Breaching Experience: Defining The Social Norms

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Social norms are the invisible rules that guide our daily social lives. Norms can be simply defined in two words – “ought to.” Norms serve as guidelines for behavior; specifically, what one “ought to” think and feel in a given situation, and how members of a group “ought to” behave. Breaching social norms makes what is invisible visible. One social norm people abide by apologizing after bumping shoulders with someone else. For my breaching experiment, I had a friend help me record others’ reactions when I bumped into them without apologizing for doing so. As an introverted person, this experiment fared to be a bit difficult as it put me out of my comfort zone. For nineteen years, I have been taught to be polite to others and never be a nuisance. However, to question what seems obvious through the sociological eye , I had to continue with my experiment.

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My experiment took place in the University Town Center next to University of California, Irvine. On January 22nd, a Tuesday from 10 AM to 11 AM, I walked around the plaza and looked for my test subjects. When I would spot a candidate for my experiment, I would act as if I was texting someone or scrolling through social media on my phone so I would not seem too conspicuous. When walking by a person, I would bump shoulders with him or her – neither too harshly nor too lightly, just enough for the person to notice that we bumped shoulders. If it weren’t for this experiment, I would have followed the social norm by apologizing to the person. For the sake of this experiment, I disregarded my habitual reaction and continued walking as if nothing happened. I bumped into a total of 12 people, six of whom were female and the rest male. With every person I purposely bumped into, my friend recorded each reaction. As I bumped into these people, I came to the realization of exactly how much emphasis is put on the social norm of being polite to others. Therefore, when one fails to conform to these ideas, he or she comes off as ill-mannered and disrespectful.

The recorded reactions came to no surprise. After bumping shoulders, most turned to look at who bumped into them. Most of my test subjects did not go out of their way to directly sanction me. They would just look back and give the back of my head an annoyed face. The girls would turn to look at me, say something to the person next to them, then both would turn to glare at me. Most of the males made faces of utter confusion rather than those of annoyance. By reading their lips, it seemed as if most of my subjects were saying, “What is her problem?” or “How rude.” Although most of my test subjects gave me silent sanctions through their facial expressions, one male directly sanctioned me by yelling out “Excuse you!” after I continued walking. By commenting so, the person called out my behavior as rude. Perhaps if the environment were congested and hectic, then it would’ve been more excusable or acceptable to bump shoulders and continue to go on your way. Perhaps, if I bumped into my subjects harder, more of them would have directly sanctioned me. Although none of my test subjects directly confronted me, I felt the judgment and social isolation as I did not conform to the social norm of polite behavior. When one does not conform to ordinary conventions, “the social distance at which [one is] kept, produce, although in a more mitigate form, the same results as any penalty.” (Durkheim 20) When one goes against a social norm, the society sanctions the individual and the action; therefore, he or she is bound to face some sort of alienation.

Norms are guidelines for behavior, telling us what we should do given a certain circumstance or situation. These invisible rules have been practiced for so many generations that we innately abide by them. People want to belong in and feel approved by society. To do so, they conform to social norms. Those who do not follow the social norms may be disapproved or even alienated by the members of society. This is how social structures are constituted and societies function. 

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