Goal: Breach an American cultural norm.
Method: Fashion (Converse© shoes, specifically).
Reason: For fun! And also to get a good grade on my sociology paper.
Social theory: Symbolic interaction—a micro sociological theory that examines the symbolism in daily life, what things mean to us.
In American culture wearing a well-coordinated outfit (based on cultural fashion rules and the season) symbolizes someone is well put together, competent, professional, stylish, and observant. On the other hand, an outfit that in mainstream American culture is considered to “not match” (e.g. the colors clash, the styles do not go together, or it breaks a generally observed “fashion rule”) symbolizes a lack of observation to detail, laziness, unprofessionalism, and the assumption is that the person is just generally unkempt. One outfit would be seen as taking yourself and your role in society seriously, the other is viewed as general apathy or disrespect.
My expectations: I chose to wear mismatched canvas shoes for my norm violation experiment. One shoe was black and white, the colors were beginning to fade and it looked well-worn. The other shoe was brighter, newer, and pink plaid.
I wondered what it would be like being the norm violator. Would I get strong reactions or casual comments or just funny looks? Would people inform me of my norm violation or make it clear verbally that they’d noticed or just pretend not to see?
The results: Due to how often I hear people around me discussing someone’s “wrong” choice regarding what to wear, I was surprised by the lack of reactions I encountered during my research. I had expected more people to comment directly on my shoes or to ask me why I had chosen to wear mismatched shoes that day, but the majority of the reactions I received were nonverbal.
I ended up getting the most reactions on the bus. As the other riders sat there sometimes I’d notice that as someone was looking around they’d catch sight of my shoes. Rather than commenting on my shoes, though, the most common reaction was to do a double take, look slightly puzzled, and then look away as if they were pretending not to have noticed. After a bit they would steal another confused look at my shoes as if getting a second look might provide them with some answers.
One lady, though, told me she thought my shoes were “cute” and “unusual” and asked where I had bought them.
Extension: As a result of the lack of reactions to my fashion norm violation, I decided to wear my shoes around town on two more days. On the second day I wore shorter pants with a straighter leg, so it was easier to see my entire shoe. I also wore a bright red jacket and hat that clashed with the pink plaid shoe (I hoped the color clash would make my shoes stand out even more).
On the final day of my experiment, still trying to get more verbal responses from people, in addition to wearing an overall outfit that better highlighted my mismatched shoes, I also made a point of kicking my feet around some, sitting cross-legged, doing things with my backpack while it sat right next to my shoes, and tapping my foot. I had expected it to be easy to get comments from people. I was not sure if they would be primarily negative or positive, but I thought my fashion breach would serve as more of a conversation started than it did. In reality, it felt like even if I had lit my feet on fire and done a jig hardly anyone would have actually said anything (even though a lot of people did seem to notice and appeared to be pretending not to see).
Feeling somewhat frustrated by the lack of responses I was getting, I ended up telling few people at school I was doing an ethnomethodological research experiment, and not many people seemed to actually notice. To my surprise, most of them had already taken note of my shoes, but confessed to not wanting to say anything.
Although, people might still laugh or point it out, some social norm violations seem to be dealt with by simply ignoring it even happened. Some of the avoidance seems to be in order to protect the norm violator from embarrassment, but I think it is also because it saves the other person embarrassment and does not make them feel awkward. It’s easier for people to ignore the violation than to deal with it.
Conclusion: Based on my own quasi ethnomethodological experiment, I think norm violations illustrate how strongly social norms affect every element of our lives from what we wear and how we interact with people to what we consider to be “acceptable” or “common sense.” When I violated a fashion norm many people responded with another socially approved norm—avoidance.
Not only can breaching norm experiments be amusing, they can also be interesting because it shows how people act when something unexpected and socially unacceptable happens and how they respond.