January 21, 2010

Public Behavior in Private Spaces

new karen 1

By Karen Sternheimer

clip_image002Did you spend a lot of time at malls this holiday season? I did recently, although I didn’t go into very many stores to shop. Malls are great places to go when it’s cold and you want to get out of the house and get some exercise. While visiting my family this holiday season, nearly three feet of snow fell and local malls were just about the only place we could go to take a walk without freezing.

There’s a big difference between taking a walk outside and walking in a mall. Malls tend to be more crowded and walking space can be limited, so we often found ourselves walking in circles around some of the bigger department stores. Free samples in the food court can defeat the whole purpose of walking, too.

clip_image004The most significant difference between walking in a mall and walking outside is that malls are private spaces. Seemingly anyone can enter a mall, walk around and use the restroom if necessary. But unlike a truly public place, management has the right to ask people to leave for a variety of reasons that might seem vague and could be arbitrarily determined.

One upscale shopping center had its list of rules posted by the restroom, which I have posted below. (I decided to remove any identifying information, since as you can see in rule #4 any unauthorized photography is forbidden there).

Some of the “codes of conduct” seem like common sense rules that only the most disruptive of shoppers would violate: vandalism, drag racing, and fighting seem like good things to ban, and they are illegal anyway.

But take a look at some of the others—they might be open to a variety of interpretations. “All guests are to be treated as you would like to be treated….standing, walking or sitting in areas that might cause an inconvenience to others, is not permitted” according to rule #1. Wearing clothes not deemed to be “appropriate attire” violates rule #5. Sitting in your car for too long violates rule #7.

If you have ever been someplace where people violated these expectations, you know it can be uncomfortable when others are rude and disruptive. But my guess is that these rules might be bent for someone who drops a load of money at one of the pricey shops. Someone carrying a dog in their bag violates rule #9, yet I have seen exceptions made for people who appear to be wealthy and thus possibly good customers. As Sally Raskoff blogged about, here in Los Angeles dogs are most common in malls with upscale clientele. I’ve been barked at in dressing rooms on more than one occasion. IMG_1020

Several rules focus specifically on young people. “Minors must not continually congregate in groups larger than four” according to rule #2. Rule #3 follows: “To enforce the rules applicable to minors, we require all patrons on our property to carry appropriate identification with proof of age.” Finally, rule #8 states that, “All persons under the age of 18 are expected to be in school during school hours and may be asked to leave the property.”

Teens in public are routinely seen as potential problems, and yet for many teens the only “public” spaces they can visit are actually privately owned. Sociologist Christine L. Williams observed this while conducting ethnographic research in toy stores. In her book Inside Toyland: Working, Shopping, and Social Inequality, she notes that poor kids of color were routinely asked to leave stores even if they weren’t causing any trouble.

I spent a lot of time in malls before I earned my driver’s license; in fact, one of the malls I recently walked in was the local hangout for my peers. I had no proof of age until I was 16 (except a birth certificate, which my parents kept in a secure file at home), and by that time was mobile enough that hanging out at the mall didn’t appeal to me anymore. It wouldn’t have been unusual for me to be there during “school hours” either. Sometimes my friends and I went there for lunch, and my senior year I arranged my schedule to have the last period free so I could work in a store at the mall part time.

But since my friends and I contributed to the economic activity of the mall, no one ever asked us to leave, even if our group grew large or we were loud. If we clip_image008didn’t have spending money, our presence might have been considered more troubling. And consider that many retail stores tend to hire white, affluent teens, as 60 Minutes detailed in this story on Abercrombie and Fitch. This means that the mall rules can be applied disproportionately to lower income teens of color, who might have few other places to congregate.

The rule that might have the most important implication is rule #4. “Soliciting, picketing, rallying…distributing literature…soliciting signatures or personal information of any kind…is prohibited without the express written consent of the owner.” Essentially this rule outlaws any political activity in the mall, a rule that is common in shopping areas nationwide.

As historian Lizabeth Cohen points out in A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, after World War II Americans’ gathering spaces became increasingly privatized, leaving fewer places for protests or political activity. Cohen concludes that during the second half of the twentieth century, Americans came to see themselves predominantly as consumers, not citizens. While the Internet has helped create a new space for organizing to some degree, with fewer public gathering places, it becomes more challenging for traditional organizing and creating community awareness of a particular issue.

Thinking of my recent walks in the malls I visited, I admit noisy protests or picket lines would have made me want to leave. And yet Cohen’s point isn’t that people should cause disturbances in malls and shopping areas, but rather that our public spaces have become commercialized--so much so that it might be difficult to think of public places that are truly public anymore. Especially in a snowstorm.


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Great post! I'm glad you shed some light on this rather odd aspect of public behaviour in private places. Especially private places that resemble public areas. It really does make you wonder. When commercialized places allow social interaction that seems totally public, expectations and rules begin to get tricky. The authority over people in malls often crosses the line of discrimination and many of the written rules are either ridiculously obvious/common sense or never enforced.

It is very unfortunate that teens in public are constantly seen as trouble. It is very stereotypical and often inaccurate. What really troubles me is that teenagers who appear wealthy don't always have to obey rules why poorer teens have to. Also, many of the mall rules against teenagers are absurd! Teens must constantly keep identification on their person to prove their age. Also, teenagers can't be together in groups of four or more. My friends and I go to the mall together sometimes and we often walk in groups of four or more, but we are always very polite and well-mannered. Judging all teenagers based on preconceived opinions is biased and completely unfair.

I disagree with this blog because of how prejudice some people are towards all teens. When teens go to the mall, just because they are a teenager does not mean that they are going to get into mischief. The preconceived judgments and rules towards teens are unfair and inappropriate in ways. Teenagers should not have to have a limit of peers that they can walk with because if they are being respectful of others then they should not have to be asked to leave the premises. The average person looks at a place like the mall as a public place and when rules such as; sitting in your car for too long is not appropriate, then it makes you question if the mall really is considered a public place where all are welcomed. Public places should have some rules that need to be followed, but ones like teens need to carry an I.D. with them at all times is ridiculous and should not be a rule in a public place.

Wow, this was very interesting. I found it odd to think of some of the vague rules that were listed and how they are picky and choosy in how they enforce them. The prejudice against teens is wrong, but I can see why the mall would be too careful.

As a teen, it gets frustrating when I am constantly judged by my age. Even though I act maturely, I sometimes am thrown into the catagory of "dumb, irresponsible kid". I hate going to the mall and getting followed around in stores because sales people think that I am going to steal. Many girls my age steal, but it is unfair to be grouped in with them when my actions aren't comparable to theirs.

(By the way, why does being one year from being a legal adult have to affect the number of companions I have with me?)

This blog is very interesting. I didn't know malls had rules. Some of the rules are totally wrong. Stereotyping against teenagers and poor people is unfair. Not all teenagers are trouble makers.

I love the blog, but this issue about Public Behavior in Private Spaces ... is just great. . Thanks again. Great work

I think this post is really interesting and true. I recently did an assignment for class in which we had to walk the streets of NY, trying to determine which places were public and which were private, i posted the link in case you want to read it. It was really hard to figure out which places were public or private, because there were either plaques of ownership or stores, which i figured like malls are public but privately owned. Also, even in small stores, like my job, teens are discriminated against. Workers always have to watch them closely because they assume that the teens don't have any money to spend and are just there to cause trouble. This was a great post, take a look at mine if u can.

I think your blog is lovely, what I admire most about it is that you take nothing for granted, you observe every aspect of public behavior and analyze it to depth. I guess there are people who are not even aware of the simple codes of behavior and decency.

Well, getting in and along with the city mall is not a hard thing, the hard thing is to get out :) Anyhow, don't forget to give a thought about your privacy - the big brother of the mall is looking at you all the time :)

wow that is really interesting :)

Teenagers who appear wealthy don't always have to obey rules why poorer teens have to. Also, many of the mall rules against teenagers are absurd! Teens must constantly keep identification on their person to prove their age, I like your blog, the information had helped me and also to others, and I find it very interesting,Please keep on posting the related information regarding this Article.

I hate going to the mall and getting followed around in stores because sales people think that I am going to steal, I like your blog, the information had helped me and also to others, and I find it very interesting, Please keep on posting the related information regarding this Article.

Very analytical view! Thank you for posting! It will make my trips to the mall more interesting for sure!

This was cool to see the rules the malls have. I honestly find it offensive that the mall said they had the right to remove a teen from their facility if it was during school hours. Maybe that day the school was closed for Teacher Comp. day.. the student should be able to go to the mall if he or she wants to then. Also I find some other rules absurd. Not all of us teens are trouble makers and yes you must keep them in control but if you think a group is being unruly and disruptive then remove them. Don't make other teens pay for something that wasn't their fault.

I don't frequently shop at the mall...only when I have to, but this is some interesting food for thought!

This is a really good article, Karen. I've used it to make my point about America needing public spaces (commons) again, to allow people their god-given right of self-sufficiency and the ability to flourish.

Your article was perfect because it documented exactly what I was looking for in a very tangible way. Thank you for your sharp perspective.

i cannot stand when i am in a mall and i am treated poorly because i am a teen. i have been asked to leave a mall because i was there during school hours. Did they think of the fact i was off for the day? no of course not. Especially if im walking out of a store with my hands in my pockets, all of a sudden i am steeling something. Not true of course. However teens in groups can be very disruptive, but i think adults make us all out to be like that.

As a teenager, it is not the most flattering thing to be viewed as a public nuisance at all times. My friends and I have repeatedly been seen as "annoying teenagers" in an affluent community because we choose to present ourselves in band t-shirts and ripped jeans, even though we pride ourselves on being lovely citizens.

You don't have to ask this question just during holidays because people always go to the malls. They go even if they don't have anything to buy there.

I am one of the many who love going to the mall especially during weekends and payday. I agree with you Karen, though these are public places, but we should bring and practice that good character and common sense we have. Every person should be responsible enough to preserve and protect everything we have now. We have that 'responsibility' that many tend to ignore. It is ideal for a nation to have a responsible citizenry.

Be a responsible citizen!

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