associated with behavior, the more one can utilize this knowledge effectively and creatively.

Inhibitions to Performance Awareness

This conscious attention to how we perform and react to others’ performances might seem a little manipulative—it would have to me forty years ago. At that time, there was a premium given to un-self-conscious spontaneity, authenticity, and the avoidance of phoniness. Grown-ups were viewed as being more phony, living according to a facade. There was a little truth to this generation gap in the mid-1950s, but it was also an adolescent over-generalization. Alas, the attitude, along with a misunderstanding of the issues, is still common.

Part of that attitude was a mixed message many children were given at that time. On one hand, many were asked to perform in holiday school pageants, although when not explicitly onstage, they were told, “Don’t show off.” It was a bit confusing, because show-offs—better known as movie stars and celebrities—were granted fame and fortune. What was missing was a more nuanced message: It is good to show off sometimes, and it is useful to learn when and how to show off. While there is indeed such a thing as too much showing off, there is also such a thing as too little—and too few people learn this lesson.

We get similarly mixed messages about play, imagination, improvisation, making things up, creativity, spontaneity, physical exuberance, curiosity, and other qualities. This is because the grown-ups haven’t themselves thought such things through. Instead, the mythic foundation of Western culture has been on the idea that acquisition of knowledge will suffice. It is part of what has become recognized as an imbalance, an over-emphasis on the cultivation of the abilities of the left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex (“left brain” for short), and a corresponding under-valuing of the potentials of the right brain. Consequently, there has arisen an interest in the study of creativity, play, empathy, more balanced and integrated living, and the like–and as part of this trend, I am suggesting that we include a sharper awareness of the dynamics of performance.

Another aspect of the inhibition of performance is that it was thought to be associated with insincerity, “con men,” and manipulation. This confuses the method with the intent. Occasionally, there are phonies who are unethical. Even more common are those who are sincere in their folly or short-sighted endeavors, and much wickedness and harm has been perpetrated by people who thought themselves noble and forthright. It’s not just the degree of performance that is the problem, but the whole complex of degrees of wisdom, empathy, imagination, and so forth.

Triadic Dynamics

The term "triadic" involves a slight complexification of this, an imagining of how three people in a situation might be thinking about each other. This involves a capacity to imagine another person’s viewpoint, an extension of what Dan Goleman (2006) calls “social intelligence.” Virginia Satir, one of the pioneers of family therapy and an extension of this she called “people-making,” noted that it can be useful to think and operate in groups of three, which expands the more commonly-used method of dialogue in some interesting ways.

When a third person is recognized as present, there is a natural shifting of viewpoints and modes of discourse: A speaks directly to B. A asks C if his approach to B was effective, using C as a type of mirror or source of feedback. B and A dialogue for a bit and then ask C for a comment. A and C have a side dialogue about B, letting B overhear, then ask for B’s comments. And so forth. What comes of all this is a heightened sense of thinking and communicating about the ways the participants are thinking and communicating, as well as about whatever the actual content of the discussion may be. (This is called “meta-cognition” and “meta-communication.”)

Such discussions may note that the nonverbal communications of one of the parties may have been confusing or misunderstood by another party, or that the pacing and choice of words may have had a counter-productive effect. Opportunities for mediation, checking out, re-play, and healing, reassurance and questioning, all are expanded in this mode.

In the theatre, this triadic dynamic is played out when the actors figuratively break through the “proscenium arch,” that invisible “fourth wall” between the events on stage and the audience, and make asides, or give a soliloquy. The audience is thus included as a third party in the seeming dialogues between the main actors on stage. In family therapy, the therapist may have the family members talk directly with each other sometimes, and at other times, mediate or comment.

The point here is that this dynamic of the third or outside viewpoint, the audience and critic and performer, or other triangular interactions, all may be consciously used by people to enhance their communications.

Another triangle involves the perspectives of time, space, shifts of frame of reference. Thinking about what is good for “the bottom line” of short-term profit may thus also be viewed from the criterion of what is most ethical or spiritually righteous. What is convenient in the moment may be compared with longer term consequences for the people involved. The mode of performance implies a wider audience, perhaps even the widest, the Cosmic audience of God or Posterity.

Related Dimensions

The tendency to break things into different compartments is a convenience, but the problem is that people forget this and begin to think that, for example, chemistry is completely different from physics, because they are different subjects in school. Or they might imagine that electricity is different from optics. In fact, phenomena overlap to various degrees, and differences aren't that sharply drawn. This is even more pronounced in the realms of mind and culture, themes and dynamics. In this sense, performance is one kind of social phenomenon, and its dynamics are influenced heavily by other dimensions:

The sense of rapport, connectedness, or what Moreno (in his role as the inventor of sociometry) called “tele,” all influence the degrees to which be become aware of our audience and/or care about the audience’s reaction (and similarly, the audience’s awareness or caring for the performer.)

Who is perceived to have authority or power over others, status influence, and the like, further affect the dynamics of performance.

Larger group dynamics also are important: The sense of group unity or disunity, cohesion or fragmentation, high morale or desperation, cooperation as a norm or every-man-for-himself, these elements also affect any associated performer-audience dynamic. The demagogue who galvanizes a mob or the police officer who is able to turn a threatening mob into a friendly crowd—such acts of leadership are also performances.

The purpose of the interaction matters, also. Is this fantasy or “for real”? Are there opportunities to experiment, try out alternatives, or is every move recorded and every casual word reported on and made into occasions of judgment by spin-doctors speaking to a wider audience. (This happens all too often in politics.) What is play, what is serious, what is safe, what is dangerous, such context considerations are also part of performance.

Often the arts act as intermediaries, offering experiences for audiences in which the aforementioned variables are mixed in interesting ways. Perhaps that is why the arts—and especially forms of drama—may be of great use.

Creating Community

Another value and effect of performance is the promotion not so much of recognition of individual competence as group morale. The cheerleader may enjoy a measure of having been recognized as an individual, but it is often far less important than the sense of success that comes with the whole team and rooting section and cheerleading squad and everyone else on “our side” enjoying a good and perhaps even victorious game. It is the sense of communion in the effort that is the payoff. This is often true for the players both in sports and in theatre. The audience becomes part of the total process, for laughter, tears, whatever the joint catharsis.

Hidden Fields

Many dimensions in social psychology are still generally unknown to most of the lay public, and to many who are in other ways fairly educated. It takes a while for new ideas to diffuse into the mainstream, and even longer if there are common misunderstandings and sources of cultural inhibition. Psychology itself still is burdened by its association with mental illness and the widely perceived weirdness of psychoanalysis, the cartoon image of the odd patient on the couch and the even odder bearded psychiatrist. These images interfere with the recognition of psychology as a technology that needs to become as mainstream as reading and writing.

Most people not only don’t know how to maneuver within the more subtle realms of interpersonal relations—in marriages, with parents or children, relatives, in committees, etc.—, but don’t know that there exist a number of most useful concepts and techniques that can facilitate these relationships. Even the language of psychology is outmoded, full of misleading and emotionally loaded jargon. (That’s why applied role theory offers a more neutral and user-friendly language, and why drama offers a number of applications that can help to bring the best insights of psychology into common use.)

Certain ideas exist at the edge of awareness, and naming these phenomena calls them forward into attention. Talking about rapport, performance, status, conflict resolution, and the like, all begins to bring these themes from a vague and seemingly complex cloud of background feeling into more focused thought. Having words for the various dynamics helps. Thus, talking about performance will increase the usefulness of the concept as more people become familiar with its terminology.


If one becomes more aware of the dynamics of performance, what might come from such awareness?

Not everything should be thought of as performance. Indeed, there are situations in which performance should be allowed to disappear. In working on a task, a friend said, “Please excuse me. I may get so involved that I forget the social niceties. I may get a bit bossy or seem preoccupied.” That was a nice way of saying, in effect, that she was forgetting the dynamic of performance, and if it were important to me at any point, she could be called back into the social field. It also illustrates that there are many times when we work alone and even together and are basically doing stuff and unaware and unconcerned about others. Performance is not to any degree an operative function.

Knowing about performance may help us in countering the influences of advertisers and politicians. For example, there is a trend that suggests to ever-younger audiences that looking “cool” and fashionable is of primary importance in order to gain peer-group status. This exploitation of the dynamic of performance in elementary-school-age kids has the impact of prematurely hyper-sensitizing youngsters to the pseudo-importance of outward appearance. (Indeed, as a child psychiatrist, I detect in this overstimulation a dynamic similar to premature sexual overstimulation, also known as child sexual abuse!)

In thinking about performance, a wide range of factors may be considered: How is the performer using dress, voice tone, gesture, choice of wording, and other subtleties of self-presentation. The performer might wonder, “Is this even the audience I want to play to, or might I do better leaving and finding another venue?” The point here is that most people, when self-conscious, tend to focus only on one or a few variables, and rarely take into consideration others. Thinking about the dynamics of performance might help to make these people more effective.

For example, one might meet a person who is very fashionable, either quite chic or perhaps, keeping with current teen trends, even shockingly slovenly, with torn jeans (very carefully shaped tears at the knees), baggy pants, and so forth. But the voice tone or thickness of dialect may be problematic enough to interfere with the capacity to relate well to this person. In today’s educational system, “elocution,” which requires attention to clear pronunciation, tends to be neglected, and many young people speak with accents, slang, inflections, and speed that make them ineffective in their jobs as, say, telemarketers. On the other hand, I suspect that there are increasing numbers of classes in the reduction of dialect and accent for people in other countries who are doing “outsourced” work .that involves telephone conversations. (Perhaps we should bring such class techniques into our own high school classrooms, emphasizing understandable speech as being more important than a knowledge of literature. The problem is that it takes more time than what is needed on paper-and-pencil tests.)

A knowledge of performance fosters mental flexibility. One becomes more sensitive to the appropriateness of different types and intensities of behavior in different contexts, and begins to assess the audience accordingly. More lightness, vocal inflection, drama, and silliness is appropriate for younger children than it might be for strangers. Behavior in a crowd is generally most appropriate if one is low-key, unless one is seeking attention as a performer–a singer, a clown-- in a subway station or on a street corner. Matter-of-fact task-orientation needs to shift quickly to interpersonal sensitivity as a doctor enters the patient’s room in the hospital. (Alas, too often this transition doesn’t happen.) A manager’s or supervisor’s irritation must be modulated in the modern workplace, because in recent years the boss “blowing up” becomes interpreted as unacceptable, loss of control, emotional incontinence, uncool, or more simply, “jerk.”

There is no one way to be. There is no true authenticity, a simple, steady, one-size-fits-all personality stance. The desire for this “right answer” betrays a type of mental laziness mixed with a childish illusion that it is possible to get “there.” Rather, the dynamics of performance is part of a larger and growing world-view that recognizes the intrinsic dynamism of life, of systems, of evolution and historical process. What might have worked and seemed true yesterday may not work today because there are new technologies, theoretical perspectives, paradigms, people from different backgrounds, and predicaments involved.

Recognizing yourself as a performer in some situations, you can more consciously choose your degrees of dramatic emphasis– how much one expresses emotionality, amazement, poignant sympathy, triumph, and so forth. In some groups, such as military or astronaut activities, where tasks are paramount and complex, there is little place for these aesthetic additions. With kids and some friends, these exclamations lend spice and vitality.

There may be a variation of degrees of spontaneity allowed. In some contexts, others are expecting and perhaps even needing or demanding that you pretty much stick to the explicit or implicit script. Deviations will be experienced as confusing, shocking, irreverent, or in other ways deeply disturbing. Reactions can include not only mere confusion of the audience, but anger, hate, rage. In other situations, the context is more playful and your improvisations and playing your hunches are just what’s called for. This, then, is another variable that you should be flexible about, and you can ask yourself, “What degree is spontaneity useful in this setting?”

Clarification of Context is another variable. In some settings, the context is clear–it’s a humor setting, everyone is cracking jokes. In another setting, only some people are joking, and it may or may not be “appropriate” for you to put in your own jokes. In many settings, you need to let folks know that you want to joke, find out if it is okay—it often is not—and be sure the others know you are joking. Otherwise your performance may evoke a reaction very different from your hoped-for desire.


In the song, “Do, Re, Me,” in the Broadway musical, “The Sound of Music,” there’s a verse that goes, “When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything.” Identifying the components of a process makes it possible to work with those components more creatively. This is true not only of physical materials, chemistry, metallurgy, but also music and communications. In ancient Greece, rhetoric was a basic part of the curriculum. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and it deals with argument, plus a knowledge of the manipulations, logical fallacies, and devices now prevalent in advertising and political propaganda. Rhetoric should be taught in our schools as part of any plan to instill the capacity for critical thinking, and it relates to the dynamics of performance.

Communications has also become a complex umbrella field that includes many sub-fields, from the design of types of alphabets (“fonts”) to the study of non-verbal communications. All these are also related to performance.

In the 1980s, a new field, performance studies, emerged as a similar umbrella to explore the common dynamics noted in anthropology, social psychology, theatre arts, and to lesser degrees, politics, history, neuroscience, cultural criticism, postmodernist philosophy, and other fields. Other related fields include the dramaturgical approach in social psychology, such as Erving Goffman’s writings about role and performance; role theory in general, with its roots in psychodrama; narrative psychology; the study of play–especially imaginative play and the social negotiation of play in childhood; the study of rituals and the growing idea of creating and designing new rituals, and so forth.

I am a psychiatrist and psychodramatist, working recently on promoting ideas and approaches that support the development of skills of self-awareness, communications, and problem-solving in the general population, the enhancement of vitality, imaginativeness and spontaneity, and the methods that can help to achieve these ends. Drama is one of these vehicles, and it is generally misunderstood, I think, viewed as an art form done by experts for relatively passive audiences. Instead, we should re-own drama as a dimension of everyday life, a way to enhance our own experience and interpersonal effectiveness, to infuse parenting, education, religion, and other endeavors with more light, fun, and intrinsic motivation.

The main point of this paper is to warm up the reader (audience) to thinking about that dimension of social life that has to do with performance, the relative degrees of awareness, attitudes, and mental flexibility of both actor and audience, and how these dynamics play out at the level of the psychology of the individual, in the interpersonal and group dynamics involved, and even in the sense of the community and culture.

This is a work in process. I would be interested in your comments and suggestions for revision.
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