Saulsman: Awareness of social norms gives you a sense of will

Last Thursday, Alan Grigsby’s Introduction to Sociology class performed a sociological demonstration called “The Doing Nothing Activity.” In this activity, students, myself included, were asked to demonstrate social deviance in the Tinkham Veale University Center cafeteria during prime lunch hours.

In waves of about 20 students every half hour, onlookers in the university center experienced some discomfort. Students stood completely still in the middle of the walkway, remained unmoving in between tables or leaned against walls motionless. Surrounding members of the community looked at us with confusion, bewilderment and believe it or not, fear. Who knew doing nothing could cause such a ruckus?

The point of this activity was to demonstrate the concept of social norms, or unspoken rules about what is appropriate in social or public situations. The norm highlighted in this situation governs how people act when they are in public. Even if we are not doing anything, we are fidgeting, fixing our hair or playing on our phones. People are so unaccustomed to seeing other people do absolutely nothing when in a public setting that they do not know how to respond. They do not understand. And when we don’t understand something, we fear it. We deem it suspicious.

When asked repeatedly by random students and faculty, “What are you doing?”, the demonstrators were not allowed to say anything other than designated response. Specified by the instructor, we were only permitted to respond with, “I am doing nothing.” Unable to fully grasp what the group of demonstrators were doing, onlookers began to wonder. “Are you okay?” “Are you protesting?” “I am doing nothing.”

The reluctance to believe that we, the demonstrators, had no ulterior motive for standing completely still for roughly ten minutes coincided with the belief that social norms guide our behaviors. Social norms require that in order to appear “normal” or “right-minded” we must not sit in complete solidarity.

The other part of the demonstration was to notice how doing nothing made us, the participators, feel. Try standing completely still in a public place for ten minutes. You’ll find, as did I, that it is a very hard thing to do. I constantly fought the urge to touch my hair, play with my bracelet on my wrist or talk to the other demonstrators. I experienced the same discomfort from doing nothing as the onlookers, and I was in on it. The experience made me realize how much the social norm affected me and my mannerisms. I notice now that I cannot sit still if my life depended on it.

Social norms are a part of social structure, and awareness of these norms helps us to be educated about why we act the way we do. It gives us the opportunity to defy them. If I am performing in a certain way and I know why, I know I have a sense of will regarding my actions. Will I choose to wear clothes today? I now have the empowerment of knowing that yes, I will wear clothes, but I will wear them because of the way it makes me feel and not because I am blindly succumbing to societal morals.

With this, I challenge you to defy a social norm and see how it affects you. Does it make you uncomfortable to stand still for ten minutes? Do you feel judged when you stand facing away from the elevator? Become aware of the social norms governing your actions. Defy them. See how it feels. It might empower you. It might give you a sense of will. After all, what are rules if they’re never questioned?

Courtney is a first-year student majoring in psychology. And maybe sociology. And maybe cognitive science. One of her talents includes not being able to decide what she wants to do in life.