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Monday, April 22, 2024

Breaking Norms: Expect the unexpected

mug_holmesOn my quest for answers to the age-old quandary of why social norms exist and how they came to be, I discovered not only that society implemented these standards long ago for arbitrary reasons, but also that they can easily be broken and repaired for kinks.

By this I mean that social norms are based off of what a society as a whole deems proper and acceptable — whether that concerns behavior, public decency or mannerisms — and it’s easy to deviate from those standards, but it comes at a cost. And that cost is the judgment that lingers in the air after one breaks social norms, which can also come in the form of weird looks from strangers, peeved responses from friends and an overall adaptation of how people view you.

Throughout Spring Quarter, I did some odd things that I’ve personally never witnessed before. I wanted to elicit responses from students on campus when I broke free from the constraints of the (technically unwritten) rules of social conduct.

I may have scared some people, evoked fear or awe in others, annoyed a few and made most people question what my intentions were. Some responses were very visible and others were more low-key and nonchalant. Some people verbalized their confusion about my actions, while others silently gawked in the corner.

This experience taught me that there’s a fine line between acceptable and unacceptable social behavior. Some actions may just be qualified as weird or abnormal, while others have been deemed inappropriate and unthinkable.

You can figure out the difference between these two types of situations by the types of responses that are fabricated.

If people stare, but continue on without much more than a second glance, then it’s most likely something that’s considered odd, but not totally absurd. If people stop what they’re doing to look at you, point to their friends, call their mom to tell them about it and then post something on Facebook, then it’s going to be an action that people in society don’t often witness.

The bulk of my actions were from the latter of the two categories. Many people participate in “weird” actions or tasks around campus, but not as many are out there breaking social norms.

I confirmed that people really appreciate their personal space, substantiated the norm concerning table manners, gave way to the expectations of gym-goers and validated that spontaneous movement is often unexpected and confusing when executed in a calm, public atmosphere of strangers.

I embarked on this tantalizing journey knowing full well that people would be surprised and confused by my actions, but what I wanted to find out was how far I’d have to go to really stun people.

Like I said before, there’s a line drawn in the sand somewhere.

With personal space, that line clearly lies at the mark of physical contact. With table manners, it’s a very jagged line that gets blurred by feisty children in the sandbox. For me, the line appeared as soon as I sat down at strangers’ tables. With gym etiquette, I’d say the line develops right when you pull the dress over your head and the pink pajama pants up your legs before a workout. And with spontaneous movement, I discovered the line lies right before you startle people with ninja-like parkour skills out of nowhere between classes.

Breaking these social norms was a blast and hopefully I’ve given someone out there a fun story to tell their friends about. And remember, norms are easy to break once you accept that people may respond differently to your apparently absurd actions.

However, we must also remember that it’s okay to give people a bit of entertainment. Like they say on Broadway, the show must go on.

SAVANNAH HOLMES can be contacted at skholmes@ucdavis.edu if you want to know why she’s a rebel without a cause, or even if you have your own story about breaking social norms to share with her.



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