Identity Management Theory (IMT) was created by professors William Cupach and the late Todd Imahori in the early 1990s when they used it to describe how people from different cultures communicate with each other; they based their interpretations on the ‘self-presenting’ work of sociologist Erving Goffman during the 1960s.
Lee (2008), in summarizing IMT, says identity is revealed though one’s ‘face’, and that ‘positive face’ deals with an individual’s desire to be approved by others whereas ‘negative face’ describes our needs to be free and independent from the influence of others (p. 54). This is an intercultural communication theory because the assumption is people from different cultures are not aware of what specific communicative actions each culture perceives as ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ representations of face. On this note, Lee adds,
“during an intercultural encounter, interactants could threaten the other’s face due to a lack of knowledge concerning the other’s cultural rules and differences within cultural identity” (p. 54).
Humans are always ‘performing’ certain identities for certain people because we wish to present ourselves positively; this might just be the reason Shakespeare (although it appears this Roman writer was the first to do so) wrote the line “All the world’s a stage…” so many years ago.
These theories all explain, describe, and predict our efforts to ‘manage’ how people we interact with on a daily basis perceive us, and by doing so, how we are essentially managing the identity we want those persons to attach to us. We do this by controlling what we say, how we say it, who we say it to, what we wear, how we wear it, the tone in our voices, the Facebook profile picture we choose, our voicemail message, our ringtone, and a plethora of other factors.
Since we want different people in our lives to perceive us differently, we present different faces based on who we are communicating with. You act very differently in front of your teachers than you do in front of the person you are dating, for instance, because you want your teacher to think of you in one way and your romantic partner to think of you in another. In the same way, you might be more willing to reveal your vulnerabilities to people who are close to you, while you may always present a strong assured self to people who might look up to you as a role model (if you are a teacher, parent, or a leader in an organization, for example). You block certain Facebook photos from certain individuals, hide bad habits on first dates, and do countles other things in an attempt to manage your face.
There is nothing essentially wrong with presenting different faces to different people, as long as they are authentic. We are all complex individuals with several different identities, which change a bit based on who we interact with.
Being aware of this fact will hopefully help you think about all the different faces you present, and might make you aware of which faces are more authentic to who you are and which are just influenced by what you think other people want to see (peer pressure).
Lee, P. (2008). Stages and transitions of relational identity formation in intercultural friendship: Implications for identity management theory. Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, 1, 51-69. https://doi.org/10.1080/17513050701690918
Disclaimer: The above post is an old one, which I am reposting on this new website. It has been edited.