Expression Games – Why Erving Goffman and Malcolm Gladwell Believe We’re All Secret Agents

In his brilliant new book “Talking To Strangers”, Malcolm Gladwell takes an extremely close look at how we’re often deceived by others – until it’s too late.

He does this by recasting in vivid detail a wide range of famous cases, including the stories of the exposed Cuban spy Ana Montes, Bernie Madoff, Jerry Sandusky, and others.

Two of his central propositions, backed up by much evidence, are that we default to the belief that others are telling the truth, and also believe in a myth that tells us the expressions of others provide transparency towards true intentions and emotions. 

Interestingly, it has been exactly fifty years since another Canadian, the influential Sociologist Erving Goffman, published an essay called “Expression Games”, which examines this topic from a similar perspective, tales of spies included.

In the essay, Goffman breaks down strategic social interaction into a series of moves,  including what he calls naive moves, unwitting moves, covering moves, uncovering moves, and counter uncovering moves. 

First, naive and unwitting moves represent what Gladwell describes in his book as “transparency”, in that what is viewed is believed to be a transparent representation of what a person is consciously or not consciously expressing. For example, if I were to yell, shout, jump, or clap when a favorite athlete scored for what is known to be my favorite team, it could reasonably be viewed as an unwitting move or naive move by anyone observing. 

Covering moves, on the other hand, are strategic expressions that are meant for show, in that they attempt to hide or obscure what’s really happening. For example, when we smile warmly at someone we despise, put sensitive information out of sight, script our responses before an interview, or adjust the privacy settings on Social Media we’re acting in the mode of covering moves.  

Uncovering moves arrive once the game is on, and also after we have sensed that something is a foot. For instance, questions asked by lawyer, detective, or negotiator are uncovering moves in that they’re designed to learn the true intentions, knowledge, or motivations of another past what can be gathered from their apparently sincere professions. 

Finally, a counter uncovering move is used to negate or neutralize a previously perceived uncovering move before or after it happens. Think here of the baseball team who sends a false pinch-hitter to the batter’s box to confuse the other team, or the parent who puts out a false present knowing their child simply can’t resist taking a peek under the wrapping.

Ultimately, Goffman concludes his essay with the following passage:

In every social situation we can find a sense in which once participant will be an observer with something to gain from assessing expressions, and another will be a subject with something to gain from the process…which renders agents a little like us all and all of us a little like agents.

Like Gladwell, he believed that the real truth (if such a thing exists) is incredibly hard to detect, and for this reason we should take the observable expressions of others with more than a grain of salt – almost as if suspecting the other person was a secret agent because of this.

Positive Politeness – Strategies & Tactics

According to Politeness Theory, there are three key strategies that salespeople and negotiators use to minimize FTAs: claiming common ground, conveying cooperation, and fulfilling wants.

Claiming Common Ground 

Within this first strategy are the tactics of noticing, exaggerating, seeking agreement, and avoiding disagreement.

Noticing is accomplished by paying compliments, such when we comment on something someone is wearing, or someone’s non-physical ability like their sharp wit or keen intellect.

Exaggerating is accomplished through words, tone of voice, and body language, using expressions like “This will blow you away!”, “You’re not going to believe this…”, or “It’s a no brainer!”

Seeking agreement is accomplished through safe topics and repetition. The classic example is bringing up something about the environment like the weather. Accordingly, when the other person beats us to the punch, we’re likely to use repetition responding “It is a beautiful day!”

Avoiding disagreement is accomplished through token agreement and pseudo agreement.

Token agreement means simultaneously finding the words to neither agree or disagree. However, to the other person it seems like we’re agreeing.

Finally, pseudo agreement is vocalizing “done deal” agreement when no such agreement has been established. (Think pushy salesperson.)

Conveying Cooperation

Within this strategy are the tactics of acknowledging wants, making offers and promises, being optimistic, including, giving or asking for reasons, and assuming reciprocity. 

Demonstrating knowledge of wants has worked for me and goes something like this: “So I know you said you’re not interested in XYZ at this time, however I highly recommend considering it. Here’s why…”

Absolutely imperative are the three magic words, “I know you said…” Using this ledge I’ve been amazed at what people will consider – or reconsider – when we’ve proven our ability to listen.

Making offers and promises that are intended to benefit the prospect comprise our bread and butter as salespeople and negotiators. Based on my observation, fortune favors the bold. And those who are unafraid to promise.

Including involves statements such as “”Let’s do this…”, and “How about we..” This is something we learn early because it always flies under the radar. For example, when has anyone ever said, “What do you mean we?’ I’ve personally never heard it happen. Instead, we politely go along. 

Being optimistic means assuming the sale and this is always the best approach. Good closing is simply confirming all necessary details and confirming all necessary details exudes optimism.

Giving or asking for reasons is especially effective for overcoming objections. When we’re able to stack reasons for moving forward it provides a sense of certainty the way rubbing two sticks together starts a fire. However, even more powerful than providing reasons is asking why not do something? Questions like “why not? create the same effect as combing a match with swift friction.

Finally, assuming reciprocity is what we traditionally think of as “give and take”, “an eye for an eye”, and “the golden rule”. If you give me X, I’ll give you Y. This is what we do when we trade concessions, give a little, or bend a little with the expectation of getting a little in return. Justice is always required.

Fulfilling Wants 

Within this strategy there is only one tactic and it involves giving what is desired, either tangible or intangible.

For example, we sometimes provide tangible concessions against our good judgement to create momentum or engender goodwill in a negotiation. However, we can also provide the intangibles, like the ability to save face or stroking the ego.

The true art is finding as many ways to give as possible, while never giving too easy, and always remembering that even wants prefer to be worked for.

Why “Let me check with my Manager…” is an incredibly effective ritual

Last weekend, I went car shopping and was offered a slight discount on the initial price under two conditions:

First, the salesperson had to convince his manager to approve this special discount. Second, I had to commit to purchasing on the spot if his gamble was approved. 

After I affirmed on both counts, he disappeared briefly before returning with a big smile and his hand extended. After receiving the good news I enthusiastically shook his hand and signed where needed.

The question is, why is this predictable and familiar ritual so effective?

As someone who’s been on all sides of the equation many times (salesperson, customer, manager), I can think of three reasons. 

First, as the customer I get to save face by proving I’m a competent buyer, neither weak or easy to take advantage of.

On the other hand, the salesperson gets to save face by proving both to themselves and their manager that they can competently handle a tough and resistant buyer.

Not to be left out, the mysterious manager also gets to gain face by demonstrating the power and ability to approve something a lowly salesperson could not.

He or she can even reasonably stake a claim for MVP, as the deal technically couldn’t have been completed without his or her generosity!

Second, “let me check with my manager” provides an easy story – more importantly, a cover story.

In his book “All Marketers Are Liars”, Seth Godin explains why people buy. His ultimate thesis is that people don’t buy facts or products, they buy stories.

While this is true, I believe the particular story Seth is talking about is most important before the purchase. There is a second important story that inevitably arrives after the purchase and it is the story of how we acquired the product.

The beauty of “let me check with my manager” is that it provides an easy to pass along tale which describes our feats of strength as follows:

I am came in and they told me a certain price. Then I played hardball – Like I should! Then I got an even better price – their bottom line. How do I know this? Because the salesperson had to leave my presence to speak to the manager – even convince him!

Third,“let me check with my manager” works because we know it’s a ritualistic charade.

However, we are keen enough to realize what is truly being offered is an easy to accept dance to which the steps are predictable and inviting.

Accepting the dance implies the unspoken truth that we all want this sale to happen, yet neither of us can appear too quick or eager in the moment, or even after the fact.

So we decide to go ahead and disregard the charade. For the sake of the time we’ve spent, the sake of the time we can save, and the satisfying feeling of progress.

The spirit being, Let’s not lose what we’ve built – Shall we?

Giving freedom when it counts

One time, a customer asked if they could try my product. I responded, “You can…but I don’t recommend it. I recommend getting started now, and here’s why.”

Two minutes later, they bought.

Sales Trainer Grant Cardone responds to “I’m not buying today” with “That’s fine, most people don’t buy on the first day. Most people get information. What information can I provide to help you make your decision?”

In fact, numerous studies in Social Psychology have demonstrated that adding “you are free to accept or deny this offer” after making a request dramatically increases compliance.

The beauty of this technique is that it’s not a technique at all. Not manipulation, and not timidity.

It’s a recognition of reality. People are always free to do what they want and ultimately will.

When it counts, don’t be afraid of reminding this.

3 Key Factors in Politeness – Distance, Power, Impositions


In Politeness theory, distance describes the degree of social familiarity between parties, such as the difference between a close friend and a complete stranger.

When distance is high, we tend to minimize our FTAs (face threatening actions), and focus on off record (implied) requests. Conversely, when distance is low and familiarity high, we tend to increase our FTAs, often feeling comfortable enough with the other party to make on record (direct) requests when needed.

Further, in attempting to reduce distance, we’ll often provide forms of payment in positive face, demonstrating liking and approval of the other person in the hopes of building a closer relationship.


In this context, power describes the range both formal and perceived, such as the difference between a middle manager and CEO. When power is in our favor, we tend to feel comfortable risking FTAs, as well as using on record requests. Conversely, when power is not in our favor, we tend to feel less comfortable risking FTAs and more comfortable using off record requests.

In attempting to reduce power differences, we’ll often provide forms of payment in negative face, demonstrating respect and deference in the hopes of making sure our requests are considered.


Impositions describes the range of difficulty for complying with our requests, including the difference between asking a colleague for five minutes compared to an hour, or asking a customer to spend $10 versus $10,000. When making smaller imposition, we tend to feel more comfortable risking FTAs and even using on record requests. When making larger impositions, we tend to feel less comfortable risking FTAs and more comfortable using off record requests.

Finally, in attempting to reduce the impact of our impositions, we’ll often provide forms of payment in positive face to create a feeling of reciprocity, as well as negative face to create a feeling of freedom through the ability to accept or deny our request.

I’ll share a recent example to illustrate.

This morning, upon sitting down with my laptop to write this post, my wife politely posed the following question:

“Do you mind if we turn on the air conditioning?” 

Now, after 4 years of marriage, why did she instinctively and intuitively use this highly off record message? First, asking “Do you mind” serves as a payment in negative face, which in this instance represents my being unimpeded from getting settled, opening the laptop, and starting to write.

Second, asking “if we” can turn on the air conditioning, is another form of payment in negative face, creating the opportunity for me to say yes I’ll do it, making it my choice.

Thus, once I begin my walk to the thermostat, the perfect turn of a polite FTA is completed, accounting for zero social distance, roughly equal power (advantage her), and the smallest of daily marital impositions.

Why there’s more to Politeness than meets the eye

According to Politeness theory, selling and negotiating are among the most delicate of social interactions. This is because our offers and requests – the essence of what we do – are experienced as “FTAs” (Face threatening actions) by both parties.

Having built on the work of Erving Goffman, the authors of this theory distinguish between two types face. The first is called positive face, which is the universal desire to be liked and approved of by others. The second is called negative face, which is the universal desire to be unimpeded personally and not imposed upon by others.

Since we as salespeople and negotiators usually want to make the sale or close the deal, we often cannot avoid attempting FTAs. Once committed, we have two options: on record messages and off record messages. On record messages are direct and unambiguous, with high risk to face value. Off record messages are indirect and widely ambiguous, with lower risk to face value.

Finally, in addition to on/off record considerations, we should consider selecting messages based on which version of face is most being threatened. Paying others in positive politeness will help us reinforce positive face, while paying others in negative politeness will help us reinforce negative face.  

In the next post, we’ll take a deeper glance at these factors and what they mean for us as salespeople and negotiators.

Vegans – Masters of Social Influence?

As someone married to a vegan, I’m lucky to have a front row seat to frequent conversations about her lifestyle and the always required saving of face between differing parties.

Interestingly, a researcher at Central CT State University in 2012 studied how vegans (and vegetarians) handle these exact situations with the goal of identifying the face saving tactics used when influencing others.

According to the study, there are four common ways vegans influence others in a face friendly way:

  • Avoiding confrontation 
  • Choosing appropriate timing
  • Selecting their arguments 
  • Leading by example

Avoiding confrontation

Vegans in the study have learned that overt attempts at persuading meat eaters can be frustrating because of the tendency of others to be defensive and prepared with well worn rebuttals leading nowhere:

My participants claim that these types of confrontations are not only annoying and a waste of time, they’re designed to dismiss and invalidate the…arguments. Thus, the vegan or vegetarian must remain neutral or change the conversation in order to control the scenario and “save face”’

This pragmatic ‘choose your battles’ approach reminds me of one of one of my favorite John Maxwell quotes: “You cannot antagonize people and influence them at the same time.” Since I have also experienced this to be true, I believe vegans are smart to adopt this mentality.

Appropriate timing

Vegans in the study approach timing in two ways: empathy and opportunity

For example, one participant mentions purposely waiting until someone is finished eating to have a debate or discussion about their meal. This rightly shows empathy by thinking about the other person first and asking if now is the ideal time to deliver the message. 

Opportunity, on the other hand, involves being nimble and flexible to seize the moment. Here, participants mention waiting for someone to curiously approach them or ask a question before attempting any type of influence. It is after this point that they will more than happily engage. (My wife also favors this approach.)

By combining empathy and opportunity vegans make sure they are striking while the iron is the right type of hot.

Choosing their arguments

Vegans in the study prefer focusing on the health benefits of their lifestyle when trying to persuade, versus the morality of eating animals or the effects of animal based diets on the environment.

They have found that removing the highly subjective ‘right and wrong’ and replacing it with the universal desire to be healthy and live longer provokes less resistance, enabling them to seize important early victories.

Of course, who doesn’t want a statistically lower chance of heart disease, alzhemiers, or pancreatic cancer?


Leading by example

Lastly, the vegans in the study have learned that leading by example busts common stereotypes and creates high credibility in a face friendly way.


Because when you lead by example you get to show instead of tell. You get to replace “here’s what you should do and here’s why…”, with “here’s what has worked well for me and here’s why…”

This is the greatest token in social influence because while everyone can argue opinions, nobody can negate personal experience. And when no one is wrong, everyone saves face.

If still not convinced that we can learn a great deal from face friendly vegans I would like to offer the following examples, one macro and one micro.


In 2012, when the above study was completed, vegans represented roughly 1.5% of the US population. 

Today, midway through 2019, the number of people who identifying as vegan and vegetarian is exploding, including a reported quarter of millennial consumers.

Further, most major food brands have begun offering plant based meat alternatives, revenues of plant based protein are expected to rise towards $100 Billion over the next decade, and stock prices of the first public plant based company have skyrocketed above $200 since their IPO.


About two years ago I personally decided to give up red meat. This was for a variety of reasons, including wanting to show solidarity with my wife after she first became a vegetarian before becoming a vegan.

I now sometimes go multiple days without eating any animal meat; breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Most alarmingly, I recently declared I will most likely become a full fledged vegan within the next 10 years.


I think we can learn from vegans…

What about you?

Seth Godin Talks Face

On Wednesday’s episode of his Akimbo podcast, Seth Godin dedicated his monologue to the precarious difference between truth and belief. He argues that because this difference is often overlooked, we have a tendency to talk past each other and miss the opportunity for real conversation. 

In explaining the difference between truth and belief, he gives the example of sports fans, such as those rooting for the Yankees or Red Sox, who continue to support and believe in their team no matter winning or losing. (Go Yankees!)

However, what truly caught my attention was an interestingly dark example Seth provides to demonstrate the power of saving face.

He tells a story about a doctor who discovered that washing our hands before delivering a baby can dramatically lower birth related deaths. (Turns out, doctors at that time frequently handled dead bodies previous to handling deliveries…Lovely, right?)

The point of conflict in the story is that at first many doctors were completely resistant to changing their ways, even after being provided with clear evidence and data. Fortunately, as you may have guessed since we’re here reading this, doctors finally abandoned this terrible habit.

In the end it was not the truth or facts that prevailed, but the ability for doctors to save face and avoid having to admit they were wrong. (If you’re wondering, he keeps the breakthrough mystery…)

Through this lesson, Seth provides us an all too vivid example of two important realities:

  1. Facts often do not change our minds, beliefs, or behavior
  2. Our minds, beliefs, and behavior can change if face – ie. someone’s pride or previous commitments – can be saved.

His specific prescription for salespeople is asking questions that will help to separate the truth out into the open, like sifting through sand for a hard tangible object.

What kind of questions specifically?

Seth hearkens back one of his heroes, Zig Ziglar, and a questioning technique that long-time students of sales and negotiation might quickly recognize:

If I could…would you?

For example, “If I could demonstrate XYZ, would you buy today?”, or “If I could convince you of XYZ, would you consider exploring this further?”


Seth’s sage advice to utilize what he describes as “simple questions asked with respect” can help us converse – and thus sell – more effectively.

Unfortunately, questions such as these are often discounted as the sales methods of old. So let’s dust them off…

Because while these questions like these might not save lives, they most certainly will help save face.

The Origin of Face

Many of us who study sales and negotiation have probably heard “always allow your customer (or buyer) to save face…” 

However, rarely do we find an exact description of what this means. For this reason, I would like to share what I’ve learned about this concept and why I believe we should take an even closer look.

The theory of face was coined in the 1950s by an influential Sociologist named Erving Goffman. Throughout his career he published numerous classic works describing what happens when two or more people interact. In his collection of essays called “Interaction Ritual” we find the first full description face. 

According to Goffman, we act in a ritualistic way when in the presence of others. For example, he describes:

Every person lives in a world of social encounters, involving him either in face to face or mediated contact with other participants. In each of these contacts, he tends to act out what is sometimes called a line – that is, a pattern on verbal and nonverbal acts by which he expresses his view of the situation and through this his evaluation of the participants, especially himself…The term face may be defined as the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact.

Said differently, when we are in the presence of others, we are not usually presenting our full true selves, but a version of ourselves that we believe is best designed for the approval of the specific person or persons in front of us. 

Further, because we are constantly trying to maintain positive social feelings and avoid negative ones, we exhibit certain patterns of our persona to which we are mostly unaware. They usually involve verbal and non verbal behaviors to protect our pride, honor, and dignity, as well as to avoid embarrassment or shame. 

Now, there is an important secondary element to Goffman’s theory. What he persuasively argues is that in addition to our own behaviors striving to maintain face we also exhibit behaviors that will help others maintain theirs. For example, he writes:

Just as the member of any group is expected to have self-respect, so also he is expected to sustain a standard of considerateness; he is expected to go to certain lengths to save the feelings and the face of other present, and he is expected to do this willingly and spontaneously because of emotional identification with the others and with their feelings. In consequence, he is disinclined to witness the defacement of others. 

So, not only are we constantly calibrating our own verbal and nonverbal behaviors with the goal of positive social approval for ourselves, we are also adapting our own behavior to help the other person maintain their positive social approval.

It is this reciprocal ritual and pattern of two-way behavior that Goffman and other Social Psychologists believe to be an integral of foundation of social interaction whenever one or more people are in the presence of another:

A person’s performance of face-work, extended by his tacit agreement to help others perform theirs, represents his willingness to abide by the ground rules of social interaction. Here is the hallmark of socialization as an interactant. If he and others were not socialized in this way, interaction in most societies and most situations would be a much more hazardous things for our feelings and faces. 

Conclusion –

If we are to believe, like Goffman, that face is an integral foundation of social interaction, then it should not be too far a leap to believe that face and related factors can powerfully influence every sales and negotiation interaction.

It is for this reason that I believe we owe face a much closer look…

Why I’m starting this Blog

For 10+ years now I’ve worked in various types of sales. 

Like many Sales Professionals, I became quickly addicted to reading books, watching videos, and listening to audio materials by popular sales and ”success” gurus. 

Thinking I had covered enough ground and looking for the next hidden advantage, I began exploring the subject of negotiation to further my understanding of selling related concepts such as deal making, bargaining, creating value, etc.

Almost immediately, I found the concepts, techniques, and perspectives of the popular negotiating experts both highly fascinating and easily applicable to everyday selling. This only sparked my interest to grow, and after reading over 100 books on both subjects I began to see numerous similarities between selling and negotiating – to the point where it was hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

For example, one specific concept called “saving face” continued to pop up in both sales and negotiation literature. However, never did the authors seem include an exact description of just what it was and why it was so important. 

Completely hooked on finding more ways to unify these two topics , I slowly but surely discovered that all roads lead back to works under the umbrella of Social Influence Psychology, reaching as far back as 70 years and still going strong today.

From all of my research, I now have a comfortable understanding of “face”,  and this has led me to believe the following:

  • Many of the well known sales and negotiation strategies are not only related, but often times interchangeable
  • There exist many powerful strategies that have yet to make it into the popular culture of selling and negotiation that we have today
  • Greater awareness of Social Influence Psychology will facilitate better outcomes in all of our person to person interactions

My mission going forward is to curate this wide body of knowledge, further explore the ideas above, and identify the most practical applications of Social Influence Psychology for salespeople and other professionals.

Coming up next week will be the first official blog post, explaining the concept of ”face” and why it can potentially make or break every sale.