Social norms are rules of conduct that materialize based on a society’s values. Social norms are not always the same since different societies have different values. Without social norms there would be chaos; social norms make society’s behavior predictable, for the most part. Most of our society likes predictability; it helps to make us feel safe. Each person is taught social norms through contact with other human beings. The family is one of the first avenues by which children begin to form their understanding of social norms. Parents are constantly teaching their children what is appropriate and what is not appropriate.
I will never forget the time that my son asked me, very loudly as a woman walked by us with super short hair and dressed in men’s clothing, “Mommy, is that a boy or a girl? ” I was mortified. Of course, I had a talk with him about not talking about people when that person is within ear shot. In addition to the family teaching children social norms, we continue to learn spoken and unspoken social norms throughout our entire lifetime. We learn social norms in school, in friendships, at work, in libraries and hospitals, to name a few.
We pick up on what is acceptable by reading signs, listening to instructions from people and watching how others behave in certain settings. The term deviance is used to describe the breaking of any social norm. Most ley people would say that deviance has a negative connotation to it; however, sociologists do not tack on any judgment when using the word deviance. Deviance is used to describe the smallest to largest infractions of norm breaking. A small infraction might be standing too close to the person in front of you in line. This is an example of breaking a folkway and is frowned upon by most Americans but not exactly punishable by law.
An example of a large infraction would be rape which is an example of the breaking of a mores and is unacceptable to our culture and punishable by law. “In short, norms bring about social order, a group’s customary social arrangements. Our lives are based on these arrangements, which is why deviance often is perceived as threatening: Deviance undermines predictability, the foundation of social life” (Henslin, 205). I abhor the idea of bringing attention to myself in public so I was making myself sick thinking of what social norm I would break for this project.
I knew I would need to conduct my experiment in a place where I was unlikely to see anyone I knew. Even the thought of embarrassing myself in front of strangers made me feel a little sick. I care way too much what other people think of me, even strangers! “People tend to behave in ways that they believe other people approve of, and avoid those behaviors they think others will disapprove of. This normative social influence is based on the fundamental human need to be liked and accepted by others”(Aarts, et al, 448).
My 17-year old daughter offered to be the actor for my “breaking norms” experiment. We talked for a few days about what we should do. We decided that she would break the, somewhat unwritten, social norm of conforming behavior in public. One Saturday afternoon after her softball practice she and I headed to WalMart to conduct our experiment. Still wearing her softball gear, including a sweatband around her forehead, she set out. She had her headphones in and she began to sing loudly and dance along to her music while skipping through the aisles of WalMart.
At one point she passed three boys about her same age and as she passed them she turned around to let them know that she had seen them before she continued down her path of utter freedom from social norms. What I thought was interesting and typical is that she had no problem playing out her role until she saw someone that she knew! Luckily she made an abrupt U-turn before the person saw her. Funny enough, it wasn’t even a peer; her acquaintance was a woman that had been her soccer coach for several of her last few seasons. I was watching from a distance and taking notes.
Of course, she picked up on things that I had missed so we also debriefed in the car on the way home. What we both noticed is that she, undoubtedly, caught every person’s attention that she passed. There were stares upon stares in her direction. We specifically noted the reactions from couples with small children in tow, a security guard, and a group of three boys around her same age. The couples with young children brought their children in closer to them as they were watching her. “People whose behaviors violate norms often are called mentally ill”(Henslin, 230).
I got the impression that these parents felt threatened by her unpredictable behavior. Even though she was in no way physically threatening to these people, her lack of conformity seemed to make them quite uncomfortable. Parents’ instinctively protect their children so their reaction made sense to me. I know for myself that I am much more cautious about what is going on around me due to the amount of tragedy I have seen play out on the news over the last few years. It has made me realize that there are a large amount of people who are ither mentally unstable or just without a conscience. The security guard slowed his walk so that he could keep an eye on her. He was trying to figure out if she was bothering anyone or if she was just minding her own business. I think that initially he thought that was creating a distraction for some reason. After a long stare he went about his business. The boys that she passed were very intrigued. They all stopped in their tracks and turned around to watch her. They tried to play it off that they were looking at some merchandise but their eyes were glued on her.
Two of them actually turned around and very inconspicuously began to follow her from a distance. I think this was an example of how deviance can promote social change. I didn’t feel that these boys felt uncomfortable with her behavior but instead thought that it was very cool that she was not conforming and she seemed to be exhibiting complete freedom. The older people that she passed certainly looked her way as she skipped and danced by but they didn’t pay much mind to her. I bet that they’ve seen quite a bit of peculiar behavior in their time and they just chalked it up to her being silly.
I also think as we get older that we are less caught up on what people think about us so that helps not be so judgmental of what others are doing. I also think that as we age we get more and more childlike and small children tend to also be less judgmental of people. It does take a while for children to be molded into the way of social norms. For years, I have seen a young man who walks around Vallejo and dances on the street corners. He seems to be a very talented performer. He’s not doing it for money because he is always on the move; he’s not sitting down with a hat out for donations or anything.
I also saw either him or another young man dressed in a red “morphsuit” riding a bicycle down Redwood Street (very close to where I always see the other man). These suits are usually worn at Halloween so of course it struck me as odd. I find myself thinking that these men must be mentally unstable for acting so far out of the box. I just cannot comprehend why anyone would want to go out and do something so strange and bring so much attention to themselves. Perhaps it is part of my personality in addition to my parents drilling this specific social norm into my head.
I was pleasantly surprised at the young men’s reaction to our experiment. It made me realize that as young children we are clean slates. Our interactions with people over the years move us to a state of being guarded with feelings of guilt for thinking outside the box. I find this sad. I understand that social norms help to make life orderly but it also seriously dampens our individuality. My youngest daughter is a little over three years old and she loves watching people. She could sit and stare at the same person for minutes on end.
As much as I don’t want to stifle her curiosity of what and how others do things, I find myself telling her that people usually don’t like being stared at. It breaks my heart a little bit thinking about how these messages will eventually change her. The other people’s reactions did not surprise me at all. Their reactions solidified what we have been studying. The majority of people conform to social norms. Most people abide by the unwritten rules of demure and modest behavior in public. When a “loose cannon” decides to break one of these rules the rest of us are allowed to show our disapproval in a number of ways.
We can give a dirty or stunned look, we can say something to that person, we can call security, we can talk about the person and the situation to our friends. Our society likes conformity and predictability much more than fostering a person’s individuality. “Human beings need norms to guide and direct their behavior, to provide order and predictability in social relationships and to make sense of and understanding of each other’s actions” (McLeod). We are taught from a very early age not to act like a fool in public. We are not supposed to draw attention to ourselves.
We are not to stand too close to the people. We are not to stare at people. “It’s rude”, we are told. We see how engrained this thinking is in people’s minds when we set out to break any of those rules, or social norms. As my daughter and I witnessed, people do not know how to react when someone throws those social norms out the window. It does seem to give everyone the right to break another well-known norm, staring. In this instance, however, the staring is considered a negative sanction, “an expression of disapproval for breaking a norm” (Henslin, 206).
The reactions differed based on each person’s station in life. The parents protected their children, the security guard was doing his job, the boys were curious of a cute girl acting out of the ordinary, and the older people brushed her off the most quickly. I found this experiment fascinating for a number of reasons. First to see how trained I am in social norms and then also to witness the public’s reaction first hand. I think I will wonder now if people acting out of the ordinary are conducting a sociology experiment or just not conforming to society’s norms.
1. Henslin, James M. Sociology, A Down-to-Earth Approach, Ninth Edition, Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 2007. Print.
2. Aarts, Henk, AP Dijksterhuis, and Ruud Custers. “Automatic Normative Behavior in Environments: The Moderating Role of Conformity in Activating Situational Norms”, Social Cognition Vol 21. No.6 (2003): 447-464.Web.
3. McLeod, S. A. “Social Roles and Social Norms”. Simply Psychology. 2008. Web. 11 March 2013. (http://www.simplypsychology.org/social-roles.html).