Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

Undergraduate grade point averages are the first thing doctoral programs look at and my application would have been automatically binned if they had Artificial Intelligence scanners in those days, but it was 1977 and they didn’t. The Indiana University Sociology Department acceptance committee chairman was a man who knew better than to judge a book by its cover. He took the time to read on and learn how when I lived in Saigon, I taught English to Vietnamese fighter pilots for the United States Department of Defense. That bit of oddball biography convinced him to offer me a scholarship and a position as his teaching assistant. Dr. Garnier’s Introduction to Sociology was a 300-student lecture class and my job would be to assist as required and grade exams.

Most Sociology 101 classes begin by talking about normswhy we do the way we do

Explicit norms are easy because we all know them and we all assume everyone else does, too, a thing some call common knowledge of which Damon Runyon might say ain’t exactly so common any more, boss, it’s more like uncommon, if you get me.

We didn’t know anything about norms when we were kids

But all of us knew we were not supposed to play with matches but were supposed to stop when the light is red. Specialized norms include rules (no running with scissors), laws (you must have a license to practice medicine), manners (gentlemen hold doors for ladies), and many, many more. Implicit norms are fun because they’re hidden away deep in our synapses. They are the rules for behavior we follow without even being aware of them, kinda like being on autopilot. Harold Garfinkel enjoyed discovering the underlying assumptions that constitute our social behaviors. He held that we develop implicit norms over time by slowly adding layer upon layer as unthinkingly as an oyster builds a pearl from a single grain of sand.

He also pointed out that we follow these gradually accumulated rules without knowing we’re doing so or why

Daniel Kahneman puts it another way: we are blind to our blindness. The example of an implicit norm provided in the department-mandated textbook was how when we come to a dead body we cover it.

Geez, what kind of example is that?

Didn’t you just say built up slowly and irrevocably? I’d bet not many of us have heard someone say “Hey! Looky there! A stiff! Let’s cover it!” once, even, never mind the over and over again needed to formalize normative behavior. Because real learning is linking new things to things we already know, covering a corpse is clearly an ill-chosen illustration. 

The following semester the department promoted me to Instructor and handed me the keys to my very own Sociology 101 class

I even got a graduate assistant of my very own. As this was my first experience with lecturing an auditorium full of college freshmen, the department prudently kept the training wheels on. I was directed to use their choice of textbook (yep, the one with the dead body) and give the lectures pretty much the same way I had watched the boss teach his class. It was okay to riff, though, so I started with implicit norms and chose elevators over dead bodies to illustrate the concept.

There are no brochures in a little rack next to the buttons

Yet somehow every one of us knows how to ride in an elevator with strangers. Our behavior is so observable and predictable that scientists have concluded most of us, most of the time: 

  • Turn around and face the front, 
  • Look up at the lights or down at the floor,
  • Avoid eye contact,
  • Clam up, and 
  • Maximize the physical distance between ourselves.
Garfinkel’s acolytes would breach these norms and observe the many different ways people reacted

Violating implicit norms became the organizing principle behind the creation of Candid Camera. Click here for a 2-minute video of some of the ways elevator riders reacted when experimenters breached the norms we all know but we don’t know we know. Next time you’re in an elevator, observe how every time someone gets on or off, passengers shift positions, obeying a distance-maximizing formula. Social scientists know riders have constructed elevator norms and rules as slowly and irrevocably as that oyster built that pearl.

My favorite implicit norm involves individual servings of pie on plates on tables in front of seated people with forks. At a banquet, investigators watched as attendees all made the same adjustment. (Little imps that we were, we deliberately placed every single dish with the pointy end aimed anywhere but directly at the person who would be eating it.) Without fail, pie eaters would rotate their slices so the points were aimed directly at them before taking a bite. When asked why they had done so, people provided good enough reasons, just as some of you are doing now, but the real reason – it’s an implicit norm – was invisible to them. 

Every company, business, and organization rides its metaphorical elevators and eats its figurative pies without knowing why

Leaders always find better ways of doing things when they begin by identifying their norms and testing their assumptions.

Want to look at old things in new ways, see the commonplace in greater detail and hear complex subject matter explained in simple, conversational language?

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