Good Example Of Breaking Norms: Making An Elevator An Uncomfortable Place Report
One sociological norm that has been amusingly investigated is the way people stand in an elevator. The norm is to stand facing the “front”, or the elevator door. To face “backwards” would be seen as unusual, strange and “incorrect.” As a form of social control, social pressure to stand the ‘right way” can be analyzed a number of ways. It is practical – you can see the displays and buttons telling you what floor you are on. It also is part of a herd mentality, humans do not want to stand out. It is uncomfortable to stand in a position that makes you look “weird.” Also, when the elevator opens, people see your back, which just odd. It violates the “wisdom of the crowd,” which has reached a logical societal consensus on how to stand in an elevator. Overall, it is simply not a “normal” way to stand on an elevator, and therefore seen as different, which can be threatening to society.
My hypothesis is that in an elevator with only one person standing backwards, other passengers (subjects) will maintain a traditional forward facing position and may confront the backward facing passenger. I will attempt a modified replication of this experiment by standing facing the rear of an elevator alone, and record the behavior and responses of fellow elevator passengers. I will try two variations for this experiment. I will be present and alone, and have subject(s) join me for the first version. Then I will join an elevator with subjects already present. I will observe and record the mannerisms, gestures and other behaviors of the other elevator passengers. Since I will not be part of a majority, which encourages conformity, but a minority, I expect to be confronted about my behavior. At the very least, I expect curiosity or a measure of uneasiness on the part of my fellow elevator passengers. Furthermore, I expect more “social anxiety” when I join an elevator with subjects already present. They will feel more comfortable and entitled to make majority group decisions and enforce norms, if they are in the majority.
The actual norm breaking in this experiment is simply standing backwards in an elevator in three different social situations. Subjects could see me, but it was hard to observe them. One of the biggest challenges of the experiment was timing. For version one of the experiment, It was important to be alone, later I had to join a group. For the physical locations I used three different elevator locations on the NIU campus. The first location was the Grant Towers, large student housing towers with multiple elevators. Version one of my experiment, standing alone, started around 1pm, on the ground floor. I was initially joined by a male and female couple in their early-20’s, they were involved in a conversation, which ended abruptly and followed by an awkward silence by the time the doors were closed. Because I was facing backwards (a major limitation for observation), I would occasionally glance backwards using peripheral vision. The trip was 7 floors, with no interruptions, and at one point the male said “yeah”, and the female said “hmm”, but there was no additional conversation. Next, I joined an elevator from the ground floor with seven passengers, it was full, so I was able to face the rear while looking at the other passengers. This created a more tense social situation. The other riders all immediately look down to the floor, lowering their gaze and all stopped conversation, except for two males in their early twenties who continued talking. My final conclusion from Grant Towers was that version two introduced much more “social anxiety” into the elevator.
At Stevenson Towers I conducted similar experiments in a similar social setting. For version one, three students entered independently, and the only observable behavior was they stood further away from me than other passengers. They were in a “clump” on one side of the elevator. For version two, I joined four riders, three young men and a women in their early 20’s, who were in a group and faced them facing the rear of the elevator. Again, an observation was the immediate and marked lowering of their gaze. There was no eye contact. However, they did continue their conversation, about eating.
Finally, I used the smaller Neptune Hall for the last social setting of my elevator experiment. Since this building was much smaller, with stairs, there were less passengers using the elevators. Standing alone, and joined by two young women in their early 20’s, there was complete silence for two floors. However, when the subjects exited the elevator, they laughed loudly, and one said “freaky.” This was the only verbal recognition I recorded during the experiment. When I joined a group of two young Asian men, there was again, avoidance of eye contact and a distancing effect. They moved as far away from me as possible in the elevator.
As I expected the subjects did not turn around to face the rear. They just physically moved away slightly and lowered their gaze. The level of social anxiety was higher when I entered an already occupied elevator and confronted the passengers face to face with my social norm disruption. If I was alone, and they entered the elevator, there was no direct contact. When I joined a full elevator, and stood in the front, facing backwards was when the passengers expressed the most social anxiety, which they expressed with avoiding eye contact, lowering their gaze, and stopping conversation. Subjects would move away from my proximity slightly on all six occasions. Violating this norm made me feel extremely nervous and awkward, particularly when I had to face seven passengers who were already present. It felt like a confrontation. I was highly aware that what I was doing was weird, and made me stand out. I expected more subjects to verbally address the norm-breaking, but the only words I recorded was “freaky”, and I did feel a little like a freak. The majority of subjects seemed to ignore the situation as much as possible.
Something I found interesting was my own reaction to norm breaking. It was a much bigger deal to me, than the subjects, who just seemed to be vaguely uncomfortable about. Social norms are so ingrained into individuals, that to be a real rule breaker or a rebel – of even just eccentric – can be very difficult for some people. Norms also establish what is normal behavior and has a social lubricating effect, making social situations more comfortable for everyone. For example, people stand a certain distance apart on elevators to create “personal space.” My presence seemed to disrupt this practice, and made the elevator uncomfortable. Because of this, my ultimate conclusion that breaking some social norms is just disrespectful and bad manners, which makes society a little less civilized for everyone.
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