Language Learning, Stigma, and Protecting a Potentially Spoiled Identity

This blog is about why ethnographer Erving Goffman’s observation of stigma are important not just to ex-cons, but also to professors like me on foreign exchange programs. Goffman, as many sociologists and anthropologists know, observed the maneuvers of the marginalized and stigmatized in society, and then wrote about how they thought about their disability. He saw that the marginalized were constantly managed their spoiled social identities because they feared public exposure of their disability. To make his point he wrote about ex-cons, ex-mental patients, prostitutes and others. Such stigmatized people, he wrote, are acutely conscious that at any moment any pretense they maintain of being a “normal person” can be unceremoniously disclosed. Mental patients, ex-cons, and prostitutes always wonder if a passing person knows them from their “other” life, simply recognizes the habits and tics they carry with them from that life. What this creates is a “hyper-vigilance” on the part of the stigmatized as they move through their daily routines. They watch everything, and are always wary. To control the stress, the stigmatized avoid situations where they are easily exposed—they fear being the fool, humiliated, or even attacked. Their greatest desire is to be socially invisible, even as they move through the necessary routines of daily life.

In fact, I was mulling over Goffman’s wisdom when walking to the bus stop on my way home two weeks ago. My mind though switched off when I realized that once again, as it is with many new American residents of Germany, I needed to manage my identity with respect to my highly imperfect, ungrammatical, and accented German. I can of course manage this by remaining mute in many social situations. This is surprisingly easy in places like supermarket checkout lines where the numbers on the cash register, hand gestures, and smiles help me pass without disclosing my stigmatized status. But finding the right bus home creates higher risks of disclosure than the supermarket checkout line.

Because I have yet to master bus schedules, I arrived thirty minutes early at my stop that day. Not wanting to stay on my feet, I spied an almost empty bench—only one fellow there to ask “permission” to share. I did this with hand motions, eye contact, a nod, the universal “ok,” and then scrunched into the furthest corner possible from my fellow bench warmer. Terrified at the thought that my bench mate would initiate a conversation, I took the only English language book in my backpack out (Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, no less) and buried my nose into it. This was effective, and the man sharing my bench ignored me. But five minutes later we were approached by an older man who politely asked if the spot between us was “free.” I nodded, smiled, motioned, and grunted, protected once again from having to say anything. But the situation was now more hazardous. There were now three of us on the bench sitting uncomfortably close, and the potential for being unmasked as a linguistic incompetent had uncomfortably increased.

Anyway, I soon decided I wasn’t that tired anyway, and got up and wandered back to the bus stop, even though I was still 15 minutes early. There I leaned against a post, and again tried to bury my nose back in my book. Soon though, I was distracted by what happened next at the bus bench. A woman with dogs on leashes came up. One of the dogs started to sniff at the older man’s bag. There was a brief exchange, and then the woman with the dogs went on. The older man then stood up, picked up his bag, and walked over to where I was standing and then, horror of horrors, he began talking to me. I more or less understood what he said, but could only muster the barest of responses:

Man: Did you see those dogs? They sniffed through my bags!
Me: Grunt.
Man: People should control their dogs, shouldn’t they!
Me: Grunt.
Man: Don’t you think it is an invasion of privacy that dogs will sniff through my bags?
Me: Certainly.

Thankfully, the bus then arrived, resulting in a change of subject. We got on the bus, and then further horrors, he sat near me! What would I do? Too nervous for Max Weber, my hyper-vigilance sensors went up, and I studiously avoided his occasionally friendly gaze, fearing that my incompetence could be further revealed. In this context, I bolted for the door when five minutes later we arrived at the place where I needed to transfer buses. I rushed off the bus, eager to re-embrace the anonymity that would be available on the next bus. But then things became worse. The man was following me onto the bus—he was going in the same direction I was!

With relief, I saw him settled with his bag into a seat far from mine. But still my anxiety did not dissipate until I reached my final stop ten minutes later. Off I stepped, and finally regained my anonymity as just another normal person, anonymous and obscure on a busy German street.

Such hyper-vigilance is exhausting, but also routine when you are a discreditable minority of any kind. Goffman’s mental patients, ex cons, prostitutes, and others were always aware that someone from their former life will strip away the sense of normalcy they desired . But the same principles applies to foreigners in all places, linguistic minorities, ethnic minorities, racial minorities and others who fear a part of their identity will unceremoniously at any time subject them to ridicule, or a loss of honor.

Like the ex-con and mental patients, I seek the comfort of blending and belonging while here in Germany, something I take for granted at Chico State. The sad thing for me was that as a result, I passed up language learning opportunities on my bus ride. In retrospect, I know that I should have bravely plowed ahead, and attempted a conversation with both my fellow bench warmers. After all, intellectually I know that Germans are almost always unfailingly kind to foreigners attempting to learn their language. I know too that it is educationally correct to have a conversation with the two men at the bench, rather than avoiding them. It would also have been enriching to engage the man the one who “followed” me on my two bus rides in small talk about the weather, dogs, his bag, or anything else. I didn’t of course because I value the anonymity of being normal more. As a result, I hid my stigma behind props like Max Weber’s book, and avoid the random encounters of social life which in English, I often delight in.

Both sociologists and anthropologists glamorize the intellectual stimulation such cross-cultural experience I am having. I still believe it is glamorous, and I will continue to encourage students to go abroad and study languages. But there is another value to study abroad experiences, particularly for students who are from the default normative category of their own country. At Chico State, this includes me, as well as the many middle class suburban white students in my undergraduate classes. But studying abroad is also about becoming an outsider who will evaluate every potential social encounter for its capacity to strip away the comfortable anonymity we gain when we hang with people like us. My chance to be an exchange scholar in Germany is of course partly glamorous. But my story is also the one that Goffman wrote about. I am sure that in one year, I will speak better German, and the memories of my constant hyper-vigilance dissipate. But in the meantime, I look forward to the mental exhaustion of both language learning, and stigma management.

For what it is worth, I sleep more here in Germany despite the pleasant Fall weather. Hyper-vigilance is mentally exhausting!


Goffman, Erving. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.

The Honor Codes and Sins of Academic Administrators and Professors

Max Weber wrote about the nature of both the bureaucracy and politics in his essays. Central to his writings were descriptions of what a administrator actually is, and their reasons, incentives, and habits for doing the things they do. As a professor, of course I work for such administrators—they are the chairs, deans, provosts, and vice presidents who run the California State University. In their job they try to discern what their superiors want—and then carry out that order, regardless of whatever personal opinion they may hold about the goals of the university.In their job, they need to in effect separate their personal interests, from those of the institution.  In doing this, they must put a distance between their passions for a policy or academia in general, and take on the distant passionless perspective of the organization.  This is difficult for a human being to do, i.e. separate their personal opinions from a sense of duty.

In the process they risk becoming viewed as manipulative, duplicitous liars by the faculty, i.e. people like me. And what is the human response to the suspicions of people like me?   From their perch on high there are defensive responses, asserting that the faculty are lazy and duplicitous. I guess it is an old academic story—stepping back and looking at it from the perspective of someone who died almost 100 years ago will put these harsh words in context, I hope.   At least it helps me to see the job of administration with a bit more empathy.

I know that such judgments sound harsh. Many administrators give up a career as a professor in the hope that they will somehow improve higher education through their creativity, and idealism. But what the perspective of 100 years ago from Max Weber says, is that if that is their goal, they are likely to be disappointed. Such goals are unlikely because as Weber more or less put it:

The honor of the [Dean/Provost/Vice President] comes from the ability to carry out any order—regardless of his own opinion—with the same diligence, as if he is fully supportive of the order. Without this higher sense of moral discipline, renunciation, and self-denial the entire organization would collapse. In contrast, the honor of the [university’s chancellor/president], in other words the leading statesman, in contrast is solely responsible for his own actions, and cannot and may not pass responsibility on to others, unlike [administrators] he appoints to carry out his will.

[Administrators] who personally ascribe to a morally high value system become unpalatable and morally inferior when they act as if they have personal responsibility for the institution, and therefore do not calculate the consequences of their decisions on the greater order. Unfortunately, we have had the kinds of [administrators] time and time again in leading positions. (Adapted from p. 157 of Weber’s Rationalism, Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters translators and editors, 2015).

In other words, the ethic of the administrator is not to support faculty or to guide the university to meet abstract academic goals. Rather it is to carry out orders from above, irrespective of their own personal opinion. Indeed, Weber is implying that the best administrators are those who have no opinion at all, but just implement their orders with the greatest technical skill possible. Period. From the trenches where I sit, this often makes administrators appeared weak-kneed and duplicitous. Either you cannot get a straight answer out of them, or they reverse a position when their superior coughs, or otherwise indicates that a decision needs to be reversed. In this instance, the honor of the bureaucrat defers to the “greater order,” because this is the higher ethic. The bureaucrat believes that without such moral discipline that is unquestioning obedience to those above them.

An Off Topic Good Example: Honor and the US State Department

A good example of this was gifted to me by a student last semester when I had a “Diplomat in Residence” visit my sociology class at Chico State. He had worked at the very highest levels of the US State Department as an Ambassador, and Logistics Coordinator for Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State. In his 20+ years of experience as a career diplomat with the Department of State, he rubbed shoulders with Presidents, Secretary of States, and many other well-known politicians. The people he worked for were both Democrats and Republicans, or politicians in the many countries where he had worked. My student asked him if there were any politician that he particularly admired. He hemmed and hawed and the answer was basically “nope, won’t say anything, except I like everybody!” My student pushed him further, and he finally mentioned the retired former president of an inconsequential African country where he had worked, and whom admired. The diplomat was careful about being “morally inferior” by refusing to assume the role of the statesman, that is someone whose personal views might be consequential. As a Foreign Service officer, his work was to be in service to the leading statesman, the therefore “inconsequential.” Only carrying out orders.

Back to the Honor of Academic Administrators

Which brings me back to academic administrators. The best academics are engaged in the pursuit of truth, wisdom, and beauty for its own sake, and our job description (and tenure) permit us to pursue this where those values lead us. Such is the ethic of the tenured professor in both teaching and research. But what happens when a person who has the habits of pursuing truth, wisdom, and beauty for its own sake, is put into a position of “academic leadership” where there only duty is to discern and implement the will of their superior? What happens of course, is that their sense of honor will be challenged. The old honor rooted in the pursuit of truth, wisdom, and beauty is replaced with one rooted in obedience and the passing of responsibility to the one higher then them in the organization.

The transition is often painful both for the new administrator, as well as the those who still see the new civil servant as a professorial guardian of truth, wisdom, and beauty. “Switching ethics” is a tough thing for humans to do—as it should be. It means that your very source of honor and self-worth must change.

 Why Administrators and Professors Will Never Really Trust Each Other

Thus the reason why there is such a distaste between university faculty and administration in large part, I think, comes down to very different ethics. The frequent reversals and/or weasel words needed to sustain obedience to higher ups results in the oft heard assertion that “all administrators lie.” Indeed, perhaps from the perspective of the faculty, they do—since to not do so would require disobedience to authority, and the assumption of responsibility which is not theirs. I know that when I was briefly a Department Chair, I was accused of lying and being a weasel a couple of times.  It didn’t help that I didn’t mean to, but the appearance I will confess was certainly there, and it bothered me.  Perhaps that is why I have never again sought administrative responsibilities.

But as a chair, I also heard thought the complaints from Deans and other Chairs about the behavior of tenured faculty who, from their perspective, dragged their feet on the latest innovation handed down from high above, i.e. the Chancellor’s Office. Such initiatives are often unrealistic, and the tenured faculty member can continue to pursue their academic (and personal) agenda without fear of reprisal. The accusation hurled the way of the faculty: “lazy, and uncooperative.”  And perhaps in part this is true–particularly for someone who defines diligence as being responsive to the administrative hierarchy.

Ultimately Weber’s point about academic hierarchy is that you only really get to pick the sin with which you will be accused. Go into administration and eventually be accused of lying and duplicity, or stay in the classroom and be accused of laziness and lack of cooperation.

In systems of professional honor, not only do you try to define your task, you also need to define your sin.