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As a Sociology minor at UC Davis, I completed a recent assignment for one of my classes. The essay, which was one of the strangest ones I’ve ever had to write, was about social interaction. But, it was not as simple as reading the book and writing based on our comprehension of the text. Instead, the directions instructed us to find a public area, such as a park, a restaurant, or a concert, and observe the interactions there. We then had to write an essay based on our investigation, applying any sociological terms we came across at the time.
I chose Peet’s Coffee. I went during the evening around 4 p.m. and discovered something quite great. When we imagine a coffee shop, we see people buying coffee, socializing, or working, but there is much more happening here. What may appear as a coffee shop is, in fact, a set of interactions. Customers and employees converse with one another. But even though they may have their own personalities, agendas, and desires, everyone here shares one goal: social peace. In other words, people ensure their conversations end peacefully.
In fact, no matter where people go, they find themselves surrounded by both strangers and friends; but, regardless of who is around, everyone seeks order. To ensure that fights do not rise and that peace prevails, people work together in parks, restaurants, theatres, and even cafes.
To do this they follow rules or “norms.” These are social practices drilled into them during childhood. They learn to obey them because norms are like unwritten laws that maintain peace and order.
Of course, they are not aware of each and every time they carry out these rules; rather, it has become part of their instinct. Interestingly, it is not just one or two people committed to these unspoken rules: it’s an entire community.
Ultimately, in every public setting, people conform to norms to preserve peace. For this same reason, they follow “roles” in society. Roles are expected behaviors that people in a given position perform. In other words, for the sake of order, people submit to certain norms and roles.
For example, while observing customers in the cafe, I found people conforming to personal space norms. One customer took notes with her textbook open on the table. Her phone and glasses covered the rest of the table, and her backpack sat on the seat across from her. She took all of the space remaining, which communicated to the rest of the customers to respect her boundaries since she was studying.
She did not wish to be bothered by anyone, and those around her accepted her wish by not coming near her. Such an instance is of social peace. In fact, sociologists claim that a distance of 4-12 feet is the standard between strangers (Giddens, 124). If people disobey the personal space norm and stand closer, it could make others feel threatened and uncomfortable, which ultimately disturbs the peace.
Another norm that I noticed was politeness. During my two hours at Peet’s Coffee, the employees and customers were fairly polite to one another. Manners are employed to signal that you mean no threat to those around you, especially if they are strangers. It is polite to greet and thank them, to apologize if necessary, and to act respectfully. In doing so, you portray yourself as a “good employee” or as a “good customer.”
Such actions encourage others to reciprocate and react with the same respect. Consequently, an interaction between strangers is harmonious and altogether maintains order within the cafe.
Additionally, I noticed that people committed to a practice called civil inattention, which is when people glance at each other for a second but quickly look away afterward (Giddens, 116). During my visit at Peet’s Coffee, one customer entered the cafe and did just that; he looked at the other customers briefly, then went straight to the cash register to order. He demonstrated his awareness of other people around him, but he did not stare for longer than a second. Any longer, and people in the cafe could feel insecure and threatened, perhaps even suspicious of his staring.
This could result in people confronting him or raising their voices, which would break the order within Peet’s coffee. In fact, one of the customers I had been observing for some time caught me glancing at her a couple times. She replied, “what” in an irritated tone. Thus, our interaction could not be described as peaceful. For this reason, norms like civil inattention are taken into consideration by almost all individuals in society.
People further assumed “roles” to maintain peace at the cafe. For example, employees have specific duties, which means they are expected to perform certain behaviors, such as being professional, polite, and competent in their jobs. However, if an employee is rude, customers will feel disrespected and raise a commotion, threatening the social order. It is important to give off the right impression of oneself in front of others according to the role one is playing. Acting as an incompetent or disrespectful employee is an unexpected action from employees, which can create chaos in the cafe.
In fact, people adopt roles to ensure their relationships are protected, especially first-time encounters with strangers.
Often, conversing with strangers can be frightening or unpredictable. But following the expected behavior of their roles lets the other know how to react appropriately so the interaction goes smoothly. Roles, therefore, help maintain relationships—even ones between strangers—and protect the order. This way, peace is kept.
Of course, individuals adopt more than one role in a day. For example, at around 5 p.m., two friends ordered coffee, laughed, and joked for a couple of minutes until one left. The remaining friend took out her notes and began studying. In other words, she discarded the “friend” role and took on the role of a “student.”
The audience is important to consider here. It often depends on who your audience is before you decide to adopt a certain role. In this case, if she had acted as a student in front of her friend, her friend would think she was ignoring her. Thus, their friendship would be jeopardized, as it could cause a commotion, and the peace in the cafe could be threatened. So, what role one assumes relies on who the audience is, and as long as one performs the expected behavior of their given role in front of the correct audience, peace prevails.
Ultimately, people conform to norms and roles on behalf of social order. These are society’s unwritten laws. The “laws” function as a peace treaty that everyone abides by to avoid confusion or discomfort in public areas. While, in some cases, individuals follow space norms, in others, people follow polite norms. These are just a few of the many social norms practiced. Whatever the circumstance is, with every action the surrounding people judge what kind of individual he or she is: a kind, safe person or a suspicious, threatening person. But in almost every case, individuals want to appear kind to ensure the interaction is peaceful. Thus, everyone works together to make it happen.
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