Master of Lost Chords

by Thomas J. Scheff (February 2014)

Seated one day at the organ,
I was weary and ill at ease,
And my fingers wandered idly
Over the noisy keys.

I know not what I was playing,
Or what I was dreaming then;
But I struck one chord of music,
Like the sound of a great Amen.

The Lost Chord (1877)


For many years I have been wondering why a book by my teacher, the sociologist Erving Goffman (1922-1982), has been so popular. His scholarly text, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), has sold well over a million copies, and is still selling. According to, its rank today, 54 years later, is surprising (#6,448). What is it about this book that is so highly appreciated?

A related issue came up for me many years ago, when I was Goffman’s TA in Berkeley. My question at that time (1960) arose because of what I thought was a plethora of examples in his lectures. I was one of his teaching assistants in a large (about 400 students) undergraduate class. The students seemed to enjoy the examples, but I couldn’t decide what they were supposed to be examples OF.

In later reading his most popular book, I was critical and remained so for many years. It seemed that his examples of everyday moments were of great interest, but he showed little concern about connecting them to theory.

Nevertheless, the students in the class seemed appreciative. We TA’s were astonished when he got a standing ovation at the end of the last class. Recently I thought of an answer. In my impatience with his lack of attention to theory, I wasn’t sufficiently appreciative of the intrinsic value of his examples. Awareness of the details of particular moments is rare almost to the point of non-existence, according to the literary critic Milan Kundera:

Try to reconstruct a dialogue from your own life, the dialogue of a quarrel or a dialogue of love. The most precious, the most important situations are utterly gone. Their abstract sense remains (I took this point of view, he took that one. I was aggressive, he was defensive), perhaps a detail or two. But the concreteness of the situation in all its continuity is lost. (1995, p. 128).

Goffman had a rare gift: recognizing generic human moments. His basic mode was the precise description of these moments, even though he probably didn’t know why. That is, his understanding was completely intuitive. His students and readers recognize these moments because the details are recognizable: “That’s like me.”

Why We Don’t Remember

Kundera did not try to explain why don’t recognize and remember particular moments in our lives. In modern societies, we not only learn a language, but also tend to be extremely quick in using it. To understand the need to be judged competent in conversation, or at least not ridiculed, consider the speed of ordinary discourse.

Human languages in actual usage are fragmented, incomplete, and context dependent. For these reasons, even simple discourse would be impossible to understand directly, if taken literally. We understand the speech of others to the extent that we can guess, however briefly, their point of view.

Taking the point of view of others, (role-taking), makes highly complex languages possible, as opposed to the small instinctive vocabularies of other mammals. Humans can imagine the point of view of another person or persons. The imagination is not always accurate, but it is accurate enough, enough of the time, to keep the wheels spinning.

Most role-taking by adults appears to occur at lightning speed, so fast that it disappears from consciousness. In modern societies, particularly, which strongly encourage individualism, there are incentives for forgetting that one is role-taking. Each of us learns to consider ourselves a stand-alone individual, independent of what others think. Children learn role-taking so early and so well that they forget they are doing it. The more adept they become, the quicker the movement back and forth, learning through practice to reduce silences in conversation to an unbelievably short time. Studies of recorded conversations of adults such as the one by Wilson and Zimmerman (1986) help us understand how forgetting the whole inner process is possible.

In their study of adult dialogues, the average length of the silent gap between talkers varied from .04 to .09 seconds. How can one possibly respond to the other’s person comment in less than a tenth of a second? If one allowed a whole minute silence, rather than a tenth of a second, the pace of response would be SIX HUNDRED times slower.

Apparently one begins forming a response well before the other person has stopped speaking, perhaps even during the first few seconds. That is, humans are capable of multiprocessing, in this case, in a least four different channels: listening to the other’s comment, imagining its meaning from the speaker’s point of view, from own point of view, and forming a response to it. These four activities occur virtually simultaneously.

There may be even further channels, such as imagining the other person’s response to our forthcoming comment. A vast interior drama occurs in each person unknowingly in a dialogue, before each response. One crucial implication of this colossal speed of response is that we are not actually responding to the whole moment: we are too hurried to notice and understand the words, paralanguage, and gestures. We don’t really connect with the other(s) in virtually all communication, one aspect of the alienation which characterizes modernity.


Goffman’s book may be popular because his examples show the concrete particulars of human existence, an aspect of life that is not available to most of us. One aspect of the alienation in modern societies is the rapid pace of our dealing with others: we seldom take time to notice the whole picture. Goffman’s book may be helping readers reclaim lost moments in their own hurried life, thereby enlarging their being. 



Thomas J. Scheff is Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Sociology, at the University of California at Santa Barbara. His latest book is What's Love Got to Do with It?: The Emotional World of Popular Songs (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers) 2011.

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