I forgot. Oops. A case study in impression mismanagement in the political sphere

Every four years we hold elections for the most powerful position in the world, the President of the United States. It is a position that requires a strong, intelligent, even-keeled person because they represent our country on the world stage. The term “stage” is one that evokes images of the theater. In fact, you could look at any human interaction in that way, a performance on a particular stage. That concept is what Goffman’s Dramaturgical theory addresses. Goffman’s theory has been criticized for being apolitical, however, as this study will demonstrate, this is not the case and Dramaturgical theory can be applied to the political sphere.

One concept from Goffman’s theory is the idea of “Impression Management”. This is the way we go about assessing a situation, consciously or unconsciously, and determining which behaviors to portray and which ones to mask in a particular situation. In politics, this may be consciously monitoring what a candidate says during a debate in an effort to remain ideologically consistent. Mismanagement of ones impression can cause one to lose face, something that, especially in the modern political world, can be devastating to one’s campaign. In communications studies face refers to “the image of yourself that you want others to see and believe” (Wood, 2010, p. 243) The purpose of this study is to investigate the consequences of mismanaging one’s impression in the political sphere. These impression mismanagements are called “political gaffes” and have been the fall of many campaigns and even presidencies. During this study I investigated Rick Perry’s recent political gaffe and the consequences of it. The purpose of this study is to answer the question: how does impression mismanagement effect our perceptions of our leaders and potential leaders? A secondary question central to this research is how politicians attempt to recover from those gaffes. Hopefully, through a better understanding of the public reaction to political gaffes, we will be able to pave way for further study on the recovery from instances of impression mismanagement.

Terms and Definitions

            Before I begin I should first define a few terms. Kinesics “refers to body position and body motions, including those of the face” (Wood, 2010, p. 130). Paralanguage “is communication that is vocal but does not use words. It includes sounds, such as murmurs and gasps, and vocal qualities, such as volume, pitch, and inflection. Paralanguage also includes accents, pronunciation, and the complexity of sentences” (Wood, 2010, p. 136). A gaffe is “an unintentional act or remark that causes embarrassment to its originator” (Google Dictionary, 2011). Facework “refers to communicative strategies used to maintain, support, and/or challenge another person’s face” (Anderson, Drewes, Volk, 2008). Jargon refers to “the language … peculiar to a particular trade, profession, or group” (Dictionary.com, 2011) and Colloquialisms are informal forms of speech.



We wear different masks, figuratively speaking, in different social situations. In 1959, Dr. Erving Goffman popularized the concept of Dramaturgy in relation to social interaction. The theory of Dramaturgy comes from the Symbolic Interactionism school of thought. This school of thought “is about social interactions, use of symbols and the assignment of meaning to these symbols, interpretation of stimulus and response, and development of the self as a construct emerging from interactions, use of symbols and interpretation” (Hawaii.edu). Goffman popularized his theory of Dramaturgy based on “the way roles are constructed in everyday life” (Hawaii.edu). The theory comes from making an analogy to theater, (think Shakespeare’s famous quote “All the world is a stage and we are just players”) Goffman constructed his theory based on the idea that we have “front stage” and “back stage” interactions. Front stage interactions are the active performances with the audience present. For example, a front stage interaction would be how a waitress would address her tables. Back stage interactions are when the “performers” can step out of their role without risk of disrupting the performance, to continue the restaurant example, this would be when the waitress returns to the kitchen and speaks with her co-workers she can be openly rude and catty about her customers without risk of disrupting her performance and losing tips.



For this study I used text-based research and I analyzed and coded video of a recent case in order to achieve an understanding of how impression mismanagement plays a role in the political sphere. The cases that I investigated included instances of impression mismanagement during the pre-election phase. The case studied was Rick Perry’s crushing “oops” moment on November 8, 2011. This case represents a politician who prior to his gaffe was considered to be the possible front runner for his party’s bid and after had his presidential hopes severely damaged.

In order to gain a fuller understanding this case I first researched Rick Perry to learn the circumstances leading up to the gaffe. I used the following questions to drive this research: How was candidate viewed prior to the gaffe? What were his poll numbers, was he leading the race prior to the gaffe? What was the candidate’s political position? I gathered this information through targeted research using search key phases like “_______’s political campaign”, “poll numbers”, “______’s key positions”, and “gaffe”. My key sources were newspaper articles, statistics, and academic articles.

Once I gathered an understanding of the circumstances leading up to the gaffe, I moved on to analyzing the gaffe itself. I watched the debate speech during which the gaffe occurred. When watching, I was paying close attention to the candidate’s body language and speech patterns before, during, and after his gaffe to see whether his mistake affected him in the present. Furthermore, I watched to see the audience’s reaction to the gaffe. I coded the section of the debate looking for things like Jargon/Colloquialisms, Kinesics, and Paralanguage. I also looked at how the audience was responding to the candidate and made notes on that. I then looked at how the media responded to the gaffe. I found an interview with in which his gaffe was directly addressed. I analyzed and coded the interview, looking to see what kind of questions were asked and how the candidate responded to them. This provided me with insight on how candidates respond to instances of impression mismanagement in an attempt to “save face”. I gathered footage and articles from various different media organizations in order to avoid any perceived media bias. I also looked to The Daily Show for to see how his gaffe was satirized by the “comedy news”. For the news/political shows that I reviewed my analysis was more content based. I looked at what the reaction to the gaffe was, and how the news chose to cover it (whether they tried to downplay it or not might suggest media bias). The purposes of this stage of data collection are to first gain a better, non-biased, understanding of the gaffes themselves and secondly to see how the public reacted to those gaffes immediately after they occurred.

The final stage of research was investigating the fallout of Perry’s gaffe. What were the consequences? How did it affect his campaign? Did the politician attempt to cover up/explain his gaffe? What was the public response to that? How did it change the way the public viewed him? What were his poll numbers after the gaffe? How does this compare to the numbers prior to the gaffe? What were the lingering affects (if any) on the candidate’s political career? This stage of research utilized the same methods of text based research and video analysis that were used in the first and second stages. In investigating Perry’s post-gaffe experiences we see how one can either recover or not from an incident of identity mismanagement as well as showing how unforgiving the public can be when their trust in a leader or someone’s leadership qualities is shaken.



On August 13, 2011 Rick Perry decided to throw his hat in the ring for the GOP nomination in the 2012 Presidential Elections. Perry represented a very solid conservative candidate for his party. He had a strong religious background (something that ties him to one type of speech community), had a very “presidential” handsome look which is a trait that “western culture places an extremely high value on” (Wood, 2010, p. 131); and had the swagger necessary to be elected. In fact, there were some analysts who called him “George W. Bush on steroids” (“Rick Perry is George W. Bush on Steroids”, 2011). His campaign started very strong, as the introduction of new blood into the race propelled him quickly to the top of the polls. According to an article from CNN.com by August 31st, “Perry led Romney 26 percent to 20 percent” (“Rick Perry Leads Another Poll”, 2011). By mid-October, conservative political pundits were declaring Perry as the “last and best hope to send a solid conservative to the White House” (“Rick Perry Best Hope for Solid Conservative in 2012”, 2011). Perry appeared to be well on his way to get the nod as the Republican candidate in the 2012 Presidential Elections.

Going into the November 8th GOP debate, Perry was entrenched in a battle with Herman Cain and Mitt Romney in the polls. He was still considered to be a viable candidate despite a few mistakes during debates. But that all would change when Perry committed his now infamous “oops” gaffe. Perry was responding to a question from moderator John Harwood:

John Stewart offered the following commentary on The Daily Show following the debate, “oh, oh my God! My chance to be president! …oops” (Indecision 2012, 2011). The “oops” moment is a very good example of impression mismanagement in the political sphere. Before Rick Perry’s “brain freeze” (American Morning, 2011) people trusted in Perry as a potential Presidential candidate, however his misstep caused people to raise a number of questions about his electability. When looking at the video of the gaffe, a number of things stood out. When Rick Perry began his answer, he portrayed himself as extremely confident; he had good posture something Wood suggests makes him seem “self-assured” (Wood, 2010, p. 130), he looked into the camera when answering the question and asserted dominance over his competition: “my flat tax is the only one of all the folks” (Rick Perry’s Oops Moment, 2011). In fact, as he was naming the three agencies of government he turned towards Ron Paul suggesting that he was criticizing Ron Paul’s views. But that confidence evaporated when he lost his train of thought on the third agency.

Perry’s body language changed as the pressure of the moment began to mount. His normally confident smile turned into a nervous one as he pointed his finger at his head, suggesting that he had forgotten. In Wood’s explanation of kinesics she says that “someone who slouches… may be seen as lacking confidence” (Wood, 2010, p. 130) this is exactly what Perry’s body language was beginning to demonstrate. It was at this point that things really started to go downhill because the crowd began to laugh at him. Perry was visibly shaken when Ron Paul attempted to jump in and help him. In response, he attempted to shift the focus off of his gaffe, waving off Ron Paul’s suggestion of “the EPA” as a joke, laughing and slapping his podium. When his sarcastic response didn’t work he attempted to shift the focus away by beginning to talk about how the EPA “needs to be rebuilt” (Rick Perry’s Oops Moment, 2011). Once again however, this strategy didn’t work and when John Harwood pressed him further a “deer in the headlights” look swept over Perry’s face and he looked down, defeated, before finally admitting, with a slight smirk that he couldn’t remember.

Perry’s inability to act under pressure raised a large number of questions about his electability. In an interview that he gave the next morning on the CNN program American Morning he was asked:

“But you are the governor of a of an oil state. I mean, that you feel so strongly that the department of energy, and you have on the campaign trail, should be one of the agencies that’s gone that you couldn’t remember it, makes me wonder you know do you have a real plan for how you would wind it down and what you would do in its place if you couldn’t even remember the agency?” (American Morning, 2011)

Because of his embarrassing gaffe Perry’s entire campaign was put into question, people could no longer trust him to have a real plan of action when he couldn’t recall something as simple as the Department of Energy. Perry violated the ‘Presidential persona’ that is the role he is “auditioning” for. After the gaffe, Perry’s poll numbers dropped significantly; according to Gallup.com in a poll conducted on November 13th Rick Perry had only 8% of the GOP vote, less than a third of what his poll numbers were earlier in the election season.


Saving Face

Face is an important concept in communication studies and it relates directly to dramaturgy in that face is the way you are attempting to portray yourself to others. One can have many different faces because one can have various roles. In order to understand how people respond to situations that threaten the face they have, face-negotiation theory was created. Oetzel et al. (2000) states that there are a few basic assumptions of face-negotiation theory they are as follows:

“(a) people in all cultures try to maintain and negotiate face in all communication situations; (b) the concept of face becomes especially problematic in uncertainty when the situated identities of the communicators are called into question; (c) …relational (eg., ingroup-outgroup), and situational variables influence the use of various facework and conflict strategies in intergroup and interpersonal encounters” (p. 399)

Basically, whenever we are faced with losing face, we attempt to save that face through various strategies. And those strategies vary with each different relationship because certain people or groups respond to different things. This is why it is so difficult for a politician to recover from a political gaffe because he has to appeal to so many people, number one, and number two his gaffe, especially in the modern era, because of the size of the stage they are on. After Rick Perry’s big gaffe he tried a number of strategies in order to recover. The following morning Perry went on the CNN program American Morning to give an interview, through this interview he tried a number of strategies to recover face. First, he tried to classify his mistake as a “brain freeze” something that is a relatable concept, it was a simple explanation which was good because as Wood points out, “the more detailed and complicated the message, the more difficult it is to follow and retain it” (Wood, 2010, p. 152) this is why Perry tends to lean on common colloquialisms. Colloquial language varies between different speech communities. In communication studies Speech Communities are “when people share norms about how to use communication and the purposes it serves… members of speech communities share perspectives on communication” (Wood, 2010, p. 109). Rick Perry’s use of ‘southern’ colloquial language paints him as a ‘good ‘ole boy’, which is a very American identity, one that is extremely relatable for the majority of his conservative constituency. That being said, however, Perry’s casual colloquial language may alienate him from certain groups because as Wood points out, “misunderstandings often arise between members of different” speech communities (Wood, p. 190). Another strategy that Perry employed was that he tried to emphasize that it was not him forgetting but rather the message he was trying to convey that was important. Finally, he drew upon how he had previous experience and success with the department of commerce in the 2000s. This was meant to try and restore confidence in his base. In appealing to his “base” he is appealing to the speech community that is Republican voters who are looking for a candidate who they can put confidence in. In analyzing Perry’s kinesics he was trying to demonstrate confidence in his smile, attempting to return to the kind of swagger that he had before. Smiling is important when it comes to endearing yourself to someone because it suggests that “conversation is welcome” (Wood, 2010, p. 130) which is in line with the kind of transparency a candidate like Perry would want to portray. The link between politics and nonverbal communication is not a new field of study; for example, a study done by Patti Wood “concluded that George W. Bush’s frequent smiles and winks established connections with voters”(Wood, 2010, p. 124). Furthermore, the firmness as well as the self-assuredness that he demonstrated through his speech suggested “self-confidence” (Wood, 2010, p. 137) something that was the opposite of what he portrayed during the debate. The tone that he had during the interview switched from whimsical when discussing the gaffe itself to serious when discussing policy, that tone was in line with how he was trying to talk about the gaffe, as something that wasn’t really a big deal. However, that strategy was ineffective as the interviewer continued to question his electability at one point even asking, “how is this not the end of your candidacy?” Perry responded to this question by saying, “I may not be the best debater, the slickest politician on that stage but what they do know about me is that for ten years I’ve been chief executive officer of the state, created more jobs than any other state in the nation while America lost 2.5 million. What they’re looking for is substance, not necessarily the slickest debater”. Perry attempted to save face here by highlighting his strengths and downplaying his weaknesses. He admits to not being the slickest debater but said that was not what is important, yet in the political sphere being a strong debater is valued because people want someone that can be the voice of the nation as President, and the voice of the nation can’t be making mistakes like this because it violates the identity of the ‘strong, confident leader’.

One of the other strategies that Perry has attempted to utilize to save face is humor. In the weeks following his mistake Perry has had no qualms with poking fun at himself, appearing on David Letterman for a top ten list that mocked his gaffe and even releasing a political ad, which poked fun at the gaffe as well. In that ad Perry pretended to forget a line for humorous effect, but he also gave people a reason to vote for him as well: “If you want a slick debater, I’m obviously not your guy. But if you want a clean house in Washington with a balanced budget amendment, a flat tax, and a part time congress, I’m your man” (Leno Ad, 2011). Throughout his face saving process Perry has fully embraced the fact that he messed up, but attempted to downplay the importance of his mistake. This is a competent face-saving technique, however, as of now, it has not proven to be effective.



This study touches on a number of concepts that are related to interpersonal communications. Impression management is really the management of “face”, this study is essentially about what happens when someone loses face, or lose control of the identity that they are trying to portray. During the data analysis portion of the project I dealt with speech patterns and nonverbal communications. In politics especially, nonverbal communication is a very large part of the equation. Studying Rick Perry’s nonverbal cues, especially during the process of and immediately after committing their gaffes, gives us insight into what might be going through his mind, is he nervous, is he confused, etc. Similarly, analyzing his speech patterns allows us to see into his brain as well. Is he stuttering? Is he raising voice? Etc. Goffman’s theory of dramaturgy acts as the “umbrella” for this topic. We refer to politicians as “political actors” for a reason, because they are playing a role every time they step in front of camera. During the election process this is especially true. Campaigning could be viewed as an audition process for the biggest part of all on the biggest stage of all, and needless to say finding the perfect person to cast is extremely important. That is why more than almost anywhere else, politicians must be extremely careful to maintain face and manage their impressions. Politicians are under the microscope; one that has become far more acute with the advent of new media technologies like Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and the 24-hour news cycle. When a candidate commits a gaffe in the modern era they are scrutinized by each of the major networks and that commentary is seen by millions of voters, and studies have shown that the media does have “an effect on voters’ perception” (Albæk, et al., 2010) of candidates. For that reason, candidates are coached on everything from the way they talk to the way they smile everything is meticulously coordinated (Brown, 2005). Yet, as the gaffe shows, we are all human, and we all screw up sometimes. But when it is in the public eye, especially when running for the most important position in the United States, every little minute detail is scrutinized and for that reason candidates cannot afford too many “human moments” because as Rick Perry’s current poll numbers show (currently at 6% according to Gallup.com) it is very difficult for a candidate to save face after a major gaffe.

This study was limited in a few ways, first because the GOP nomination hasn’t been determined it is impossible to say how this whole situation panned out even though as a number of pundits have suggested the writing is on the wall. Second, I think it would have been useful to examine more than one gaffe however this proved difficult because of a lack of ability to obtain old news footage for analysis, this limitation was my main reason for choosing only to research one candidate.

I think that this topic leaves room for further research. There are three things researchers in the future might want to focus on. First, instances where candidates were able to save face after a major political gaffe in order to see how they were able to do so, this might provide future candidates with valuable strategies. Second, future researchers may also wish to focus on the media’s role in a political gaffe, how their coverage may exacerbate the importance of a gaffe, making it out to be far worse than it was. And third… uh, um… I forgot, sorry. Oops.










Works Cited:

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Influence Party Choice.” Political Communication 27.4 (2010): 389-405. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.

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Typology of Facework Behaviors in Conflicts With Best Friends and Relative Strangers. Communication Quarterly, 48, 397-41

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Leno Ad – YouTube. (n.d.). YouTube – Broadcast Yourself. Retrieved December 10, 2011, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aiCRW5zGSG4

Rick Perry is George W. Bush on steroids | David Horsey Cartoons and Commentary – seattlepi.com. (n.d.). Blogs – Seattlepi.com. Retrieved December 10, 2011, from http://blog.seattlepi.com/davidhorsey/2011/08/16/rick-perry-is-george-w-bush-on-steroids/

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Anderson, Rachel, Katherine Drewes, and Sean Volk. “A Comparative Study Of Face

Saving In Relationships In The Contexts Of Conflict And Embarrassment.” Conference Papers — National Communication Association (2008): 1. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 10 Dec. 2011.

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