Norms are rules which created by people who dominate in the society with the intention of keeping stable order and a balanced system of actions with certain incentives and consequences. However, after conducting this experiment of breaking a social norm, I can confidently agree with sociologists and critics who conclude that the system is not well-balanced after all. In fact, it is heavily infected with biases and the greed for dominance which can only result if the minorities or subculture groups are made to feel inferior and stigmatized. From the way we walk, talk, eat and dress, every aspect of our daily lives is controlled by these norms and those who fail to understand them are considered to be the minorities which must be looked down upon or rejected. For my experiment, I broke a social norm dealing with the physical appearance, specifically dressing.
At a formal dinner party, which took place at a restaurant and afterwards proceeded to a close family friend’s home, I adamantly decided to wear snow gloves and a snowboarding hat as accessories for my formal outfit. I put the accessories on during the dessert course, which lasted about half an hour, and continued wearing them for about twenty minutes more at the house, where drinks and more desserts were served. While at the restaurant, everyone complimented me on my appearance and people were having a great time that is until dessert. As the waiter served us, I noisily opened my bag in order to attract attention and put the hat and gloves on. No one really noticed until they happened to look at me. Once they did, their stares lingered.
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Some of the men did not even notice and when they looked at me, they stopped for a moment and shrugged off any thoughts and moved on to enjoying their evening. Only a few males made comments which immediately depicted their nature and made the saying true: ’’Boys will always be boys’’. I noticed that when men are faced with uncomfortable social situations, their way of coping with them is making jokes or inappropriate comments which their peers find extremely funny. For instance, one gentleman made a comment as I passed by, “Look who’s trying to be Ashley Olsen!” The comment received great appreciation from the “buddies.” The women were not so forgetful.
I would like to divide the women’s reaction into multiple stages with the first stage being the one in which they simply stared. Some of them never passed the initial stage and went about their personal activities. However, others progressed to the second stage which was pairing the stares with uncomfortable and awkward smiles. During the third stage, those who simply could not help themselves, approached me, looking for the perfect moment to bring up my appearance. Not surprisingly, the hostess was the first to do so. The fourth stage comprised of the ladies providing suggestions as to why I might be dressed in such a manner, almost as if comforting their own false notions.
Their concerns ranged from my well-being to what other people will think of my strange behavior including whether I was suffering from some sort of an allergic reaction, hiding physical flaws or simply suffering from a terrible sense of fashion. Of course, the hostess was keen about the impression I was leaving on the accompanying guests and the negative way in which I had ruined a perfectly great party. These concerns and my reaction led to the fifth stage of the social reaction which was when the women could not help expressing their opinions about me, making me act according to their wishes. At this point I realized that these grown women were uncomfortable and most of all, unsatisfied with my dressing. They were simply not pleased.
Furthermore, the nonconformity I was forcing the guests to accept was too much for the occasion. The reactions which started from being curious turned into distastefulness and aggressive behavior. Were these people threatened by me? I realized that it was not me that threatened them but the concept of a change, whether it was positive or negative. The change I was asking them to make was too different and they had not been taught or programmed to deal with it. When the atmosphere started to fill up with an unusual essence of hostility, I decided to cut the experiment short by five minutes and give in to the pressure, so I told them the truth about the experiment.
I do not remember what reaction I was expecting, as I was surrounded by a group of bloodthirsty predators. At first, there was no reaction which followed an endless series of redundant reactions including gasps, sighs of relief and comments about the silliness of the assignment. Yes, even the education system was attacked because of my gloves and hat. Some women laughed and told me that they knew I could never have such a terrible sense of fashion. After achieving the satisfaction they were looking for, the swarm of angry women left me alone and continued gossiping with other guests.
Left alone once again, I tried to evaluate what just had happened. When the ladies had asked me why I was dressed so oddly, I did not give them any solid answers before telling the truth. I simply stated that it was my choice and I felt like it. A few women were persistent to such lengths that I blurted out that I was following a family cultural practice in order for them to stop asking me. I realized that the group was asserting social control, both directly and indirectly. Goffman talks about this concept of asserting one’s demands on another, “Typically, we do not become aware that we have made these demands or aware of what they are until an active question rises as to whether or not they will be fulfilled” (Goffman 2). It was almost as if they were trying to “fix” me, which reminded me of ’’the white man’s burden’’ concept I learned in the history class. The supremacy of one group allows them to set certain standards and norms for everyone else and it becomes the supreme group’s duty to educate people about the right way of living.
Before putting on the gloves and the hat, it is true that I was dreading the experience but then I soothed myself by reminding myself that it is merely a piece of cloth and a silly social dress rule. To be honest, I was worried about my fashion sense, but after observing others around me, I reassured myself that the others were not gaining or losing anything by following the latest fashions. What I was not expecting was the indirect, rather intense bullying I would have to face. I noticed that the bullying was subtle at first but increased as I refused to change my position. After telling them the truth about the experiment, I was relieved that it was only for a class project and not a permanent way of life.
There was true sense of victory achieved because I was able to unmask the society around me and found out more about its true colors. I would have stopped midway in the experiment. if it had not been for some of the meaner comments which further encouraged my stubbornness. Hiding behind the class excuse, I realized that I did not want to become a permanent victim of stigma, feeling fear that a physical defect would become a part of my identity. This made me question whether I was a follower or a leader, whether I was a part of the major supremacy or preferred to be the rebellious minority. I think it was a mixture of two feelings with more fear of being the minority. At once, I realized how people of the Muslim and Sikh cultures might be facing a daily basis and overcoming obstacles merely because of their dress. Erving Goffman used the term “social identity”, which is often given to a stranger at first glance (Goffman 2). The most important thing that I learned through this experiment was that my social identity or class was imperative to me and I was reluctant to risk changing its reputation.
Goffman talks about the fear I was facing by quoting Sullivan:
The fear that others can disrespect a person because of something he shows means that he is always insecure in his contact with other people; and this insecurity arises, not from mysterious and somewhat disguised sources, as a great deal of our anxiety does, but from something which he knows he cannot fix (Goffman 13).
However, I asked myself what if I were the type of a person Goffman was talking about when he spoke of stigma. Goffman spoke about the victims of stigma who did not have a choice. For instance, they were from lower classes of the society, unemployed, had differing sexual orientations, were crippled or had limited resources in life. The fear I was feeling was not due to something that was physically wrong with me, but it was rather because of my own emotional shyness. I simply did not want to face any negative circumstances.
However, unlike the victims Goffman wrote about, I had complete power to fix my situation. The writer states, “The stigmatized individual may find that he feels unsure of how we normals will identify him and receive him” (Goffman 12). I did not have to face this emotional crisis as I was blessed with the choice of becoming “normal” or accepted by the society simply by removing the gloves and hat. At this point, another realization overcame me. I could simply become a follower and give into my fears, but that would be exactly what is wrong with the major society leaders. People have become cowards which made them followers. They did not have to sacrifice their intellect and social identity as there is always a choice.
These followers in the society engage in what Goffman calls “defensive cowering.” He states on page 17, “Given what the stigmatized individual may well face upon entering a mixed social situation, he may anticipatorily respond by defensive cowering.” Here, he is referring to the self-pity one feels in his or her situation, falsely believing that there is no choice left but to defend one’s actions of accepting fate and waiting for some great event to take place which will turn the tables. In fact, I was the victim of defensive cowering as well when I rushed to make excuses for wearing casual accessories during a formal event.
Looking at the stigmatization stages, I fall in the third stage according to Goffman’s categorization (34). However, the difference between me and Goffman’s subjects is that I have not suffered from stigmatization my entire life, without knowing it. I place myself in that category because of the timing of my enlightened realization. Finally, I realized that I have been a follower for all of my life and have even tried to continue the pattern after this experiment. However, not all stigmatization is negative because it forces one to understand social aspects that were not blatant before. Most importantly, if understood properly, stigmatization allows one to find the true social identity or develop one by a choice after learning from life’s events. The society has taught us to look at every different thing as “abnormal” or “incompetent.” However, a strong social identity looks for these factors and questions what is considered to be normal, without any fear.
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