Social Norms are rules of behavior that are considered to be socially acceptable. Many people tend to abide by social norms automatically as a means of conforming to society and gaining acceptance. Many people fear facing consequence by not abiding by social norms; for example, one may fear being ostracized from a group by doing a “faux pas” (something that in society you are not supposed to do, based on a specific culture’s beliefs and traditions). Social norms are expected behaviors that are put into construction by various societies and cultures. Different social norms vary from culture to culture. Habits, customs, and traditions that may seem bizarre to people of the United States may be entirely normal to those abroad. One social norm in this country involves crossing boundaries and invading the personal space of strangers. My assigned partner David Razo and I recently met in MU to conduct an experiment regarding social norms and personal space barriers. We hypothesized that most people at MU– when having their personal space invaded through a violation of social norms– would merely ignore the behavior (for fear of violating an additional social norm – impoliteness).
In this paper, we will explore the different variations of the experiments, along with the different subjects. We will then draw conclusions based on observations. In the experiment, some people had a strong reaction and responded but most of them – interestingly enough – did not. At the beginning, my partner David sat next to two boys and one girl (Group A) that were having conversation. Group A seemed to be a little bit uncomfortable and awkward. However, instead of embarrassing David (by perhaps getting up and moving their conversation and/ or asking him to leave), they instead ignored him. This is an interesting observation because although the subjects of Group A were notably uncomfortable, they did not think that this violation of a social norm was enough of an offense to warrant moving.

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Our next logical consideration / hypothesis for this experiment was that position must be the important part of the experiment. Therefore I sat between two young Asian girls (Group B) while they were talking to each other. One of the two girls asked me, “Is this your table?”. I replied: “No, I just want sit here”. As a result of me sitting on the bench, they decided to leave. Then I told the subjects of Group B that our encounter was an experiment and asked for their response. They said they considered this to be rude and their privacy was invaded. As a result of this encounter, I have proven my theory but I did not wish to repeat this portion of the experiment because the subjects seemed noticeably angry.

In the third portion of the experiment, I chose to sit really close to two men (Group C) that were chatting. After a while, they ignored me the same way that Group A did. My partner and I asked the subjects of the experiment how they felt when we violated this social norm. Group C told me, they felt that it was a bit weird for me to sit next to them. However, I was not bothering them, so they did not leave.

David’s friend also wanted to try this experiment. So David and I sat on a bench in close proximity to observe David’s friend. The friend sat next to a man and woman (Group D) who were having a conversation. Group D did not seem significantly bothered by the friend’s presence. However, another interesting thing did happen in regards to Group E. David and I were sitting next to a girl (Group E) who was talking on her cell phone. We were sitting in an opposing position to her; however she turned around and asked us to leave because, according to her, we were invading her privacy. Even though we were not talking or disrupting her conversation, she was very uncomfortable because she must have assumed we were listening in on her conversation. We explained the experiment we were doing at the moment. Then she said the words we wanted to hear to draw even more conclusions on our experiment: “There are so many empty chairs where you guys can sit”.

Therefore, we further assumed that if more people would be in the vicinity, then there would be more pressure when people are sitting next to the strangers. So we sat next to a man (Group F) who was actively playing on his cell phone. The man was extremely involved in his cell phone – so he did the same thing that Group A did.

Based on this experiment, I infer that the violation of social norms seen in this experiment (sitting next to a stranger to cross and invade personal boundaries) is influenced on the Position, Behavior, Gender, Culture and People. However, it is always important when conducting experiments to consider many different variables that may or may not come into play. One more important thing that needs to be considered is Appearance. Additionally, people also judge others by their personality, social status, and whether or not they seem to be a “good guy” or a “bad guy” based on first impressions. For example, if I have a tattoo on my arm, one would think I could be potentially dangerous due to the stigma of tattoos.

In the first lesson, we have learned that everyone has their own comfort zone. Many people have certain boundaries and they are uncomfortable if strangers cross these invisible lines. If two men get too close to each other, for example, they may begin to feel uncomfortable. Like Group C, I sat between to the two young Asian girls, so I made them feel uncomfortable; moreover, they were talking with each other. My behavior, my location, and my proximity were interrupting their behavior. It caused them to want to leave and feel angry towards me.

The subject of the experiment in Group E had the strongest reaction of all of the subjects. This strong reaction could be due largely in part because of the gender; girls have a further privacy zone than men. As we could see as a result of the experiments, the men tended to ignore the situation. We observed that the men seemed to feel perhaps a little bit weird about the social norm violation (us sitting close to them) but we as men can easier accept somebody crossing into our personal space; since, it is unnecessary to be bothered over such a thing in our opinion. Since we were children, our parents taught us to be tough like men. Even though we have such a diverse and modern social view today, but most people still believe that men should have more responsibility and tolerance than woman. A personal example can help further explain this idea. When I first began to lease house with three girls, there is one thing that happened that proved this norm again. When I first joined a Christians’ group and we had our first meeting, my roommate called me ask me for help. I refused to take the call because we were singing the anthem. My roommate became angry at me, and asked me, “Do you think home is important or the Christian group is important?”. I said, “I’m not your slave. I’ve told you I have a serious meeting”. I could hear that she sounded mad when she said, “I never heard a man talk like this before” . So then I had to leave the meeting and return back to home to help the girls assemble furniture. Actually I was a little bit mad when they forced me to leave the meeting and come back, but I did not show them. Through this event, I experienced an observation that men and women are socially different. It would have been breaking a social norm for me to stay at the meeting – however, it was important for me to come home and help assist with the furniture. In society, men are expected to help women when they are in need. If a woman needs help, it is important for a man to come to the rescue.

We have so many norms and stubborn ideas rooted in our minds, as a society. Even though our experiment that we chose was not very offensive (hoping not to offend other peoples), we achieved a wide variety of reactions among the people we chose as subjects. It was interesting to note that the person who had the biggest reaction was the girl on the cell phone (Group E). We were sitting on opposing sides. Even though she could not easily see us, she still felt uncomfortable that we were around her. It is unclear whether or not she had private information that she wanted to talk about on the phone – perhaps she was having a conversation that was illegal or offensive in nature. However, it is important to note that this subject indeed violated a social norm of her own. It would have been very simple for her – had she been uncomfortable with us sitting close to her – to stand up and walk far away from us. Most people in this situation would avoid confrontation altogether and simply move to avoid having to interact. However, this particular subject instead violated a social norm by being rude and asking us to leave. Yes, she was there first; however, most people would not make others feel as uncomfortable as she did. It was as if she was trying to perform an experiment on us!

People who are breaking the norm can be divided into two parts, conscious or unconscious. The conscious is like our experiment – we had motivation to do it. The subject of Group E had an extremely conscious reaction to our experiment. The other subjects in the experiment showed us subconsciously that they were upset that we invaded their personal space by body language. However, the subject of Group E made a conscious decision to tell us to move. One can think that she likely knows that she was well aware that she was being rude and disrupting the social norm – she is a clear example of someone who would rather go against social norms in order to act independently of what is “normal” for her own personal agenda.

Unconscious is the gender, appearance, culture, body position, and behavior (for example, interrupting the subjects while they are having a conversation) causes the norm-breaking. Gender may have a lot to do with our subjects’ reactions to us. Perhaps the two Asian girls were uncomfortable because they believed we were trying to proposition them or ask them on a date. Had I been a different gender, they may have still been uncomfortable by my body position, but they may not have actually left where they were sitting. Appearance may also have to do with how people react when you violate social norms. It can make a big difference on people’s first impressions on you if you are dressed in dirty, unkempt clothes versus a classy business suit. Also, some body modifications such as tattoos may cause people to be scared of you. Culture can also be a factor when considering the results of this experiment. In some cultures, it is totally appropriate to sit next to a stranger on a bench without feeling uncomfortable. Body position and proximity can affect people’s reactions to you. If you sit too close to a subject, this will likely invade their personal space and cause them to react uncomfortably to you. Behavior is a final factor than can influence the results of the experiment. If we were to interrupt a person’s conversation, this could make them even more uncomfortable and they could decide to leave.

In conclusion, people are more likely to ignore someone when their personal boundaries are invaded – as long as the subjects of the experiments are in larger groups of mixed genders. Groups of people with only female subjects are more likely to verbalize discomfort in this situation. After we finished the experiment, we were not quite satisfied with our results. Our subjects did not have our desired reactions; sadly, their reactions were different from our hypothetical proposal.