November 08, 2007

Grocery Shopping, Ordering Whoppers, and Borat

author_brad By Bradley Wright

Every once in awhile sociologists go bad—but for a good purpose. We call it a “breaching experiment.”

There are some things in life that everyone knows are wrong, such as murder, arson, robbery, etc… (Well, just about everyone. There are a few exceptions who we call psychopaths). Society outlaws these activities and pays people to enforce these laws.

There are a lot of other things, however, that society considers wrong but are not officially illegal (though they can get you into trouble). Defining these wrong things are countless unwritten rules about what we should and shouldn’t do in everyday life, and violating these rules might get us laughed at or punched in the nose. These unwritten rules are social norms, and they guide just about every possible activity a human being can do.

Unwritten rules guide every social situation. For example, let’s take a simple behavior—a student walking into class. What are you supposed to do? Enter somewhat quietly, maybe talk with someone else. Keep a relatively neutral look on your face. Walk to your seat, keeping a mostly even pace, and sit down.

There are a lot of things that you should not do. You shouldn’t run as fast as you can, skip like a little kid on the playground, walk backwards, or crawl (unless you’re begging for something from the professor).

You shouldn’t yell at people across the room, bark like dog, or pretend to be a train steaming down the track. You shouldn’t stick your tongue out at the professor, sob loudly, or have a maniacal “I’m an axe murderer” grin on your face. If you violate these rules, you’ll probably get laughed at.clip_image002

At this point you’re probably thinking “duh”—you already know all these rules and you’re beginning to wonder why sociologists get paid to spell out the obvious. (We sometimes wonder the same thing ourselves). The fact that you already know these rules is an important point. Society trains people (via parents and teachers and friends and strangers on the street) to do the “right” thing in every situation so that not long past our toddler days we’re all walking encyclopedias of the rules of every day life. Do you think the rules of hockey are complicated? The laws of quantum mechanics? They are nothing compared to everyday social situations.

Now, let’s have some fun. An easy way to demonstrate the prevalence and power of social norms is to do a “breaching” experiment in which you intentionally break social norms and see how strongly people react. (This methodology was developed by Harold Garfinkel in the 1960s and 70s.)

A classic “breaching” experiment involved shopping. Researchers would go to a grocery store, and then instead of pulling the items off the shelf, they would pull them out of other people’s carts. When other shoppers noticed this behavior, they would expect the researcher to say something like “oh, I thought that was my cart,” but instead the researcher just explained that it was easier to reach the items in the other person’s cart. While grocery stores do not post signs forbidding this behavior, it clearly violated the unwritten rules of shopping and the shoppers reacted with anger.

In another experiment, the researcher would go into McDonalds, step up to the counter, and order a Whopper (the hamburger made by McDonalds’ rival Burger King). The clerk behind the register would explain that it’s McDonalds, and then the researcher would again order a Whopper. At this point the clerk would look around to see if anyone else heard this breach, and they would start trying to figure out what was happening. Maybe the customer was joking? Maybe they were deluded? Either way, it was breaking norms.


Have you seen the movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan? In addition to being side-splittingly funny (and rather gross), it is one, long breaching experiment. The character Borat is from Kazakhstan, and he travels around the United States pretending that he doesn’t know our social norms, and he breaks many of them. In one scene he walks the streets of New York City and starts talking to strangers. Some of the strangers get so unnerved that they literally run away from him. Then—as passersby gasp in horror--he squats down in the bushes in front of Trump Tower to go to the bathroom.

What’s the take home message of this line of research? Norms are as much a part of social life as air and water are of physical life—they are everywhere, and we can’t live without them.

In fact, I can’t think of any social behavior that is not guided by norms. Can you? That’s why there will always be room for sociologists and our breaching experiments.


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Somebody I know used to think it was funny to breach the norm by standing in an elevator facing the others who were facing forward. It was interesting to see the various nervous reactions of some people or the way people would avoid eye contact with this norm breaker. Nobody ever complained or said anything, pretty funny and harmless.

Norms are so critical in our everyday lives because people are socialized. Norms sets the standards so people know what is right and what is wrong. If you don’t want to be excluded from society, you must follow the rule. If you act strange, people will stay away from you. It is understandable, because people want to stay within their own group where everybody is the same. For example, if there is a group of people that grow up in the city, there came a person that come from rural. People will stay away from that person because the different backgrounds there are different norms. That person might got weird “norm” where people might not understand. People want everybody to be the same so they can predict what other people might think or act.
Sanctions related to norms because if you want to act certain way, you must get other people’s approval. If not you must accept the consequences after that. The consequences are sometimes small, sometimes big, sometimes good, and sometimes bad. It is on you own risk if you doing something that’s not sanctions by people. Because people don’t want to be punished, so they act the same and set the norms.

I watched a video in my pyschology class about norms and as you mentioned about how your friend turns around in the elevator there was an experiment on that. It showed that if instead of just one person turning around facing opposite of the door they had two or three and when other people got in the elevator they looked at them funny and did not want to be the only person facing forward so they would simply turn around and face the direction that the others were facing. It was pretty funny.

Just one question: how to add your blog into my rrs reader, thanks so much.

This was interesting. People usually do not want to be the odd ball because of the fact that sooo many people are critical of others. It is possible that some choose to break social norms just to stand out and be different where other people choose to follow the social guidlines for appropriate behavior hoping to be accepted. I have to comment on the blog about the elevator, I think that would definitly be interesting. Not sure how I would react.

well lets see we don't want to offend people with unnorm behaviors. How do you see women letting there little boys out to use the p.p. hehehe that seems to be a normal thing now some people say aw ahhh how cute on the other hand it is a shock to others. a adult does p.p. outside it is a big no no unnormal to the fifth power. That is the whole point of bathroom but whos to say its not unnorm to someone else. If one doesn't know norm and unnorm how are they to care themself correctly.

"A civilization is a heritage of beliefs, customs, and knowledge slowly accumulated in the course of centuries, elements difficult at times to justify by logic, but justifying themselves as paths when they lead somewhere, since they open up for man his inner distance."
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I think that maybe it's that im from the southeastern a good old Alabamian i can not see past my what i think is right, its just part of my make up. thing that are norm you dont have to ask how would i react but why you can not just say ok im good or thats cool the unnorm stand out for it's self you have to look and see ....i dont know i just cant stand that movie Borat!

I think that norms really do shape our society. Can you imagine not opening the door for someone or running through a grocery store?, you probably can not. These norms are things we face every day, but in reality we do not really realize we are doing them. These things are just routine behaviors that all people do. It is neat to picture what the world would be like without the norms that we take part in all the time.

Norms are so critical in our everyday lives because we might not want to break anybodies space or temper. Sanctions can be like fines for breaking norms of everyday society and you do not want to do that to anybody.

Norms are highly important to our everyday life. Norms are our rules and guidelines with out them we could very much get into trouble or even hurt. If you spend your days breaking norms then you may very much lose people close to you because of envading their space.

Some people due tend to break the norm. For example most americans have a certain degree of space between each other during conversation. I knew this guy that would just get nose to nose with you when speaking. I remember when he walk up to me talking how uneasy it may be felt. Although I kept being polite while he was talking the only thing I could think of was dude please your in my space.

No shirt no shoes no service. This is a norm that would shock people. go to work with no shirt on. go to class with no shoes and no shirt. It is totally ok for men to work in the front yard topless. No one would think twice about seeing a man with his shirt off cutting his grass or digging a ditch. But go to sunday school with no shirt one and see what happens.

I agree with the comment about the norm no shirt no shoes no service and how it's ok for a man to go outside topless but not to work.

Norms are cirtical because its part of life and people expect you to know what the right thing to do is. If you do something people are not use to you will get a negative reaction because they are not use to it. You act certain ways at certain places and thats what people expect and people hate changes.

Norms are important to keep order to things. Without them life would be pretty crazy. It is okay to bend but not break them. People that go outside the norm are less likely to get the same response as somebody who doesnt go outside them. Not that that makes them a bad person or anything.

Norms are how people act when being considerate. Sanctions and norms both act in the same matter. I mean, yes sanctions are punishable and worse bur norms have there own consequences without being legal consequences. For example, lets say if you were to go out with friends and yell across the restraunt, throw food or all in all act like a jerk you probably will not be asked to join those people again. Common curtesy is exspected when in public. If not being asked out again is the consequence, areent you being punished?

Norms in my opinion is are the way people usually act when their not trying to impress or show up someone.Sanctions are their to curb bad behavior or deter an act from reoccuring.

Norms are important because they keep chaos down. With out norms the crime rate would probably go up. We know life is not fair but somethings you just don't do. Sactions and norms are one in the same of something is not acceptable it is probably not normal.

The things that we do in our daily lives are normal to us because that is what we have been taught from day one. It would be strange to live one day completely opposite of our social norm. Just think about not wearing clothes or going to the store and not paying or going to work and not doing your job. That would just be weird!

Norms have a lot to do with being polite and considering of others. Also has to do with making people feel comfortable. This is essential in keeping order and avoiding chaos in everyday life. Sanctions are a direct consequence of doing or not doing a norm so to speak. It could be bad or good. Sanctions ensure or establish social control.

Norms are so critical because when somebody breaks them, it can often exclude them from society because they are viewed as "weird" or "strange". People naturally react negatively to someone doing something out of the ordinary or it makes people uneasy or uncomfortable. Sanctions can relate to norms because sanctions are mechanisms of social control and norms do have some kind of control on social life and society in that they guide how we act and interact in our daily lives.

I never knew there were so many social norms. This brought me to a new way of thinking. Before I just looked at it as normal behavior or conduct. Now I see it as proper etiquette or manners. My question is, If it's not illegal but still considered wrong will it be a point in time when the government will enforce small social interaction laws controlling this behavior? If so, how far will they take it? Will speech try to be controlled? Touching? If that happens this will no longer be America, the land of opportunity!

I always thought of norms as society trying to control the population. It's hard to conform to a society that contradicts its self.

I never really knew there were so many social norms! If someone done that to me in a grocery store, i honestly would be speechless!! I did work in a fast food restaurant and have someone order something that was clearly not served there, but they were jsut being rude obnoxious teenage boys!

Norms are what define "normalcy" and determine who is so called "strange." Sanctions are what creates social control in a society and guide how people live their daily lives.

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