Written by Anais Fuentes
Photo courtesy of creativecommons.org
Why is it that we get so uncomfortable when seeing other people act unusually? Two words—social normalities.
Dr. Eve Shapiro, sociology lecturer at SF State, says social norms are rules or expectations for people in society. These embedded norms can range from beliefs, behaviors, attitudes, or appearances. The few people who don’t follow the masses are deemed strange or socially awkward.
There are three different types of social norms—folkways, mores and laws—explains Dr. Shapiro. Folkways are the norms for everyday behaviors that people follow for the sake of tradition or convenience, while mores are strict norms that control moral and ethical behavior. The third type of norm is a law, the rules or expectations that have the power of the state behind them.
“All of these minute guidelines for behavior seem completely invisible because they feel like it’s just how you do things,” Dr. Shapiro says. “You can only really see them and see the structure of the social world when they are violated.”
I decided to conduct a little social experiment of my own and willingly defied a social norm while in a public setting to see what kinds of reactions I would provoke in people. I headed out to Mission Street, an area known for being heavily populated. Not going to lie, I was not very eager about going through with the experiment, but I built up the courage, turned around, and started walking backwards.
First off, walking backwards was not an easy task. Trying to avoid running into people while walking backwards is nearly impossible. Every few seconds I had to turn my head back to see who or what was coming my way, but after a while I became an accomplished backwards walker.
To my surprise, as I walked backwards most people seemed to act completely normal, as if walking backward was standard. So I kept on going and the longer I walked backwards, the more awkward stares I received. One guy even yelled out, “Hey, what are you doing?” and I continued walking.
This social experiment, as abstract as it was, gave me an insight into how people react to the abnormal. We conform because it is how we have learned to relate to one another. We learn and grow by recognizing what is acceptable in our particular society.
So next Monday when you drag yourself out of bed and go to your morning class, keep in mind the taken for granted expectations that we are so used to and remember how these norms really do dictate our decisions and actions.