August 02, 2012

Informal Social Control and Knowing When it's Time to Go

ksternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

If you’ve ever thrown a party, you’ve likely had guests that overstay their welcome. What’s a polite host to do?

  1. Nothing: they are your guests and as host you have an obligation to entertain them as long as they want to stay.
  2. Ask them to leave: why be subtle when it is late and you’re ready to go to sleep?
  3. 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 optionclip_image002 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).

clip_image004I 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. IMG_0303

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?


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Informal Social Control and Knowing When it's Time to Go:


I am great fan of your blog.Every time i come here i see something very new.Thanks for sharing the information.

There is always those couple of stragglers at the party that never seem to get the message at the subtle hints. Option 2 is the most effective way to get people to leave, but we all have learn how to leave from the way our family raised us. Some families have taught people better to pick up on the queues then others.

I have been there and done that. There are always those stragglers who are their for an after party social time where all they want to do is talk and talk. But i do agree the best step to this problem is to simply state to them that you are tired and though it was a great party your ready to go to bed have a safe trip home.

At any party you will always have those few people that are willing to stay until you make them leave. I guess once you consume too much alcohol the whole idea of overstaying your welcome goes out the window. You can drop hints all night long but for the most part the party will go on until you tell them it is time to settle down and get some sleep. If they are done living it up, then they will either crash on the floor or the couch. If your guests would rather continue the party, usually one of the stragglers will chime in and say it can be moved on over to their place. I guess my advice would be tell them your are going to bed and the party is done here they can carry it somewhere else if they pleased.

I have learned my lesson when it came to having any type of engagement. The best advice I can give is, if you the type of person that just can't say no, then hold your parties at a venue that ends when you want them to. This way the blame of "party pooping" is not solely in your lap. If you are the other type of person that can say no but nobody listens then what you do is announce the ending of your party 45 minutes before the end, then 30 minutes before it ends and finally 10 minutes before it ends start the clean up and shut everything down.(,lights and doors)

I enjoyed this article. It describes how people try to do what they think is right to impress others so well.

Some people inform social control by calling the cops on others. But that would be an extream measure. when u go to a concert you are experiencing formal and informal control. They have a certain time that the concert lets out and you're expected to leave.But if you dont there is security and police to make you leave anyway.

This is quite an interesting topic. I have found myself doing all three ways; I've done nothing, asked them to leave and drop hints. However most of the time when we have a group of people over I do nothing. After a long while when people stay past 3 then I start to drop hints and eventually asked them to leave or I just go to bed. I feel that either way you end a party, some people that are not as close friends to you will take it the wrong way. You can't always satisfy everyone.

Quite interesting.. keep up the work...

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

« Everday Sociology Talk: Sharon Zukin on Global Shopping | Main | Everyday Sociology Talk: Thinking Sociologically about Rap Music »