The meaning of demeanor

‘To see a world in a grain of sand.’ (my italics)

–William Blake

One’s demeanor may dampen our spirits or raise our powers, exhaust us or enliven us, diminish or dilate us. Most of us have had salutary experiences with individuals whose demeanors are gentle as well as exhausting experiences with those who, despite having failed to utter a word or perform a single action, have seemed to suck out the marrow from our bones. A man may sit quietly beside us on a long train ride, and we may wonder why it is that we feel heavy and weighed down after we step off the train.

It seems that the effects of another’s demeanor upon us may be profound (enabling or disabling or neither), may prove poignantly and pungently significant, in ways we may underestimate in our discourse but may ‘communicate’ otherwise in our implicit understanding, but yet coming to a clearer understanding of the meaning of demeanor seems, on closer inspection, an especially challenging task. The more we inquire about the term, the less clear it seems to become.

Let’s begin our investigation into the meaning of demeanor with what seems fairly self-evident. Demeanor, we would agree, has something to do with how one appears before others, with this ‘how one appears before others’ not being identical, precisely, with how one dresses or with what one’s physical features are. Demeanor, thus, is not identical with manner of dress or physical appearance. The Oxford English Dictionary helpfully points the inquisitive person toward bearing, carriage, and comportment, suggesting that demeanor may mean something like the ‘manner of comporting oneself toward others.’

This seems to me as good a starting point as any, this talk of ‘manner of comporting oneself toward others,’ for an analysis of the concept of demeanor. Demeanor, we can say, is an appearance of a kind but the kind of appearance that reveals, without being stated as such, something significant about the carriage or employment of the self toward others. One may demean by occupying space in a certain way, quite apart from how or whether one acts, speaks, or behaves. How one demeans, it should be borne in mind, is not now quite how one conducts oneself (though the two may, like kissing cousins, not be unrelated).

The error that soon arises, however, is to let the concept of demeanor ‘slip into’ a discourse concerning behavior or conduct. The sociologist Erving Goffman, in a paper entitled ‘Deference and Demeanor,’ confuses demeanor with a kind of behavior. Thus:

By demeanor I shall refer to that element of the individual’s ceremonial behavior typically conveyed through deportment, dress, and bearing, which serves to express to those in his immediate presence that he is a person of certain desirable or undesirable qualities. In our society, the “well” or “properly” demeaned individual displays such attributes as: discretion and sincerity; modesty in claims regarding self; sportsmanship; command of speech and physical movements; self-control over his emotions, his appetites, and his de- sires; poise under pressure; and so forth. (my bold)

What Goffman gets right in the rest of the essay is the thought that having a demeanor (or demeaning) requires the presence of another. I suppose that I can ‘have’ a certain demeanor when I am by myself, but it is doubtless safer, and more reasonable, to say that my demeanor is perceived, recognized, or felt by another within a social environment. Hence, demeanor is a form of social relation that is not reducible to the self alone or to the other’s perceptions of the self alone but to the manner in which the self is present in the presence of another.

So far so good. At this point, however, Goffman falls into error. Although demeanor does ‘convey’ something significant about a person, what it conveys, contrary to Goffman’s assertion, is not a kind of behavior. ‘To demean’, though involving a certain kind of appearing, may not involve behaving. Perhaps–to take a different tack–the closest cognate we have to demeanor in everyday discourse is ‘presence,’ as when we speak about ‘what it is like to be in so-and-so’s presence.’ (This expression is not quite the same as ‘how one presents oneself’ if by this we mean how he introduces himself to us.) One’s presence conveys something about what it’s like, in general, to be with or around him, to be in his presence.

So we can say that demeanor is a kind of presence or way of presencing, a way of making oneself present to others. To grasp demeanor at a deeper level, though, we do well to return to words like carriage, employment, and bearing. One carries, employs, or bears something on or through one’s person. Accordingly, carriage may represent the manner in which one carries, bears, or conveys a certain form of life. Consider William Blake’s pregnant line: ‘To see a world in a grain of sand.’ For example, a ‘professional demeanor’ is the term we use to speak about how–and how well–a certain kind of person carries a certain form of life. We see in the professional demeanor a professional form of life. Similarly, a ‘composed demeanor’ bespeaks a way of life in which composure ‘shows forth,’ is conveyed, or expressed without the use of words or recourse to action. A tranquil world is evident in a composed demeanor. Contrariwise, a ‘hostile demeanor’ implies that this person embodies a form of life that is characterized by hostility. (A hostile demeanor is ominous in ways we may never speak of. Our desire, unverbalized, is to flee.)

If demeanor P is the manner in which one conveys or embodies way of life P, then this might give us some clues as to why being in the presence of P, for a long enough period of time, can be ‘dispiriting’ or ‘inspiring.’ We do not yet know why another’s demeanor may ‘raise’ or ‘lower’ us, but we do have a place to begin our investigation into the subject.

In tomorrow’s post, I explore the effects of someone’s demeanor upon us as well as the significance of demeanor for the possibility of leading a radiant life.