A fellow named Harold Garfinkel held that we engage daily in the building up of rules for behavior like an oyster builds a pearl, slowly and irrevocably. He also pointed out that we follow these gradually accumulated rules, without knowing we’re doing so, or why. Garfinkel’s idiosyncratic investigations disrupted commonplace social interactions. The Guardian said “His writings and published lectures were infused with a deep appreciation of irony and absurdity. Like a standup comic, he had a knack for exposing the strangeness of everyday routines.”
These things-we-know-but-we-don’t-know-we-know-them are called Implicit Norms.
They are usually invisible until someone comes along and disrupts them. When we breach them in lighthearted ways, people are confused and put off balance. More serious infringements cause anxiety and anger.
Do you know the implicit norms for riding an elevator with strangers?
No one ever taught us formally, yet almost all of us maximize the physical distance between ourselves, face the front, look up at the lights or down at the floor, and don’t speak.
The norms for how close we stand to each other in conversation are also implicit, and vary by nationality, too. Americans stand closer than Brits, but farther apart than Asians. At international gatherings, watch the people who grew up standing close as they step in close to those who didn’t. Watch those that grew up standing farther apart back away to get comfortable. Speed up the film and they look like they’re dancing. The norms for face-to-face distance vary by how well we know people, too. Social space is the distance we keep from acquaintances. Personal space is closer, and is for family and friends. Intimate space is the closest, and for, well, our intimates.
Violating norms was the organizing principle behind the long-running Candid Camera. In this 2-minute video, watch as experimenters use peer pressure to get the unknowing to violate elevator norms.