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Chapter IV: Expressive Behavior

Published onDec 01, 1953
Chapter IV: Expressive Behavior

Chapter four of Erving Goffman. Communication Conduct in an Island Community. PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1953.


Whenever an individual acts in any way, we can assume that something about him is conveyed, even if it is only the fact that he did not act in a given way. In the style of the act, in the manner in which the act is performed, in the relation of the act to the context in which it occurs—in all these ways something about the actor is presented in the character of his act. The tendency for the character of the actor to overflow into the character of his acts is usually called the expressive aspect of behavior.1

Behavior which is not expressive may be called instrumental. Instrumental behavior consists of activity which is officially of no value in itself but only of value in so far as it serves as a means to another end. Linguistic communication is a type of instrumental behavior and is officially valued only because it can serve as a means of conveying information. It must be clearly understood that expressive behavior is not a form of instrumental behavior; it is not intended as an admitted means to the end of transmitting information, or, in fact, as a means to any other end. Expressive behavior is not, primarily, rational behavior that can find a place in a voluntaristic means-ends scheme; rather, it is part of the behavioral impulse associated with any act.2

In distinguishing between expressive and instrumental behavior, a manner of speaking has been employed which carries certain kinds of danger. Instead of speaking of instrumental and expressive behavior, it might be more accurate to speak of the instrumental and expressive components of a given concrete behavior. It might be still more accurate and stills after to speak rather of the instrumental and expressive functions of a given concrete behavior, this last usage minimizing the tendency to refit into concrete entities what are merely analytical aspects or abstractions of concrete entities. Purely for reasons of style, all three usages will be employed interchangeably.

When we examine the components of behavior in situations, it will be apparent that in one situation the instrumental component will be dominant and in another situation the expressive component will be dominant. One usually says, for example, that the performance of a manual task is predominantly instrumental and that our exclamation when we stub our toe is predominantly expressive. It will also be apparent that a situation which we expect to find defined as predominantly instrumental may take on extra expressive significance until the latter component becomes the dominant one. Thus, when a worker on the line becomes concerned with the kind of time-rating that has been accorded to his job by management, both he and management may become more concerned with the spirit in which he performs his job and with his marginal productivity than with his production as a whole. The expressions he conveys may suddenly become more important than the operations he performs. In all of this there is no conceptual problem.

The distinction between expressive and instrumental components of action has been recognized by many students. An aspect of the distinction appears in an essay by Durkheim written in 1906.3 At that time he suggested that some acts have concrete consequences and that other acts have social consequences. In the first case we deal with acts only because they have consequences; in the second case we deal with acts because they express something about the actor and his relation to the moral world. Radcliffe-Brown and Talcott Parsons make a similar distinction.4 Lately, Bales has given us a thorough characterization of the different between the two components of action:

When we wish to make a distinction regarding a predominant weight of emphasis on the backward or forward reference of action, we shall use the terms “expressive” and “instrumental” respectively, to designate the proper weight of emphasis. If the act is judged by the observer to be steered by cognitive orientation primarily to the past, or if it is felt to be caused in a nonmeaningful manner by some existing state of emotion or motivational tension in the self, and if the results which follow it are judged not to have been specifically anticipated by symbolic manipulation, we shall speak of the act as primarily expressive. On the other hand, if the act is judged to be steered by a cognitive orientation to the future as well as the past and to be caused in part by the anticipation of future consequences, we shall speak of the act as instrumental. This distinction is recognized in our everyday habits of speech: in what we have called primarily expressive activity, the individual is said to act “because” of some immediate pressure, tension, or emotion. In the instrumental act, the individual is said to act “in order to” realize certain ends. Thus, we might drum our fingers on the table because we are nervous or tense, or we might raise our eyebrows in order to summon the waiter. The difference lies in the degree to which anticipated consequences enter in as a steering factor. All instrumental activity is also expressive, as we view it, but not all expressive activity is necessarily instrumental. All behavior is considered to be at least expressive, as viewed by the other and as apprehended and scored by the observer.5

The distinction between expressive behavior and instrumental behavior has been elaborated and at the same time confused by many current writers who contrast expressive behavior with linguistic behavior. In making use of these efforts, one always runs the risk of forgetting that linguistic behavior is merely one sub-type of instrumental behavior, and that the proper contrast is between the two general classes of behavior, expressive and instrumental, and not between one class and a member of the other class. We can partly correct for this error by keeping in mind that our interest here is the contrast of one kind of instrumental behavior, namely, linguistic behavior, with one kind of expressive behavior, namely, the kind that is apt to occur when persons are engaged in conversational interaction.

Sapir provides us with a good statement of the intermingling of expressive and linguistically-instrumental behavior in speech:

Gesture includes much more than the manipulation of the hands and other visible and movable parts of the organism. Intonations of the voice may register attitudes and feelings quite as significantly as the clenched fist, the wave of the hand, the shrugging of the shoulders, or the lifting of the eyebrows. The field of gesture interplays constantly with that of language proper, but there are many facts of a psychological and historical order which show that there are subtle yet firm lines of demarcation between them. Thus, to give but one example, the consistent message delivered by language symbolism in the narrow sense, whether by speech or by writing, may flatly contradict the message communicated by the synchronous system of gestures, consisting of movements of the hands and head, intonations of the voice, and breathing symbolisms. The former system may be entirely conscious, the latter entirely unconscious. Linguistic, as opposed to gesture, communication tends to the official and socially accredited one; hence one may intuitively interpret the relatively unconscious symbolisms of gesture as psychologically more significant in a given context than the words actually used. In such cases as these we have a conflict between explicit and implicit communications in the growth of the individual’s social experience.6

Another good description is found in Pear, in his discussion of conversational tact:

Let us for a moment regard conversational tact objectively, as a mere matter of movement-patterns. Gramophone records of some tactful conversations would give a very imperfect impression, for many signals of tact are visual. Raising or refraining from raising the eyebrows, presenting a sympathetic or inscrutable face, settling into one’s chair as if to invite the vis-à-vis to make a long speech; rising suddenly as if to indicate its termination; no one of these events is transmissible by radio without television. Subtler, however, and often less easy to study are speech-sounds made tactfully. The words and phrases, intonation, speech-melody, are all important; yet their choice depends so much upon local convention, the relative social status of the conversants, the district in which the phrase is used, that to interpret them requires expert knowledge. At times, an important feature of conversational exchange may be a momentary physical contact of the conversers. A touch, a hand on the shoulder, a hand-shake or its omission, when meeting or parting—all these gestures, especially the hand-shake, need to be translated and the translation should be an up-to-date one.7

The distinction between the linguistic and expressive components of speech is often pointed up by reference to the logically discursive character of language proper in contrast to the “emotional” character of the expressive or gestural components of speech. As Park suggested:

In the fist case [symbolic language] the function of language is purely ‘referential,’ as in scientific discourse. It points out its object, identifiers, classifies, and describes it. In the second case [expressive language], language, modulated by accent, intonation and inflection, tends to be expressive merely. In that case the function of words seems to be to reveal the mood and the sentiments of the person who utters them, rather than to define and express an idea.8

Ogden and Richards, of course, have given us the terms “referential” and “emotive” to designate the linguistic and expressive components of speech.9 Lasswell has suggested the terms “purport” and “style” to designate the same difference in written communication.10

Common sense understanding of the phrase “expressive behavior” seems to be closely tied to commonsense notions concerning the identity and character of the so-called “natural expression” of the emotions. If one is to use the term “expressive behavior” or “expression” in a consistent and technical way, it is helpful to go back to the commonsense conception of emotional expression and to make explicit some of the assumptions and limitations of this everyday concept.

Critchley, in his discussion of expressive behavior, provides us with a useful summary of emotional signs. He includes among them:

… those cutaneous phenomena of a primitive and protective nature, subserved by the autonomic nervous system and which are almost entirely outside the control of volition; the manifestation of blushing, pallor, horripilation, goose-flesh and sweating belong here. Tremor of the hands, dryness of the mouth, increase or decrease in the muscular tonus, alteration in stance and attitude, are also regarded as expressive movements of a more automatic and less voluntary character.11

Another is by Blumer:

Expressive behavior is presented through such features as quality of the voice—tone, pitch, volume—in facial set and movement, in the look of the eyes, in the rhythm, vigor, agitation of muscular movements, and in posture. These form the channels for the disclosure of feeling. It is through these that the individual, as we say, reveals himself as apart from what he says or does. Expressive behavior is primarily a form of release, implying a background of tension. It tends to be spontaneous and unwitting; as such, it usually appears as an accompaniment of intentional and consciously directed conduct.12

The commonsense understanding is that these emotional expressions are instinctive and not subject to voluntary control;13 that the form of the expression is somehow an iconic image of the mental state or emotion that gives rise to the expression; that signs of emotion provide a trustworthy index of how and what the action is really feeling. Let us examine these assumptions.

When we examine instances of emotional expression, we frequently find that these signs are not iconic and do not portray or delineate by their structure the structure of their reference. Since these signs are symptoms, not symbols, they frequently form a highly differentiated part of the causal complex that gave rise to them.14 One also finds that it is not helpful to refer to these expressions as “instinctive.” By now it is well understood that the same group of persons uses the same expression, e.g., tears, in quite different emotional contexts, and that there are very great differences from group to group as to where, how, and how much the emotions will be expressed.15 In referring to expressive behavior as forming a collective texture, Blumer suggests that:

… expressive behavior is regularized by social codes much as is language or conduct. There seems to be as much justification and validity to speak of an affective structure or pattern of meanings. Almost every stabilized social situation in the life of a group imposes some scheme of affective conduct on individuals, whose conformity to it is expected. At a funeral, in a church, in the convivial group, in the polite assemblage, in the doctor’s office, in the theater, at the dinner table, to mention a few instances, narrow limits are set for the play of expressive conduct and affective norms are imposed. In large measure, living with others places a premium on skill in observing the affective demands of social relations; similarly, the socialization of the child and his incorporation into the group involves an education into the niceties of expressive conduct. These affective rules, demands, and expectations form a code, etiquette, or ritual which, as suggested above, is just as much a complex, interdependent structure as is the language of the group or its tradition.16

And even if one wished to argue that the emotions themselves are somewhat instinctive, as opposed to the form in which they are conventionally expressed, it would still be necessary to appreciate that an event which arouses our emotions must derive its significance from the world of learned social values in which we live.

Further, it is a fact that there is an important expressive component in behavior which is thought to be in no way emotional, in the ordinary sense of that term. For example, in making a statement that is felt to be the kind which requires a great deal of careful consideration, deliberation, and freedom from emotional bias, the conviction that one is, in fact, making a thoroughly voluntary statement of this kind, is conveyed by certain expressive behaviors of an involuntary kind. If listeners feel that this expressive component is deliberately feigned and controlled, then the capacity of the statement to convince the listeners that it is a sincerely deliberative one may be destroyed. Similarly, all our so-called voluntary behavior, such as walking, or talking, involves a degree of unselfconsciousness and could not be smoothly executed were one to become too conscious of what one is doing.

The commonsense assumption that emotional expression is a reliable index to the state of mind of the actor appears to be partly valid, but perhaps not for the reasons commonsense would supply. In this study it is assumed that the emotional expression practiced by the members of a particular group is determined by the moral rules recognized in the group regarding social interaction. The member must not only learn how and when to express his emotions, but is morally obliged to express them in this approved way.17 Further, the member is obliged to obey the rules of the expression, once learned, in a sufficiently automatic and unselfconscious way so that observers will in fact be partly justified in their assumption that the emotion conveyed to them is a dependable index of the actors emotional state. It is suggested here that emotional expression is a reliable index because persons have been taught to act in which a way as to make it a reliable index and are more ally obliged to act in such a way as to confirm the fiction that emotional response is an unguarded instinctive response to the situation.

We see, then, that if we focus our attention on emotional behavior, we shall arrive at too narrow a conception of the concept of “expression.” Some further, and even more fundamental, limitations are produced by undue concern with emotional expression. We maybe begin to examine these limitations by noting Morris’ definition of expressive behavior.

… the manner of production of signs and the kinds of signs produced may themselves be to the producer of the sign or to other persons signals of the state of the producer of the sign. This is a common situation, and such signs can be called expressive signs. A sign on this usage is expressive if the fact of its production is itself a sign to its interpreter of something about the producer of the sign.18

Here Morris seems to be suggesting that the expressive aspects of sign behavior, such as rapidity or smoothness of conversational flow, may express something about the emotional state of the talker in exactly the same way as might other holiday movements, such as nervous movements with fingers and eyes. None of these signs are symbols instrumentally designed as a means to the end of communication; they are natural signs or symptoms of a causal complex, the individual’s emotional state. However it seems to be reasonable to extend the concept of expression and say that certain aspects of a given body of speech may be in one sense of the symbolical order and yet expressive. For example, considerable work has been done by psychologists,19 linguistic anthropologists,20 and psychoanalysts,21 in illustrating the notion that a patter of thought or a way of organizing phantasies can act as a causal complex and give rise to expressions of a symptomatic natural-sign type, even though the events that are patterned or organized consist of conventional linguistic symbols which carry an object of reference.

Once we allow that a causal complex which produces expressions can be something other than the emotional state of a particular actor, and even something of a different order, namely, images and symbols, we are in a position to take a further step. It greatly simplifies thinking if we assume that a set of persons in actual interaction with one another constitutes a casual complex which can give rise to expressions.22 When we classify interaction systems along with emotional states as something which can give rise to natural signs, then we are in a position to appreciate more clearly the great number of events which are “expressive” and to remove from our focus of attention from gestures which pertain to the physiological equipment of particular actors and bring it to bear on events which express relationships between persons or between persons and the social context.

Regardless of what casual complex one is interested in—be it the emotional state of the actor, his mode of organizing experience, or the interaction as a unit—the meaning of an expression does not lie in the relation between the expressive act and the actor but in the relation of the actor, through time and space, to the social context in which the expressive act occurs. Bales provides a good statement of this:

A great many of the qualitative distinctions we feel in the observation of interaction, and the verbal terms by which we designate these distinctions, rest essentially on our conception of the nature of the established social relationship between the participants. For example, approximately the same kind of concrete behavior might be called “rewarding the other” if the status of the actor is assumed to be higher, or “congratulating the other” if the status is assumed to be equal, or “admiring the other” if the status of the actor is assumed to be lower. Other-distinctions are based on a combination of this kind of assumption plus an assumption about the nature of the preceding act, that is, on temporal sequence. For example, a given kind of concrete behavior might be called “submission” if it follows an aggressive attack by the other, or “agreement” if it follows a tentative proposal.23

Once we see that the commonsense assumptions concerning emotional expression involve limitations, we can go on and attempt to introduce a set of assumptions that are more helpful for sociological purposes. We can see expressive behavior as one sub-class of a more general category, expressive events. We can define expressive events as signs that are symptomatic of the structure of a social situation, this structure involving the relation of the participations to one another and to the situation. The emotion (as this term is commonly understood) that is involved in these relations will only be one variable, and for the source of these expressive events we will look not to the physiological machinery of a particular actor but to the general characteristics of the physical and social scene in which the interaction occurs.

The scene in which interaction occurs seems constantly to provide us with a sort of expressive field, a supply of events so well designed to portray the conceptions and evaluations that persons have of one another that after a process of social learning we unselfconsciously and uncalculatingly employ them in this way. Let us attempt to outline these general sources of expressive signs.

Persons, like other physical objects, are uniquely located in time and space. Therefore they are necessarily ordered in the transitive relation of priority (both temporal and spatial) with respect to any particular point of reference. This provides—whether desired or not—a readily available means of expressing social precedence. Similarly, degrees of physical closeness or separateness between persons are inevitable on physical grounds and incidentally provide vehicles for expressing social intimacy and social difference.24 This provides us with a sort of “expressive ecology.”

The process of linguistic communication, as a physical process, has many preconditions, characteristics, and concomitants which can, and regularly do, serve as expressions of the attitudes and evaluations that participants have regarding one another. Delicate shadings of approval and disapproval, inclusion and exclusion, are typically conveyed in this way.25

The formal organization of persons for the pursuance of a given overall task requires—due to the nature of organization as such—that orders be given, that actions be initiated by one person to another, and that individuals actively cooperate with one another.26 Many of these requirements of organization provide vehicles which are employed as signs expressive of the valuation that the members of the organization make of one another. These valuations pertain to matters such as equality-inequality, subordination-superordination, dependency, etc.

The performance of a particular individual at a given task differs at least to some degree—on physical grounds alone—from the performance those present have come to expect of the task in general and of the individual in particular. Inescapable deviations of this kind provide a ready sign for conveying the attitude of the performer to those for whom and among whom the performance occurs.27

Finally, acts which are traditionally taken, in a particular situation, as expressive of the conceptions that persons have of one another can themselves take on an extra superimposed layer of expressive significance. Thus, for example, ceremonies such as greetings and farewells, which usually express our approval of one another, may be performed in a snide or fawning fashion, expression different additional evaluations.

From all the events which might be employed as expressions, it is apparent that one cultural group will stress the use of one type of event and make little use of another type, while a different cultural group will distribute its stresses and omissions in a different way.28

It is also apparent that social change can bring to a group an alteration in the signs that are stressed by it. Further, it is to be noted that as a consequence of social change, there may be a radical change in the expression carried by a particular sign vehicle. This possibility can be illustrated from the social history of Dixon.

In Dixon, patterns of social visiting and mutual aid regarding crucial croft tasks have traditionally followed kinship and neighborhood ties, so that informal participation, while an expression of lines of solidarity, does not convey any information that has not long been taken for granted. Failure to channel one’s social participation along these lines expressed the fact that persons once close to each other had had a personal quarrel, a “falling out.” However, with the growing importance of internal cleavages along social class lines, informal participation is coming to take on a new meaning. Information participation is coming to express class equality. Since class position is subject to kinds of change and ratification that are not characteristic of position in a kinship system or neighborhood circle, informal parties in Dixon are coming to take on the ethos that is characteristic of these gatherings in middle class Western society. Where before these gatherings were taken in a calm way, as a matter of course, they are now taking on a tone of excitement at the upper levels of the class system and a tone of disappointment at the lower class levels.

Another illustration of the shift in significance of social participation is found in the case of the twice-monthly whist-socials held during the winter months. Until about 1950, invitations to these socials were “open;” anyone wanting to come to the first half, which consisted of progressive whist, was welcome; anyone wanting to come to the second half, which consisted of a dance, was also welcome, whether or not he had come for the first part. During intermissions at whist, tea and sandwiches would be served as a collective social operation; the eight or nine persons acting as organizational hosts would bring food from the kitchen and serve everyone in the hall in rotation from platters of sandwiches and single pots of tea. Seating during the tea was of no great importance and expressed kinship ties, neighborhood ties, and age-grade intimacy. Since the tables were arranged in a continuous chain around the hall, choice extorted to the right of one was sometimes not accompanied by choice exerted to the left of one. In any case, each participant had enough ties with any other participant to sustain informal interaction for the period of the intermission. During 1950 a new institution was introduced from the other and more “advanced” islands. It was called a “hostess social” and entailed a radical alteration in the traditional invitation and catering pattern. The dance during the second half of the social remained open to everyone, but participation in the first part, the whist, was by personal invitation only. Invitations were extended by about fifteen women selected by the organizing committee as “hostesses.” Each hostess invited enough guests for two or more “tables” of whist, i.e.e, two or more sets of four persons. As usual, the tables were arranged in a continuous chain around the hall, but at meal time the chain was broken and each hostess was given her own area in the hall and her own tables. Hot water was collectively organized, but the rest of the food was handled separately for each cluster of tables, the hostess being responsible for bringing food for her own set of tables. This pattern for organizing food distribution brought hostesses into competition and comparison with one another regarding number of tables invited, elaborateness of spread, etc. It also provided the community with a new way of seeing at a glance the cleavages in the community. By and large, a hostess still fills her quota with members of her family or neighborhood circle, and by and large anyone who wants to obtain an invitation can readily get one, but a tendency is apparent to select guests on a basis of class equality ties. New participation patterns such as these are, of course, both cause and effect of the emergence of class cleavages within the crofter population.

We are now in a position to summarize the characteristics of expressive behavior. In doing this a contrast will be made with the characteristics, as previously reported, of linguistic behavior.

  1. Expressive behavior provides information that cannot be precisely formulated or defined, and, in an important sense, the persons of whom the behavior is expressive cannot be made officially and formally responsible for the information they have made available about themselves. (Linguistic behavior, on the other hand, can be precisely defined, and the person who communicates it can be made responsible for his communication.)

  2. Information conveyed by expressive signs is not discursive and does not form part of an extended logically integrated line of reasoning. Typically, only certain general facts can be conveyed by expressive behavior, these having to do with the actor’s general alignment or attitude toward whatever instrumental activity he happens to be engaged in at the time or toward the social situation which he happens to be participating in at the time. (Linguistic behavior, on the other hand, can form an extended line of argument, and the object of reference which it has may, but need not, concern the actor’s general alignment to the situation.)

  3. Expressive behavior is “uncalculated,” or, to use a dubious term, “involuntary;” the expressive aspect of behavior is felt to be the sort of thing that one ought not to modify out of a desire to influence the response to oneself that the recipient will make because of the information carried by it. (Linguistic behavior is one type of instrumental behavior, and it is felt proper to have employed it with the consequences in mind that it is likely to call forth.)

  4. Expressive behavior is an intrinsic part of the object which it carries information. The object may be a characteristic of a person or a characteristic of a set of persons in interaction with one another. Expressions are not conventional signs, i.e., symbols; they are natural signs or symptoms. Logically speaking, the structure of expressive sign relationships is relatively simple, involving only two elements, a causal complex and a symptom of this complex. An expressive sign remains a sign even though there may not be an interpreter present who makes use of it as a source of information. If an expressive sign is made use of, however, then it is essential that the interpreter be able to identify the causal complex which is responsible for the presence of the sign. (Linguistic behavior, on the other hand, is not an intrinsic part of the object to which it refers, but a conventional symbol of it. Linguistic sign relationships are logically complex, involving a minus of three elements: sign, object of reference, and interpreter. The causal complex responsible for the sign, namely the sender, is not an essential part of the relationship, although a frequent one. If a linguistic sign is not interpreted, it ceases to be a sign.)


Chapter four of Erving Goffman. Communication Conduct in an Island Community. PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1953.

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