Last week in Sociology, I had to perform a social experiment by breaking a social norm, and then write about my experience. This is what I ended up with… Enjoy!
Social norms are rules that govern behaviors within society by establishing standards of conduct (Kendall, p. 72). Sociologist Talcott Parsons theorized that social norms are necessary in society to help dictate our interactions with people (2011). Through these day-to-day interactions we learn what behavior is expected of us – how to dress for specific occasions, proper hygiene, manners, language that is appropriate in conversation, etc. These rules help us differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in any given situation.
My plan for the experiment was to meet two of my girlfriends at our local mall, have a drink and some dinner, and formulate a plan on how to break a social norm. I decided to bring along my friends for support, and to hold me accountable, so that I didn’t back out of the experiment. I struggled with the idea of performing the experiment, which had less to do with actually breaking a social norm, and more to do with having to acknowledge the reactions of people around me.
On the night of my experiment my anxiety levels were exceptionally high. I felt nauseous, tightness in my throat, heated, and my heart raced. As we ate, we discussed possible scenarios. I considered some of the class suggestions, along with staring, breaking into dance and using a phone app called iFart to fake a bodily function, among the more ridiculous.
In theory, all these ideas sounding very interesting; I wanted to be that person who could perform the experiment from a completely scientific place and be unfazed by the implications of it, but the reality of performing the experiment by breaking even a mild social norm seemed overwhelming. I reached a point in my evening where I came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t be able to do it. Why was this so hard for me?
It actually isn’t that uncommon for me to break social norms. Quite regularly I talk very loudly in public, especially when I am excited, and sometimes about topics that could be deemed socially inappropriate. Other times I have been known for nursing my toddler in public, yet even the idea of doing those things with the conscious purpose of getting a reaction seemed an impossibility.
It became clear that there is a stark difference between breaking a social norm because it comes naturally to you, or because it ties into something that is central to your belief system, and breaking a social norm purely for understanding how people will react. Typically, when I break a social norm I studiously ignore the reactions of the people around me.
Most would like to believe that they care little about what others think about them, but we are driven by how people perceive us, and the impressions that we leave. It is culturally deep-seated, this need to care and leave positive marks on the people we interact with, so to knowingly go against the grain and do something that will be perceived as odd or unacceptable with serious forethought feels wrong. At the root of my trepidation, there seemed to be a bigger fear of confrontation, which makes me wonder why I don’t fear that confrontation more in my everyday activities.
On the way out of the mall, as a last ditch effort, I decided to break a very mild social norm by riding the escalator down backwards, while my friends helped with cataloging the reactions of the people coming up the other side, as I watched people behind me. The most interesting thing happened, which was that nothing interesting happened at all. No one acknowledged me. All the people that passed by or were within the vicinity took absolutely no notice of me.
The result of the experiment left me considering how I generally go about my daily activities, especially in a public place. I go about my business, rarely looking at the people that are around me unless it is socially necessary, such a waitress taking my order or saying, “Excuse me,” when I get in someone’s way. Even in the moments of necessary interaction, I rarely make eye contact, and when I do it is limited. At any given time someone could be exhibiting strange, socially abnormal behavior and I would never notice it unless they were screaming, “Hey, look at me! I’m doing something socially strange over here!” So, this leaves me wondering if being inattentive to your surroundings in public is within itself a social norm, or just a socially awkward behavior that some people exhibit?
It occurs to me that people’s reactions to breaking social norms could vary greatly depending on the personality of the person/people you are interacting with, the size of your audience, and the quality of the norm you are breaking. It is my conclusion that it has almost become a social norm to break mild social norms, and that in combination with the patterns of behavior we exhibit in public places and our lack of observation to our surroundings unless necessary, it is likely that you can safely break mild social norms without anyone much caring or noticing.
Kendall, D. (2011). Sociology in our times. (9th ed.). Cengage Learning.
(2011). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norm_(social)