October 04, 2021

I Have Questions about Norms!

Todd SchoepflinBy Todd Schoepflin

Each time I mow my lawn, I think about norms. It sounds silly, but the phrase “conventional mowing hours” comes to mind when I’m deciding what time to cut the grass. I’ve lived in my current neighborhood for ten years. I’ve rarely seen anyone mow before 9:00 a.m. I’d be going out of my way to irritate my neighbors if I mowed at 7:00 or 8:00 in the morning. We learn through observation and social interaction what’s considered to be socially acceptable behavior. A lot of norms operate as unwritten rules about what we should and shouldn’t do in everyday life.

When you intentionally break social norms, you might generate interesting reactions. Breaching experiments demonstrate the power of social norms, as explained in this post by Bradley Wright. It would be a breaching experiment to cut my lawn using scissors, or to fire up the lawnmower at midnight. If you’ve ever watched Impractical Jokers, you understand what breaching experiments look like.

A key point about norms is that they guide our behavior. I can’t recall seeing a student walking barefoot across the campus where I work. There’s no university policy against being barefoot, but the norm of wearing shoes structures our behavior even though no formal rule prohibits walking without shoes. A breaching experiment would be to walk across campus barefoot in snow during winter. I’d caution against it though. Whatever insights we might gain wouldn’t be worth the possibility of frostbite.

And now, my questions.

  1. Do you think there is a norm of availability? In other words, are you expected to immediately respond to text messages? For example, do you get mad when you don’t get a reply to a text within an hour? I’m curious if people feel pressure to respond as soon as possible to text messages. Think of it this way: if a friend sends you a message, how soon are you supposed to respond? What do different situations tell us about expectations about being available and responsive? A related norm is the expectation to give more than a one- or two- word response. I recently learned the term “dry texting” from a student. If I understand this norm correctly, it’s considered rude to reply to a text with only a few words or to be boring in the way you text. Want to know if you’re a dry texter? There’s a quiz for that, of course!
  2. If you plan to get married, do you think you’ll keep your last name? In an article on this subject, sociologist Laurie Scheuble is quoted as saying the pressure exerted on women to change their maiden name “is the strongest gendered social norm that we enforce and expect.” What are reasons you’d prefer to keep your last name if and when you get married? If you’ve already been married, what factored into your decision to keep or change your name? I like to ask my students if they’d consider using a hyphenated name and what they think the hyphen symbolizes. A common answer is the hyphen is a symbol of equality. A student in my Introduction to Sociology class this semester said the hyphen is like a combination of two people. Thinking of it that way, two people could use a plus sign between their names instead of a hyphen!
  3. Folks, have you been shaking hands during the pandemic? For a little while I thought the elbow bump or fist bump might serve as a suitable replacement. But shaking hands to greet someone is a durable norm. When I run into coworkers on campus I haven’t seen in a while due to the pandemic, many are quick to extend their hands (in most cases, men). I recently went to a wake and easily shook a dozen hands (all of them men). Despite all of the reorienting of behavior the pandemic has caused, handshakes are still a major way people seek to establish connection. Audrey Nelson suggests the handshake can be understood as a nonverbal cue of inequality, considering that women are often excluded from handshakes. At an early age, boys are taught to give firm handshakes. She writes: “A homophobic meaning may underlie this training: If you have a wimpy handshake it means you’re a wimpy guy.” What do your observations and experiences tell you about gendered meanings of handshakes?
  1. What norms govern the exchange of sympathy? That’s a question from one of my favorite all-time journal articles, “Sympathy Biography and Sympathy Margin” by Candace Clark. As Clark recognized, norms influence how we give and receive sympathy. She identified sympathy etiquette in her research that’s been socially constructed. For example, you’re not supposed to make false claims to get sympathy. This means you shouldn’t cry wolf or manipulate people in your social world. Nor should we claim sympathy “too often” or “too much.” Like Clark says, we aren’t allotted unlimited sympathy. The article is from 1987. When I teach the article, I like to ask students what are the ways we give sympathy in our digital era? We can still send sympathy cards in the mail, but we have lots of ways to exchange sympathy using technology. What examples come to mind?
  2. Tattoos are a good subject area to explore what’s considered the norm and what might be construed as deviant. Think of people who are heavily tattooed. What kinds of reactions do they get in public, and how do their family members respond? Do heavily tattooed women receive more negative reactions than heavily tattooed men? With each passing year, it seems like workplaces are more accepting of workers having tattoos. In the places you’ve worked, how have your co-workers and bosses responded to your tattoos? If you’re interested in the sociology of tattoos, check out sociologist Beverly Yuen Thompson’s film Covered and her book Covered in Ink: Tattoos, Women and the Politics of the Body.
  3. My last question is brief: what’s a norm you wish would change? Why?


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