Friday, January 25, 2008

What's wrong with this picture?

I've been reading some classic treatments of social behavior lately. On my lap this morning was Goffman's Behavior in Public Places (1963). The book (tho he persists in calling it a "report" for some reason) came out of his experiences observing patients in a California mental ward. Basically, watching all these people not following the conventions of society, convinced him that the rest of us actually do a pretty damn good job of following the "rules" of the societal game -- so much so that we don't even notice that we are doing it.


The only time the rules generally come to the surface, is when someone does something that breaks the rules -- and then they receive negative sanctions. In general, however, responses only go in that negative direction. In other words, we receive little direct positive response for doing the "right" thing, but people are free to call us out if we do the "wrong" thing.

Take this fine specimen spotted in an Ann Arbor coffee shop yesterday:


Yep, he is flossing his teeth. In public. And the price he had to pay for having the broken the rules was to be heckled, photographed, and blogged about by me. (Great, now I'm the enforcer of all things proper?!?!?)

But what is it that he is really doing wrong? Well, part of the rules are that we are supposed to show up in public ready to play the game. Goffman refers to the combination of "controlled alertness" (behavior) and appropriate appearance as "interaction tonus." It is something that is supposed to be "on" all the time when in public, not something you put on when you get there or, as was the case with the flosser, you drop and readjust and then put back up while you are there.

Fortunately, there are spaces and props in public space that help us to maintain the fiction that our interaction tonus is our "natural" state. If we need to drop it temporarily or adjust it, we can retreat to the bathroom (a semi-public space with its own set of rules that allow for such activity) or hide behind a newspaper.


BTW, and this continues a conversation Steve Krause and I have had, I'm liking the Primo coffee shop in AA (on Liberty and Fifth). They have two walls of windows overlooking the street, it is warm (even if the fireplace is fake), and they serve their coffee in real and big ceramic mugs.

The only part that disappoints me is that they have single-occupancy (one-holers), gender segregated bathrooms. Riddle me that one, batman. I checked them out -- both bathrooms are the same. No gender specific equipment in either one. But labels matter, as evidenced by the man that showed up to use the restroom and found the men's locked. I had just checked the women's, knew it was empty (and the door was even open), and encouraged him to go on in (he had a sense of urgency about him...). He hesitated. I encouraged more. It took a promise that I would stand outside the door to get him in there. Now what was that all about? Was I there to protect him? Nah, there was a lock on the door. Nope, I was his "excuse" -- if he got strange looks coming out (as he might -- he was acting out of role by presenting as a man but coming out of a door marked "women" so others who were sticking to their appropriate roles would be playing by the rules to call him out -- just as I had done with the flosser), I was supposed to explain it away. As in, "it's okay, the other was full so I told him to go in there." And yes, that I am a woman is the largest part of what would have made that possible. If I'm a woman, and I gave him a pass to use the "women's" room, it must be "okay."

5 comments:

biscodo said...

You should be careful with that "price he has to pay for having broken the rules" photojournalism business - you never know when someone might have some look-what-you-did-in-public photos of you. I'm just sayin', ya know?

I wholeheartedly agree with you about Single Occupancy Gendered Toilet (SOGT) segregation though. I'm tempted to make a personal crusade over it.

Somewhere in public architecture standards of practice, there might be a reason for SOGTs. It might just be a reason to sell different signage. It might be a "boys tolerate dirty bathrooms, so let them wallow in it". It might be that builders/architects expect that retailers/customers expect there to be SOGTs (the "I-thought-that-you-thought-that-I-thought" problem). I know there's a nugget of a reason in there somewhere, it just needs finding.

As far as your encounter with the man going into a woman-designated SOGT, I say it's both a Territory and Permission thing. It's clearly marked territory. Like a No Trespassing or Employees Only sign, we are taught from a young age to drive between the lines, stop at the red light, listen to what the police officer tells you, and don't go where you're not allowed to. The REASONS aren't understood (if at all) until later in life. But for children to be able to operate in the world, they are taught to take certain rules/cues as axiomatic. One of those is that the room labeled "women" is for women, and the one labeled "men" is for men.

I'm wondering if the genders were turned around and you were a man, the waiting pisser was a woman, and the open SOGT was labeled "men", what the waiting pisser would have done? And what would your reaction have been to their choice to go or wait? and why? Riddle you that one too.

As for Permission - yes, once you have the notion of marked territory (not the fire hydrant version, the Employees Only version), then you are giving him permission. And that permission is social liability protection for him ("it's not my fault, she said I could"). And going a step further, because that space is marked, you and your gender "own" it. Only you (women) can be perceived to release control of it. Same is true for socially perceived men's spaces.

As far as SOGT permutations of will-they-won't-they... Are you looking for an assistant in some urban social experimentation? I work for very reasonable rates.

Zoe the Wonder Dog said...

Yes, yes, I'll have to mind my p's and q's tomorrow night at that social gathering, lest I end up as blog fodder (can that be shortened to "blodder"?)

I'm up for the experimenting, but we need more folks. Wonder if we can set W up for stealth video taping... It's always better with video.

I think we should enlist some of those tweener sprogs our friends have too -- kids that are obviously not adults but do look like they are old enough to "know better".

We could get a whole passle of people who appear on the boundaries of categories we use to organize society (gender, obviously, but also class, ability, etc.) and test just how the rules get applied... [mental wheels turning furiously]

Think I can get an article out of it? :)

TeacherPatti said...

I like Primo, too!

Speaking of breaking societal rules...I was at Hillers the other day, and the lady in front of me had a few items on the belt, and was fussing with her purse and wallet. I figured that she had loaded all of her groceries, so I put mine on the belt. A few seconds later, she was all, "Wait! Stop!" and then fussed at the cashier, demanding, "What are you going to do about this???"

"This" was the fact that she had unloaded a few items and then stopped, leaving the rest of her items in the basket. Therefore, after I unloaded mine, they traveled merrily down the belt, thus preventing her from putting the rest of her stuff up there.

After the lady left, I commented to the cashier on how the lady had broken the social norm and had no business fussing. Sorry folks, but the "rules" say that you unload all and THEN worry about money. Why? I don't know, but that is the rule. And see what happens when you break it? My lovely Guernsey Farms milk bumps against her nasty-ass generic brand.

Daye said...

I love primo too!!! Izzy's piano lesson that is where I get my chai latte fix!!

Warren said...

The enforcer of all things proper.