November 08, 2007

Grocery Shopping, Ordering Whoppers, and Borat

author_brad By Bradley Wright

Every once in awhile sociologists go bad—but for a good purpose. We call it a “breaching experiment.”

There are some things in life that everyone knows are wrong, such as murder, arson, robbery, etc… (Well, just about everyone. There are a few exceptions who we call psychopaths). Society outlaws these activities and pays people to enforce these laws.

There are a lot of other things, however, that society considers wrong but are not officially illegal (though they can get you into trouble). Defining these wrong things are countless unwritten rules about what we should and shouldn’t do in everyday life, and violating these rules might get us laughed at or punched in the nose. These unwritten rules are social norms, and they guide just about every possible activity a human being can do.

Unwritten rules guide every social situation. For example, let’s take a simple behavior—a student walking into class. What are you supposed to do? Enter somewhat quietly, maybe talk with someone else. Keep a relatively neutral look on your face. Walk to your seat, keeping a mostly even pace, and sit down.

There are a lot of things that you should not do. You shouldn’t run as fast as you can, skip like a little kid on the playground, walk backwards, or crawl (unless you’re begging for something from the professor).

You shouldn’t yell at people across the room, bark like dog, or pretend to be a train steaming down the track. You shouldn’t stick your tongue out at the professor, sob loudly, or have a maniacal “I’m an axe murderer” grin on your face. If you violate these rules, you’ll probably get laughed at.clip_image002

At this point you’re probably thinking “duh”—you already know all these rules and you’re beginning to wonder why sociologists get paid to spell out the obvious. (We sometimes wonder the same thing ourselves). The fact that you already know these rules is an important point. Society trains people (via parents and teachers and friends and strangers on the street) to do the “right” thing in every situation so that not long past our toddler days we’re all walking encyclopedias of the rules of every day life. Do you think the rules of hockey are complicated? The laws of quantum mechanics? They are nothing compared to everyday social situations.

Now, let’s have some fun. An easy way to demonstrate the prevalence and power of social norms is to do a “breaching” experiment in which you intentionally break social norms and see how strongly people react. (This methodology was developed by Harold Garfinkel in the 1960s and 70s.)

A classic “breaching” experiment involved shopping. Researchers would go to a grocery store, and then instead of pulling the items off the shelf, they would pull them out of other people’s carts. When other shoppers noticed this behavior, they would expect the researcher to say something like “oh, I thought that was my cart,” but instead the researcher just explained that it was easier to reach the items in the other person’s cart. While grocery stores do not post signs forbidding this behavior, it clearly violated the unwritten rules of shopping and the shoppers reacted with anger.

In another experiment, the researcher would go into McDonalds, step up to the counter, and order a Whopper (the hamburger made by McDonalds’ rival Burger King). The clerk behind the register would explain that it’s McDonalds, and then the researcher would again order a Whopper. At this point the clerk would look around to see if anyone else heard this breach, and they would start trying to figure out what was happening. Maybe the customer was joking? Maybe they were deluded? Either way, it was breaking norms.


Have you seen the movie Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan? In addition to being side-splittingly funny (and rather gross), it is one, long breaching experiment. The character Borat is from Kazakhstan, and he travels around the United States pretending that he doesn’t know our social norms, and he breaks many of them. In one scene he walks the streets of New York City and starts talking to strangers. Some of the strangers get so unnerved that they literally run away from him. Then—as passersby gasp in horror--he squats down in the bushes in front of Trump Tower to go to the bathroom.

What’s the take home message of this line of research? Norms are as much a part of social life as air and water are of physical life—they are everywhere, and we can’t live without them.

In fact, I can’t think of any social behavior that is not guided by norms. Can you? That’s why there will always be room for sociologists and our breaching experiments.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Grocery Shopping, Ordering Whoppers, and Borat:


Somebody I know used to think it was funny to breach the norm by standing in an elevator facing the others who were facing forward. It was interesting to see the various nervous reactions of some people or the way people would avoid eye contact with this norm breaker. Nobody ever complained or said anything, pretty funny and harmless.

Norms are so critical in our everyday lives because people are socialized. Norms sets the standards so people know what is right and what is wrong. If you don’t want to be excluded from society, you must follow the rule. If you act strange, people will stay away from you. It is understandable, because people want to stay within their own group where everybody is the same. For example, if there is a group of people that grow up in the city, there came a person that come from rural. People will stay away from that person because the different backgrounds there are different norms. That person might got weird “norm” where people might not understand. People want everybody to be the same so they can predict what other people might think or act.
Sanctions related to norms because if you want to act certain way, you must get other people’s approval. If not you must accept the consequences after that. The consequences are sometimes small, sometimes big, sometimes good, and sometimes bad. It is on you own risk if you doing something that’s not sanctions by people. Because people don’t want to be punished, so they act the same and set the norms.

I watched a video in my pyschology class about norms and as you mentioned about how your friend turns around in the elevator there was an experiment on that. It showed that if instead of just one person turning around facing opposite of the door they had two or three and when other people got in the elevator they looked at them funny and did not want to be the only person facing forward so they would simply turn around and face the direction that the others were facing. It was pretty funny.

Just one question: how to add your blog into my rrs reader, thanks so much.

This was interesting. People usually do not want to be the odd ball because of the fact that sooo many people are critical of others. It is possible that some choose to break social norms just to stand out and be different where other people choose to follow the social guidlines for appropriate behavior hoping to be accepted. I have to comment on the blog about the elevator, I think that would definitly be interesting. Not sure how I would react.

well lets see we don't want to offend people with unnorm behaviors. How do you see women letting there little boys out to use the p.p. hehehe that seems to be a normal thing now some people say aw ahhh how cute on the other hand it is a shock to others. a adult does p.p. outside it is a big no no unnormal to the fifth power. That is the whole point of bathroom but whos to say its not unnorm to someone else. If one doesn't know norm and unnorm how are they to care themself correctly.

"A civilization is a heritage of beliefs, customs, and knowledge slowly accumulated in the course of centuries, elements difficult at times to justify by logic, but justifying themselves as paths when they lead somewhere, since they open up for man his inner distance."
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I think that maybe it's that im from the southeastern a good old Alabamian i can not see past my what i think is right, its just part of my make up. thing that are norm you dont have to ask how would i react but why you can not just say ok im good or thats cool the unnorm stand out for it's self you have to look and see ....i dont know i just cant stand that movie Borat!

I think that norms really do shape our society. Can you imagine not opening the door for someone or running through a grocery store?, you probably can not. These norms are things we face every day, but in reality we do not really realize we are doing them. These things are just routine behaviors that all people do. It is neat to picture what the world would be like without the norms that we take part in all the time.

Norms are so critical in our everyday lives because we might not want to break anybodies space or temper. Sanctions can be like fines for breaking norms of everyday society and you do not want to do that to anybody.

Norms are highly important to our everyday life. Norms are our rules and guidelines with out them we could very much get into trouble or even hurt. If you spend your days breaking norms then you may very much lose people close to you because of envading their space.

Some people due tend to break the norm. For example most americans have a certain degree of space between each other during conversation. I knew this guy that would just get nose to nose with you when speaking. I remember when he walk up to me talking how uneasy it may be felt. Although I kept being polite while he was talking the only thing I could think of was dude please your in my space.

No shirt no shoes no service. This is a norm that would shock people. go to work with no shirt on. go to class with no shoes and no shirt. It is totally ok for men to work in the front yard topless. No one would think twice about seeing a man with his shirt off cutting his grass or digging a ditch. But go to sunday school with no shirt one and see what happens.

I agree with the comment about the norm no shirt no shoes no service and how it's ok for a man to go outside topless but not to work.

Norms are cirtical because its part of life and people expect you to know what the right thing to do is. If you do something people are not use to you will get a negative reaction because they are not use to it. You act certain ways at certain places and thats what people expect and people hate changes.

Norms are important to keep order to things. Without them life would be pretty crazy. It is okay to bend but not break them. People that go outside the norm are less likely to get the same response as somebody who doesnt go outside them. Not that that makes them a bad person or anything.

Norms are how people act when being considerate. Sanctions and norms both act in the same matter. I mean, yes sanctions are punishable and worse bur norms have there own consequences without being legal consequences. For example, lets say if you were to go out with friends and yell across the restraunt, throw food or all in all act like a jerk you probably will not be asked to join those people again. Common curtesy is exspected when in public. If not being asked out again is the consequence, areent you being punished?

Norms in my opinion is are the way people usually act when their not trying to impress or show up someone.Sanctions are their to curb bad behavior or deter an act from reoccuring.

Norms are important because they keep chaos down. With out norms the crime rate would probably go up. We know life is not fair but somethings you just don't do. Sactions and norms are one in the same of something is not acceptable it is probably not normal.

The things that we do in our daily lives are normal to us because that is what we have been taught from day one. It would be strange to live one day completely opposite of our social norm. Just think about not wearing clothes or going to the store and not paying or going to work and not doing your job. That would just be weird!

Norms have a lot to do with being polite and considering of others. Also has to do with making people feel comfortable. This is essential in keeping order and avoiding chaos in everyday life. Sanctions are a direct consequence of doing or not doing a norm so to speak. It could be bad or good. Sanctions ensure or establish social control.

Norms are so critical because when somebody breaks them, it can often exclude them from society because they are viewed as "weird" or "strange". People naturally react negatively to someone doing something out of the ordinary or it makes people uneasy or uncomfortable. Sanctions can relate to norms because sanctions are mechanisms of social control and norms do have some kind of control on social life and society in that they guide how we act and interact in our daily lives.

I never knew there were so many social norms. This brought me to a new way of thinking. Before I just looked at it as normal behavior or conduct. Now I see it as proper etiquette or manners. My question is, If it's not illegal but still considered wrong will it be a point in time when the government will enforce small social interaction laws controlling this behavior? If so, how far will they take it? Will speech try to be controlled? Touching? If that happens this will no longer be America, the land of opportunity!

I always thought of norms as society trying to control the population. It's hard to conform to a society that contradicts its self.

I never really knew there were so many social norms! If someone done that to me in a grocery store, i honestly would be speechless!! I did work in a fast food restaurant and have someone order something that was clearly not served there, but they were jsut being rude obnoxious teenage boys!

Norms are what define "normalcy" and determine who is so called "strange." Sanctions are what creates social control in a society and guide how people live their daily lives.

Norms means basically normal if we didnt have these rules and regulations every thing would most likely be chaotic. Everyone needs social control

I have to be honest, I think it's hilarious when somebody breaks a norm. Think about all those teenagers, or others, who go into Wal-mart with the idea that they're going to put "condoms" or other such things in a person's cart without the other knowing. I believe that is breaking norm, and people seem to think it is acceptable behavior. Well, should it be any different if somebody takes an item out of a cart, or if someone decides to urinate in front of you? What makes doing one thing acceptable, but doing another unacceptable? Someone, somewhere, had to decide that it's unacceptable for some things, but it's ok to do the other. Who decides that this acceptable or not? Norms may be important in our lives, but who gets to decide what's the norm and what's not?

Norms are critical in our society because we have to have a scense of normalcy. General people dont like to feel like there different, but i know not the reason why.

Norms are so critical to our everyday lives because a norm is trying to do what is right and in the best interest of everyone. We survive in this life most successfully by maintaining a clear conscience that is void of offense toward our fellow man.

Sanctions are related to norms because our norms should be in response to what is permitted and lawful. We should strive for our norms to be as right as possible for not only ourselves, but for all that we influence.

Breaching the norm sounds like something actors and comedians get paid to do every day: Make people laugh or be entertained. You have to conform to society's rules and yes we do have people who uphold these sanctions but going against normal aspects of society definitely is a plus in my eyes.

I think that social norms are important in our lives and do shape our society. Many social norms of stuff that you just dont do is many times involve having manners and being respectful. I have noticed several occassions when social norms are broken, people are trying to be cute, and act funny or stupid. But our societies social norms are not in stone so i guess it is ok.

If we didn't have social norms there would be chaos. If you break the rules many people would think that you were joking, but would know that it wasn't right to do so to say. Social norms in one society could be very different from Social norms in another society.

Norms are important in our everyday lives because they help us to maintain social order. There is an unspoken set of guidelines that people follow, because they know it is what they are supposed to do or they know it is what they should not do. Everyone knows to cover their mouths when coughing in public, and everyone knows it is wrong to kill a person. Sanctions are related to norms in that they are the direct consequence of these norms. These consequences can be either postive or negative depending on the nature of the norm that was broken.

norms and sanctions are the most basic part of society!! and they are what make the world have control instead of utter ciaos!!!! but people will push the norms and sanctions of a society until there are none really left then we will experience utter ciaos!!

I have always breach norms, I would go through a drive in in order something another resturant serve and laugh onece corrected, I always hang around people others may would'nt get caught dead with. I have a strong sanction and have always been able to control myself.

Norms keep a sense of normalness in our lives> like things that we can count on happening and things that we know we have to do. Sanctions are the positive or negative ways people react to norms.

Norms create order in our everyday lives. If we didn't have norms, our life would be chaotic. But I guess if we had no norms, that would be our norm and people would be used to it. Crime would definitely be up. Sanctions are greatly related to norms because they are what keeps the norms in check. If someone breaks the norms, they are punished with a sanction.

Norms are highly imporant in our society. It is not nothing strange at all. This is just something from day to day living.

There is a lot of different norms and I believed that everyone is taught the normal norms when we are toddlers. If you do the abnormal in society, you will be laughed out. I also believed that society is controlling on how we live your lives.

I think norms are important to our society. I think things would be a little out of control if we did not have norms.

Norms are so critical in our everdays lives because norms is something that we all were taught or just know to do.Norms are how people act when trying to be polite. Sanctions and norms both act in the same matter.

Norms are the way people act to prevent negative consequence. Sanctions are actions taken to enforce the social norms. Some norms are more strict than others. Simple things like having pink hair and tattoos are things people do to stand apart from those people conforming to the norms. I Believe sanctions are more important however, because sanctions are used to enforce norms such as laws that are set in place for the safety of our citizens.

There are countless social norms, and they differ greatly from place to place. One exaample I can think of is in the South, children have been raised for some time now to respond to adults by yes or no ma'am or sir; but this can be considered disrespectful to people in certain parts of the Northern United States. Social norms have their benifits, but some can be just downright annoying.

norms are a very big part of our lives. Without them the world would be just a strange place. I never really thought to think of how people work like that without any realizations. Many people will try to change or break the norms but they always go back to the norms or they wont be accepted in our society

Norms are very critical and essential in our everyday lives. If every one broke the norms we would have total chaos. Everyone is custom to certain behavior and certain actions. If you go around breaking these norms then nothing would get done. Everyone would be complaining about the norm breakers and not focusing on anything else. Sanctions are also important because there should be consequences for breaking certain norms. Killing someone definetly needs a sanction. We do not want people to think it is ok to do such a thing.

Define Normal. Who says that the normal is normal? I have often pondered this quiestion. If I am unusual because my hair is blue, does that mean that I am considered abnormal? Who says that blue hair isn't normal? Who are they to decide what is normal and what isn't? Why does their opinion have such an impact on how I feel about my blue hair. Maybe blue is my favorite color and I just like blue hair. Does that mean that I am out of the norm?

Norms are rules we think everybody should follow. If we didn't have norms the world would be a crazy place to live in because people would do whatever they want.

Norms are critical in everyday life because they give people structure. Just as the government is structured so are people. We are not just born into this world knowing all the norms. They are learned through our environment. The sanctions of norms are things such as if you run a stop sign you will get a ticket. There are always consequences to every action you make whether good or bad these are called sanctions.

this is funny to me because all your life you hear a certain way in which things go and if u dont agree u have to deal with it until you are old enough to do things your way. people do things differently to stand out or just have the time to be funny. for example i work at popeyes and you will always have this one customer to say "can i have an order of boneless wings with a side of okra" because we are in comp with KFC and Churches and i go are they trying to be funny or what?

In my opinion, norms aren't necessarily a good or bad thing. As long as we aren't following a norm as a means of harming ourselves or hurting others, they are really just a part of everyday life. Everyone follows norms to a certain extent no matter what society they are a part of or where they are from. It's the way people are raised and all in all, norms are easier to follow rather than break away from.

I never realized how our lives are defined by all the norms we are expected to live by. I suppose we all know right from wrong but I never really thought about how we just know how to act in a class or at the movie theater. It was quite an eye opener to really understand that all this social behaviour is taught to us as soon as we are old enough understand right from wrong.

How does a researcher know what is "normal" and what isn't? That is the million dollar question. What is normal to one may not be normal to another. How do we, we referring to researchers, distinguish between what is "normal?”

if you go for grocery shopping you have shopping list. this list helps you in shopping. this is the right way for shopping. this is nice blog..!

I appreciated what we did here. I enjoyed every little bit some of it. I am always trying to find informative information this way. Thanks for sharing around.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

Terrible Magnificent Sociology

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More


Learn More

« Don't Be Sick in a Hospital! | Main | Consuming Happiness »