Dear Dr. Gramma Karen,
I have been reading your columns for many years. I am always in awe of how calm and reasonable you are when giving advice.
Have you always been so calm and reasonable? What advice do you have for those of us who want to be like that, to be less emotional and more like you?
Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response:
Okay, talking about myself is going to be a bit weird and uncomfortable, but I do want to honor your serious question. Coincidentally, another reader recently made this comment about me, “You’re always so gracious in your response … I have no diplomacy.” So, let me begin by saying that diplomacy, calmness, reasonableness, and graciousness are all learned responses and can be practiced by anyone.
That said, I do not always apply them: I can rant, rave, and foam at the mouth with the best of them; I can be an opinionated hothead. However, I have learned to vent in safe zones, that is, around people in my inner trusted circle, e.g., my husband, certain family members, close friends. My daughter often says this about my venting, “You’re flapping, Mom.” Her saying that is a reminder that my venting may be an emotional catharsis for me, but it can quickly get tedious to those around me.
You, as a reader, do not witness my flapping. By the time one of my columns gets posted, I have had the time to do research, think long and hard about various options I can suggest, have my column reviewed (first by my husband and then by platform editors), and make revisions — all done with deliberate calmness and diplomacy.
As an advice columnist focused on intergenerational issues, I am in the business of trying to influence and persuade people to do what is best for their children and grandchildren. I try to acknowledge all the emotions powering someone’s situations, but my main goal is to give them the ability to make decisions that are good for the children in their lives, and for themselves. I need to be calm and reasonable myself if I want to nudge others towards behaving similarly.
The On-Stage and Off-Stage Model
I can share a behavioral technique that I have found useful to keep my emotions in check, one that I have used for decades, and one that I use many times a day. It is called “on stage vs. off stage,” a model developed by sociologist Erving Goffman, Ph.D., (The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, first published in 1959).
In short, Dr. Goffman uses the metaphor of a theatrical production to understand how we behave and interact. Using this model, one’s social interactions can be viewed as a performance in which each of us is constantly deciding how “to perform.” I can present my “on-stage self,” or I can present my “off-stage self.”
When I choose to present my on-stage self, it means that I imagine an audience in front of me, watching and evaluating my performance. I say and do things as if I am following a script. Regardless of the setting, I am aware of how I want others to perceive me, and I shape my behavior and interactions to try to get certain responses. My behavior is intentional, deliberate, purposeful, and typically “scripted” — I am careful and thoughtful about what I say and how I say it.
When I am off stage, I can “be me.” I can let my guard down, I can be less inhibited, more spontaneous, I can say and do things that I would not do or say when I am on stage. I am more likely to be off stage with people I have come to know and to trust. I feel safe enough to share my unfiltered thoughts without fear of being penalized or ostracized; I can be authentic, and I anticipate that I will feel accepted.
You Get to Pick Your Stage
In interpersonal interactions, you get to decide whether you want to be on stage or off stage. In many cases, you switch between them. The point is that if you want to come across as diplomatic, calm, reasonable, and gracious, even though you may have feelings that conflict with those, you go on stage. If you just want to flap, then pick a safe place to do that and go off stage to your heart’s content — or until your daughter, or someone else you respect, messages you that enough is enough.
In teaching the on-stage vs. off-stage model, I am often asked if being on stage is phony and manipulative. My response is, no, not at all. It all depends on your intent. You go on stage when your intent is to influence and persuade — you’re coming more from your brain. You go off stage when you want to share yourself in open, honest, and authentic ways. You’re coming more from your heart.
Choosing to present oneself on stage in a specific situation is not being phony: it is being thoughtful and cogitative. Not everyone with whom you interact merits you sharing your off-stage self with them: they have not earned your trust and respect, they have not projected a mutually-shared safe zone in your relationship. Think of being off stage with someone as a gift you are giving them, a gift that not everyone should receive.
At first it might seem a bit awkward applying the on-stage vs. off-stage model. However, with persistence and practice, you may find that over time, using the model becomes an automatic precursor to expressing yourself more effectively, helping you be more diplomatic, calm, reasonable, and gracious, or however else you might want to be perceived.
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
Email queries to [email protected]
Dr. Rancourt’s most recent book is