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Davis, California

Friday, April 19, 2024

Breaking Norms: Table Manners


The definition of ‘social norms’ was reiterated to me recently in my psychology class — they are “expected standards of conduct in a society that drive members’ social behavior.”

The way I see it, social norms are just begging to be broken. I mean, why do random rules of social conduct even exist and who put them into effect? Was it some sort of collective team effort, devised by a kind of mainstream coalition? Or do social norms come to exist simply out of popularity of performance?

One intriguing social norm concerns table manners. There are so many rules around how to conduct yourself at the table, so I thought I’d break a few to see how people would respond.

It’s noteworthy to mention that I’m a freshman, so eating at the DC is a daily occurrence and also is the perfect place to break social norms.

I spotted two guys sitting together at a table in the Cuarto DC. They were immersed in a conversation and I approached their table without making eye contact or asking if I could sit with them. Instead, I just pulled out a chair, sat down and started to eat my bowl of cereal.

I wanted to see how people would react if a complete stranger just decided to sit at their table.

The two guys abruptly stopped their conversation as soon as they realized that I was actually going to sit at their table. For nearly 20 seconds — nothing. I kept quiet to myself until the guy to my right nervously said “Heyy, how’s it going?” I responded, but then quickly returned my focus back to my cereal, further confusing the two guys.

Nick, the guy to my right, flat out said, “I’ve never had someone I don’t know sit at my table before.”

Mission accomplished. Social norm confirmed.

After introductions were made and a conversation started, I told Nick and my other new BFF James that I was performing a social experiment. Nick, feeling relieved, said “Ohh! That makes it so much less creepy.”

“Creepy?” I’d say that’s a normal way to respond to what I did. But why is that the standard? The answer is because we’re told that you can’t just sit down at any table you want without asking because that would be, dare I say, absurd.

That would make people feel uncomfortable. This is one of those norms that could easily be swept away and forgotten if we just put our minds past how potentially awkward sitting with strangers could be.

Nick and James admitted that they were extremely confused as to what the hell I was doing, and it even ran through Nick’s mind that he had met me before but had forgotten who I was. That’s how unlikely he thought it was that a random person would just come sit at their table.

Soon enough, I was on to my next target: a group of four guys eating on the couch in the middle of the DC. After I sat down and made some eye contact with them, one guy actually got so uncomfortable that he stood up and left, only to return again as I was leaving. One of the others told me he just felt really awkward.

It just goes to show how surprised and overwhelmingly confused people feel when they’re confronted with this scenario.

Another social norm that I decided to break was the proper eating technique. Not too many people deviate from the social norms that accompany mealtime.

So, I got creative. Instead of drinking my Diet Coke from a cup, I poured my soda into a bowl and used a pink umbrella straw that I supplied myself. The people at my table and those passing by gave me weird looks, of course.

Because “why??” would I do that, as a friend inquired. Why? Well, it works. I stayed hydrated.

I also decided to have some fun with mealtime by “bobbing” for my own apples. I got two apples, placed them in a bowl, submerged them in water and was going to attempt to work for my food.

However, right before I was about to dunk my face in, I was stopped by “What the f*** are you doing, Savannah?” That was the voice of society scolding me for veering away from normal eating behaviors.

Just like the apples in the water, that comment was saturated with negative judgment. And the intriguing thing is, that’s a completely normal and appropriate response to my behavior at the table.

When seeing people violate the unwritten rules of social conduct, it’s normal to respond in a shocked way. That’s why people don’t commonly go against them.

If you want to play hot potato with the pancakes at the DC, contact SAVANNAH HOLMES at skholmes@ucdavis.edu.


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