A Day in My Shoes: Breaking a Cultural Norm

Converse_Shoes_by_styx777Goal: 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 Experiment:

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.

Grade:100% 🙂


8 thoughts on “A Day in My Shoes: Breaking a Cultural Norm

  1. It would not have looked unusual among the people I know. I would have thought it was a personal choice you were making. Of course, I’m friends with a girl that like to wear mismatched knee highs with skirts. I wonder how many non-reactors were actually just honoring what they thought was your personal individuality. Of course, there really isn’t a way to measure that.

    • It’s too bad there isn’t a way to measure something like that! At college I think people would’ve been more apt to think shoes that didn’t match was a fashion statement if they’d both been clean and newish (as it was, one of them was really old and the other was brand new). Because people around town sometimes where there PJs to the store, they might not have thought anything about it. I’d sort of wanted to do something a bit more drastic, like getting really dressed up and then just taking the bus around town, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to deal with the attention (you just have to be female and alive to get attention on the bus, so getting dressed up seemed a little awkward).

      But my sociology teacher loved it. And that’s what matterd the most. 🙂

  2. Funny, I was listening to some girls I sit next to in psych talk maliciously about another girl’s shoes just earlier today. Apparently they were the silly barely there shoes or something like that.
    Anyway, loved this. But you know, I could have told you the outcome 😛
    ~Keri (in case you didn’t know)

  3. there is a shoe company in Spain that makes and sells mismatched shoes, they almost match, but they don’t…and I purchased some nearly matching wool socks for my daughter this past Christmas…. It’s kinda trendy. Now…I wore two completely different colored clogs to school a few days ago and not one adult said a word..The children noticed right away that I had a silver sandal and a navy blue one on. That’s what I get for dressing in the dark:)

    • Oh, I would love those shoes from Spain! And the socks sound fun too! I got the idea for my sociology “experiment” because my psychology teacher came to class with mismatched sneakers one day. One of the students asked if he was “studying” people, but he said he’d just gotten dressed in the dark. lol 🙂

      Thank you for commenting, Debby! And welcome. 🙂

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