Imagine this: you are alone in a secluded nook of a library, deeply engrossed in your studies, when suddenly a complete stranger sits down beside you and strikes up a casual conversation. How would you feel? Would you be receptive to his or her friendliness, or would you become uneasy and hope that this person leaves as soon as possible? If this incident were to actually happen, a social norm, a known standard of expected behavior, would be clearly violated. Most people agree that social interactions with strangers occur infrequently in less social environments (e.g. a library) as opposed to more social environments (e.g. a dance club). Specifically, when a person is quietly studying he or she is not prepared and maybe not even willing to engage in conversation with a stranger. It is not the norm to do so.
In order to explore the implications of this particular social norm, I conducted an experiment in which I violated the norm and recorded the participants’ reactions. I was interested to see how people would react to a stranger’s random kindness and friendliness. Would they go along with the stranger’s behavior, reciprocating the cordiality that was presented to them? Or, on the other hand, would the participants respond negatively, appearing visibly uneasy and nervous? My hypothesis was that people, regardless of their gender, would be mildly surprised at the behavior, maybe occasionally responding with confused looks and gestures.
The experiment was conducted in an area of the 3rd floor of Princeton’s Frist Campus Center. Most would consider this area a popular study space, so the location was effective in producing the appropriate behavior (individual studying) among the participants. The independent variable was gender; there were 5 male and 5 female participants, none of whom I knew so there would be no confounding variables pertaining to familiarity. All participants were approached randomly and at the time each was sitting alone as opposed to sitting in a group. The dependent variable was of course the participants’ reactions after being approached by and speaking to the stranger (me, the experimenter). Specifically, when interacting with the participants I paid close attention to body motion (e.g. shifting or remaining still), facial gestures (specifically eye contact and gaze), and verbal responses. For each participant I behaved in exactly the same manner. I sat down next to each participant, and after waiting a minute or so I said: “Hello. How are you doing?” After that I followed with questions such as: “How is your work coming along?” and “Are you feeling well?” To take my friendliness to another level, I offered each participant my latte (which I hadn’t touched at that point) and a big chocolate-chip cookie. Shortly after the participants responded to the latte and cookie offers, I debriefed them on the experiment.
Generally the participants’ reactions to my friendliness were extremely similar, with only minor variations. Most of the time participants played along with my behavior and responded politely. No participant accepted my latte and cookie offers, but usually responded with statements such as “No, that’s not necessary, but thanks a lot” and “No, that’s alright, but I appreciate it.” Interestingly there were several trends of behavior that were exclusive to gender. For example, the majority of female participants responded more warmly to my questions, sustained better eye contact, and frequently smiled and laughed after I offered them my latte and cookie. Conversely, all 5 of the male participants responded more seriously, with half smiles at best and no laughter whatsoever. The males’ responses themselves were shorter compared to those of the females. Males also averted their gaze more often than females and were not as animated as the females in terms of hand and body motion.
Regarding the ease with which the participants responded, females generally appeared to be more comfortable and offered more information in response to my questions. For example, one female responded to the question “How is your work coming along?” with a detailed account of her midterm schedule and exactly what she had to do for each of her classes. This type of lengthy response never occurred among the male participants. Although both male and female participants were very polite and showed no blatant signs of unease, females had comparatively more positive reactions.
Finally, with regards to my personal feelings and overall comfort level when I engaged with the participants, I originally was pretty nervous and hesitant to start the conversation. However, after carrying out the described method above for one or two participants, I grew accustomed to the awkwardness and became calmer and collected. In fact, approaching and talking with the participants was substantially easier and more enjoyable than I originally expected.
The findings from this experiment are intriguing for a number of reasons. First, it is important to note that no participant went to any behavioral extremes. That is, participants were neither particularly exuberant nor significantly distressed as a result of the social exchange. All participants generally followed what Miller (2006) labels “one of the most important rules of social interaction…[which] dictates that social actors avoid challenging the public ‘face’ of others” (p. 30). Although there were subtle differences in the participants’ reactions, especially between males and females, no one effectively challenged my “face” during each respective exchange. Additionally, the participants were fairly successful in that they were able “to suppress their private feelings and thoughts” and “disguise that they [were] doing so” (p. 2). I have no doubt that participants felt some sort of confusion or awkwardness because the situation as presented to them was clearly not a normal one. My overly friendly behavior was not customary, especially in a setting that is conducive to a limited range of behaviors in the first place.
While the participants did engage in what Miller would call “self-censorship,” rendering their private thoughts, feelings, and attitudes relatively inaccessible to the observer, participants exhibited subtle behavioral features worth investigating. First, as discussed earlier the males were generally more serious and more abrupt with their responses. Girls seemed to respond more naturally and with greater ease. What might account for this difference? One possibility would be to explain the difference in terms of attribution theory, which Myers (2005) describes as “the theory of how people explain others’ behavior, by attributing it to either internal dispositions (enduring traits, motives, and attitudes) or to external situations” (p. 85). In the context of this experiment, it is probable that all participants, regardless of gender, might have committed the fundamental attribution error, which is “the tendency for observers to underestimate situational influences and overestimate dispositional influences upon others’ behavior” (p. 88). When approached by a random person (me) in an environment not conducive to heavy social interaction, the participants probably thought that my behavior was the result of my disposition or personality. However, this was probably the case more so for the females. The female participants, thinking that I was naturally a nice guy, were probably happily surprised by my behavior, especially the latte and cookie offers. They did not need to seek any further meaning to ascribe to my behavior. However, the males were probably wondering why I approached them in the first place. They might have asked themselves something like: “Why is this guy talking to me?” It is possible that the males might have misattributed my friendliness to something in the situation, effectively not committing the fundamental attribution error as the females did.
Another interesting implication from the design of this experiment is that the participants had absolutely no cues from others in their social environment. I approached people who were sitting alone at the time so the interaction could be strictly one-on-one. Cialdini (1984) stresses the importance of cues from others when determining one’s behavior: “the principle of social proof…states that one means we use to determine what is correct is to find out what other people think is correct ” (p. 117). In this experiment all participants experienced a complete absence of social proof and therefore could not consult it to guide their behavior. It is likely that this might have caused some unease for both the males and females, because intuitively as humans we feel comfortable doing something when we see others also doing the same thing.
To conclude, the breaking of the social norm of friendliness in a less social environment was successful. Measurable behavioral responses in both males and females allowed for a comprehensive and multi-faceted analysis. Interestingly, differences in the responses of the male and female participants imply that there are other norms at play regarding basic social interactions between genders and among the same gender.
Additionally, this experiment prompts many directions for future research. It would be interesting to see how participants’ reactions would change if the experimenter was of a different gender, ethnicity, age, or a combination of these characteristics. Yet the breaking of this norm would probably yield similar data even in varying conditions. After all, most people probably cannot remember the last time they made a friend while quietly studying all alone.