Informal Social Control and Knowing When it's Time to Go
If you’ve ever thrown a party, you’ve likely had guests that overstay their welcome. What’s a polite host to do?
- Nothing: they are your guests and as host you have an obligation to entertain them as long as they want to stay.
- Ask them to leave: why be subtle when it is late and you’re ready to go to sleep?
- Drop hints: start removing food and dirty dishes, and maybe ask a good friend to make the rounds to say goodbye to get the other guests moving.
Which option resonates most with you? While we all have different personality styles, I have seen (and engaged in) the third option most frequently. Cleaning up and seeing other guests leave sends an informal message that the party is winding down.
Though there are always a few stragglers who don’t pick up on these cues right away, this third option is a form of informal social control that usually works. By contrast, formal social control would involve calling the police to have someone removed, using the formal force of the law to end the party. (I can’t recall being at a party when this happened; it is much more common for neighbors to use formal social control if a party gets out of hand.)
Informal social control governs our behavior in ways we are seldom aware of. Because we are social beings and generally seek approval from people around us, we typically behave in ways that minimize potential condemnation in face-to-face interactions. Think about the other people in classes you have taken: most behave in ways that will yield approval of their peers. In some classes, frequent participation is not just accepted but encouraged. In others, few people may choose to share ideas and it might feel more risky to speak up.
Back to the party. I have been to gatherings where the host opts for choice #1 and does nothing…at least initially. After the aberrant guests leave, the hosts may comment to others on how rude they were to stay so late. But rather than risk direct confrontation—and appearing rude themselves—they opted to wait it out and let the guests be considered the rude ones.
Option #2 seems to happen all the time on “reality TV” dramas, where people are invited to parties, plied with alcohol, and get into confrontations with people they never liked to begin with. I’ve been to only one party that I can recall a guest being asked to leave for this reason (he was drunk and propositioning people who were at the party with their spouses, leading to threats of a fistfight).
I have also been to a few parties where the entire group of guests is dismissed with a friendly thank you and good night. One party I attended years ago ended with the speech from one of the hosts, who was known for his bluntness. At the end of his speech, he made it clear it was time for everyone to leave. A few of the guests seemed taken aback; I was not surprised, but didn’t exactly feel good about the announcement either.
Recently I attended a free concert in a public setting and saw there a unique combination of formal and informal social control. After the concert ended, dozens of police officers appeared on foot, horseback, and motorcycles. They turned on floodlights and just made their presence known for about ten to fifteen minutes as most of the crowd cleared out.
I observed as the police told a few stragglers it was time to go (interestingly, they never asked me to leave as I watched this unfold), using their authority as agents of formal control with the power of arrest to back up their requests. I didn’t see anyone get arrested, but the officers asked some of the more intoxicated-looking concert goers to leave a few times before they moved along.
Children’s parties typically come with scheduled start and end times so parents know when to pick them up, but as we get older we are expected to read subtle—and sometimes not so subtle—cues telling us when the party is over. How else does informal social control govern our interactions with those we socialize with?